Veteran Stories:
John Garnet O'Neill

Army

  • John O'Neill and friend "dressed to kill", Newmarket Basic Training, Ontario, 1943.

    John Garnet O'Neill
  • John O'Neill and his mother, at Canadian Army Trades School, Hamilton, Ontario, 1942.

    John Garnet O'Neill
  • Physical Training Course, Aldershot, England, 1944.
    John O'Neill is in middle row, at right side.

    John Garnet O'Neill
  • John O'Neill during a break in Italy while serving with the Irish Regiment of Canada, 1944.

    John Garnet O'Neill
  • Saturday morning clean up squad before getting a Saturday afternoon pass, Newmarket, Ontario, 1943.

    John Garnet O'Neill
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"I said, hey, this is crazy, this place is loaded with mines. And bless the tank corps, one tank, a flail tank, came up behind me and started to clear the mines and I got behind him."

Transcript

My name is John Garnet O’Neill. I was born in the city of Toronto at Dundas and Yonge, by the way, and 18th of July, 1923. I joined in Hamilton, Ontario. That day was Dieppe, 19th of August, 1942. And that was the day I joined up. They sent me to the Queen’s Own Rifles [of Canada] who were training somewhere in England and I became a Queen’s Own infantryman or rifleman. I said, oh, that’s okay, fine, I enjoyed that. Then one day, I don’t know whether it’s the 2nd, 3rd or 4th, or something like that, of June, we were put into a camp and guarded in the camp and we couldn’t get out. We had an idea there was something going on. We weren’t given too much detail. We were packed up, what we had, and we were put on trucks and taken down to, maybe it was Portsmouth, I don’t know, to the ships and put on a ship. I think this ship was the [HMCS] Prince Henry if I’m not mistaken, but I’m not sure. And we were on that damn ship for two or three days. Underneath, terrible conditions really. Then we got our briefing on the ship that we were now going to go in on D-Day, which was supposed to be the 5th, to Bernières-sur-Mer [part of Juno Beach] and in landing crafts from this main ship.

Oh, I know a little side thing here. I remember I looked out one day and I could see [Winston] Churchill in a little launch going up between the boats and everybody waving at him. I didn’t get a chance to wave. I survived. Anyways. Then we were sent up individually up to a place on the ship where we had to load our grenades the night before we were to go. And all of a sudden, we were told it was cancelled and we were going in on the 6th of June, and away we went on the 6th of June. There was obstacles along the beach, tremendous obstacles with, I guess they were mines on them. And we had a sailor in charge of our little boat. There was about 20 of us in ours, and we waited for a wave to go over the thing, over this obstacle, but unfortunately, it was misjudged and the front of the vehicle hit this, the ramp of this Landing Craft Infantry [LCI] hit the mine and blew out the front and we started to sink. And I heard the sergeant yell, “Everybody get out!” Because the other landing craft had the platoon commander and the headquarters in, and the other sections, and our two sections were in that one.

So we all jumped out. I was the last out because I was at the back. I jumped out the back and went into the water, up to my waist, and the others managed to get up ahead out the sides. And by the time I got through the wiring and the obstacles, nobody had been killed at this stage, just blew out the ramp. I managed to get by them and onto the beach and I couldn’t find a soul. Rather ridiculous. Then I started, I knew where I had to go and I looked at this, I think everybody remembers this building. We were told it was a train station, but they told me it was a hotel or something later on. And I landed in front of that and I took off, up towards it and I said, hey, this is crazy, this place is loaded with mines. And bless the tank corps, one tank, a flail tank, came up behind me and started to clear the mines and I got behind him. By this time, I didn’t know where the platoon was. I followed him, but I knew where I had to go. And eventually, after about maybe three or four minutes, I got out from behind the tank and ran up the beach and rejoined the rest of the platoon. And they were at the sea wall, waiting to go into Bernières-sur-Mer. And we were all doing very well actually. And we got organized and went over the wall and started going through the town of Bernières-sur-Mer. We got behind the copse, up bushes and laid down and waited for orders and the platoon sergeant, he was now in charge. And after about 20 minutes, he said up a hill, about maybe 500 or 600 yards away, there was a copse of woods, where we think we were being fired at, fired from.

And then he gave the order for my section I was in, which was the ten men. And I was carrying a Bren gun at the time, heavy son of a gun, and we got up and then we were to go up this, through this wheat field, I guess it was, up to this copse of wood and see what was going on up there. I got on the left side and there was a fence going right up to the copse of wood. I got on the left side of the fence, the rest of the section got on the right side of the wood and we went up about 30 or 40 yards and we came under fire. And that’s when the sergeant yelled and screamed from behind us, from the position where we had left, “Duck!” And we did and he said, “Crawl back.” So he crawled back and I found out two or three members of the section were dead. Or not dead, but had been shot and weren’t there. So he pushed us all back and we all backed down and made little foxholes and sat there and sat, who the hell sat? We laid out, plain out flat. And waited to see what was going to happen. Then after about 15, 20 minutes, this sniper, it was a sniper we found out later was firing at us and got us in the wheat field, all by himself. And he stood up. Fortunately, the sergeant was looking and got his gun and shot him.

So that was the end of that day, more or less. And he said, “Rest, we’re staying here.” And when I woke in the morning about 5:00 or 6:00, I looked around and the padre was behind me about 20 or 30 yards with the bodies of my people of my own section. I guess he was saying prayers over them. Then we came on and moved and moved and moved. From then on, it was just a case of one day after another, we’d go forward, you’d go backwards and up and down and come under fire and see a lot of things like bodies. We weren’t really used to seeing bodies, we hadn’t seen them in training. I remember one on a small stack, wheat stack and there’s this German sitting there with the gun in his hand, dead as a nail and just looked so like he was still alive. Unfortunately, all these happenings that occurred were just normal little battles and fights and so on, nothing extraordinary. You did lose some, you’d gain some.

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