How one retired Ontario teacher is helping keep the memory of the World Wars alive

Inspired by his family’s service, John Hetherington leads battlefield tours of Europe to tell the stories of Canadians who fought and died
By Claude Sharma - Published on November 8, 2018
a man crouching by a tombstone
John Hetherington kneels beside the grave of a Canadian soldier at a cemetery in Belgium. (John Hetherington)

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NORTH BAY — John Hetherington was only eight years old on November 11, 1970. Holding his grandfather’s hand, he watched as scores of veterans from the World Wars and the Korean War marched toward Memorial Gardens on Chippewa Street, in North Bay, for the annual Remembrance Day ceremony.

Hetherington recalls his grandfather pointing to a group of marchers and telling him, “Those guys fought in the same war I did.” Both of Hetherington’s grandfathers served in the British Army in the First World War. His uncle, Corporal John Gambles, was one of thousands of Canadians who stormed Juno Beach, in Normandy, on June 6, 1944 — D-Day.

“I built my interest in the Second World War around his experiences,” says Hetherington. That interest led him to a 30-year career as a high-school history teacher. Although he’s now retired, his teaching days are far from over. Today, he leads battlefield tours across Europe, telling stories of some of the most important conflicts of the World Wars and visiting memorials, cemeteries, and trenches.

His ran his first tour in 1997, taking a group of seven Grade 12 students on a two-week expedition to Western Europe that went from Amsterdam to Normandy and back. (The trip was sanctioned by the school but mapped out by Hetherington.) They stayed in youth hostels and prepared meals in Hetherington’s rented minivan.

Since then, the tours, which typically take place between April and the end of September, have become more sophisticated. In 2006, Hetherington partnered with a licensed travel broker that helps him organize the trips. His website provides booking information and detailed brochures. Groups of 15 to 55 customers travel by bus and stay in hotels.

Many of those customers are not merely on holiday: in 2010, for instance, Hetherington guided members of the Algonquin Regiment, a reserve unit based in northern Ontario, to towns their predecessors helped liberate during the Second World War. Last year, he took current members of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, another reserve unit, based in Vancouver, overseas for the centennial of the World War I battles of Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge. He’s also taken several veterans of the Normandy invasion back to the beaches.

“My passion is military history,” Hetherington says. “I also have a passion for helping people connect with something that they’re interested in.” For some tourists, it’s an interest in seeing the places where their family members fought — and, in some cases, died.

Ed and Liliane Hanson of Cayuga, Ontario, took part in Hetherington’s most recent tour, in August. Ed’s great uncle, Private John Henry Thomas, was killed in action in 1917 at the Battle of Hill 70, in France — but his body wasn’t discovered until almost a century later by construction workers. Thomas was buried at the Loos British Cemetery, in France, this summer. Although the Hansons did not attend the funeral service, they visited the grave site with Hetherington a few days later. The couple had asked their twin nine-year-old granddaughters to write to Thomas. One wrote a poem, the other a letter. Both items were left at the grave.

“We were so proud. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed,” Liliane says. “This man is finally at rest.”

For Hetherington, seeing members of his tour groups connect with the past is the best part of the job. “It’s great to see how interested and involved they get,” he says. “These fallen soldiers, for them, are brought back to life.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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