Brown, 92, a Chatham-area resident believed by his family and local historians to be the last surviving black Canadian soldier to fight in the bloody D-Day invasion of 1944, passed away last week at a hospital in Wallaceburg, Ont.
For decades, all that grandchildren Tracey Brown, 42 and her cousin, Lamont, 41, knew as youngsters about their grandpa was that he was wounded in action in France.
“He was a man of few words and growing up we knew not to even ask about it (Brown’s war experiences),’’ Lamont Brown said in an interview Tuesday.
Finally, about five years ago, Lester opened up to his family and a news reporter and told the harrowing tale of getting ambushed by German forces a few days after he and the other soldiers in his company stormed Juno Beach at Normandy.
Rifleman Lester Brown had been drafted at 23 and later assigned to the Queen’s Own Rifles before being shipped to Europe in 1944.
A few days after landing in Nazi-occupied France on June 6, he and his platoon were ordered to take Bretteville-sur-Laize.
Brown was wounded in the knee and took a bullet to the chin, which looked terrible at first but left only a facial scar.
“I was lucky, no doubt about it’’ he told a CTV News reporter in the 2009 interview.
After sharing the stories, Lester told his brother that he experienced nightmares and had trouble sleeping.
Black soldiers were accepted into the Canadian forces in the Second World War, and though there were still some vestiges of segregation, hundreds of Canadian black fighters served alongside their white counterparts. Brown said he was treated fairly by his officers and fellow soldiers.
When he returned home he married and had three children. He worked as a railway porter, and later graduated to a conductor for Canadian Pacific Railway.
Brown’s family and the Buxton Museum, in North Buxton, Ont. — which features tributes to the achievements of blacks who came to Canada after fleeing slavery in the U.S., and their descendants — says Lester Brown was the last surviving black Canadian veteran to have fought in the D-Day invasion.
The Memory Project, and Veterans Affairs Canada said they couldn’t confirm whether Brown was the last survivor; a Veterans Affairs spokesperson said they don’t have race-based data from that conflict.
Tracey Brown says she understands why her grandfather would have been initially reticent about sharing the “death and gore’’ he witnessed in combat, but is glad for the family’s sake that the details came out in the end.
“He was a living history (lesson)’’ she says.
Brown’s funeral was last Sunday at the North Buxton Community Church, in the Chatham area.