Stewart Ray, Canadian Military. Photo submitted

Local area D-Day survivor is 100 yrs on Feb. 5

Stewart Ray is “like a cat with 9 lives, except he’s on at least his 3rd set of 9 lives”

Stewart Ray was born on Feb. 5, 1917 in a sod shack in the South West corner of Saskatchewan between Riverhurst and Greenbriar. His family were farmers in Saskatchewan until the spring of 1919 when the drought was so bad, that the sand drifts were like sand dunes and dwarfed fence posts making it impossible to plant crops, recalls Stewart’s eldest son, Alan Ray. So in June that year his grandfather got on a train and headed West for greener pastures settling in Fort Fraser, B.C. where got a job in a trading store buying furs in the town located at the last spike of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. It was pretty soon after arriving in British Columbia that he sent a telegram back home to his wife to say he was never coming back to Saskatchewan and for the her and the kids to join him out here, which they did and in October 1919 they started their new life, initially running a general store.

Trading store, homesteading

In 1922, when Stewart was 5 years old, his parents bought some head of cattle and land at Lily Lake, 25 km south of Fort Fraser, cleared some trees and started ranching and subsistence farming with horses. At first there were no buses to get to school so the children were literally “born and raised right in the bush”. Stewart helped his father farm and trap and recalled times when a beaver was a month’s wages, a muskrat was a week’s wages and a fisher or a cross fox was two years’ wages and one year he got two cross foxes. Stewart went to school till grade 8 and then joined in the work of farming and trapping before going off to war.

Calgary Highlanders

In 1939, 22 year old Stewart Ray was called to the Canadian Army and he went for basic training in Vernon, and then on to Canadian Forces Base Borden in Ontario for training and then went overseas as a Private by ship and after two month’s training in Britain he joined active service as light infantry in the Calgary Highlanders regiment. After only six weeks the light infantry battalion of about 40 soldiers only a handful left alive.

D-Day survivor turned scout

Stewart was one of the Canadian soldiers who landed on the northern coast of France and miraculously survived the beaches of Normandy on the D-day invasion, June 6, 1944. Making it through that his battalion progressed through battles in small towns of French, then through Holland, Belgium and Germany under constant fire. After losing so many friends around him in those battles Stewart decided his chances were better going ahead of the lines so he volunteered to do some extra training and join the Scouts. Although that was a very dangerous assignment “because if they ever captured you they killed you for sure,” he still felt his odds were better as a sniper and observer going ahead between enemy lines, spying to find out information and bring it back when “at least then he didn’t have some British expert using us as canon fodder.”

Chance meeting

on the front line

One of the most memorable events for Stewart was when one night, after being in action for 10 months, him and a fellow soldier from the same battalion, Rudy Pickwick, were in the midst of a big battle, digging a fox hole like a squirrel trying to get out of the path of all the fire that was going on around them when Stewart looked over and there he saw this neighbour that he grew up with, Joe Walton, a next door neighbour from Fort Fraser in a different battalion. They were both digging like a pair of squirrels and recognised each other. Stewart didn’t even know then that Joe had joined the military. They were gleefully reunited for a short while until a big shell hit some kind of a bridge nearby and the shrapnel fragments got in Joe’s eyes and partially blinded him.

So after that Joe was assigned the job of a “Rum-Runner” packing two gallons of rum to give out 2 ounces of overproof rum to each of soldiers every morning at 6:00 a.m. “to get their courage up”. And so Stewart did see Joe after that. Stewart was in Oldenburg Germany the day the war ended on Sept. 2, 1945. He returned on the Queen Mary ocean-liner which brought him to the East coast and then he came back across by train. He showed up much to everyone’s surprise and continued farming, ranching and trapping, and also became an outfitter. Stewart met his wife Helen, another rancher, on a cattle drive between Engen and Endako. They married in 1950 and combined herds in Fort Fraser.

Unbelievable tales

of survival

Stewart became known for his affinity for close shaves and narrow escapes. Recounting his fatal near misses is so surreal it has become almost comical. The list of strokes of sheer luck includes a bullet go through his gun stop, he had a piece of shrapnel cut the strap off the pack on his back.

Once he was riding on a motorcycle with another guy and a missile blew the motorcycle up, killed the guy he was with and Stewart landed on the ground with just cuts and bruises.

Another time a V2 bomb landed just in front of him and killed the guys in front and behind him. He carried a little pocket bible which saved him one time from flying shrapnel. His gun and a metal cigarette case in his pocket also stopped shrapnel.

The list of crazy survival stories goes on (beyond the way and throughout his life, in fact). In the war he never sustained any serious injury apart from getting chronic psoriasis for which he had to be hospitalised.

For Stewart the severe skin condition was aggravated by the post-traumatic stress and frayed nerves from being so scared for such a prolonged time on the battlefield.

Difficulty talking

about the war

These details about Stewart have been gleaned together from stories his sons had overheard him share on rare occasions. “My dad never used to talk to us kids much about the war, but when his friend Rudy and him got together drinking beer, and then we would listen to the stories. And my dad never talked about things that happened to him. It was always things that happened to somebody else and us boys figured out it was him.” My dad always said when he heard about people coming back and they got counselling. what you have to do is turn your back on it and walk away, that’s how he dealt with it. When he first came back though whenever he heard thunder he threw himself in the ditch laying on his belly.

Kindness, resilience

and humour

Stewart Ray lives in the Stuart Nechako Manor, he is in fairly good health recovering well from a broken hip a few months ago. He can barely see now. His hearing with the help of hearing aids is better than his sight. Stewart Ray is known for his kindness and his sense of humour which he still has today, at age 99. His 100th birthday celebration will be on Feb. 5, 2018.

 

Crest of the Calgary Highlanders, a Canadian Army Primary Reserve infantry regiment.

Stewart Ray at 99 years old, playing the mouth organ. Photo submitted

Stewart and his sister Mary in Fort Fraser in 1921. Photo submitted

Stewart Ray and his horse lady, Fort Fraser circa 1935. Photo submitted

Stewart Ray, a scout in Germany, World War II. Photo submitted

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