It felt a bit like Christmas morning at Stewart Harris’s Wolfville, N.S., home last week.
With his wife, daughter and granddaughters looking on, he carefully opened a small manila envelope that had arrived all the way from the U.K.
He reached inside and pulled out army identification tags attached to a long metal chain — a family heirloom that until recently he didn’t know was missing.
The dog tags belonged to his late father, Cpl. Ian Harris, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1951-1966.
“He’s been gone a while so it’s pretty nice,” said Harris, his voice catching as he looked down at the family history in his hands. “[I have] thoughts of the people who held onto them for all those years and found us and got them back to us.”
It was Josie Bennett who first stumbled on the tags in a field outside of Dover, England, in 1956.
“Just playing in the field there, she found the dog tags, picked them up and kept them all these years,” Bennett’s niece Ali Roberts, who lives in Wrexham, Wales, told CBC’s Information Morning earlier this month.
The small metal necklace was in “remarkably good condition,” said Roberts, with Ian Harris’s initials and rank clearly visible: IN Harris, airman.
Roberts’s aunt kept the tags for more than 60 years and this summer asked her niece to put her genealogy sleuthing skills to good use and help solve the mystery.
It only took about 12 hours for Roberts to find Harris on Facebook and send him a message.
When Harris confirmed his father’s service number with the number on the dog tags, Roberts said she became “extremely excited.”
“And I know my Auntie Josie as well was just so emotional and so happy because she’d kept them all these years,” she said.
Harris’s daughter Erica and two granddaughters, seven-year-old Edith and four-year-old Agnes, have been staying with him and his wife, Deb, since the pandemic arrived in Nova Scotia this spring.
It provided the perfect opportunity for the children to learn more about the great-grandfather they never got to meet.
“It just brings up a whole bunch of emotions,” said Deb Harris. “It’s wonderful to see his name again and validate him by talking about him, and sort of bringing a little piece of him back to us, which I think is really, really special.”
Ian Harris was born in 1932 and joined the Royal Canadian Air force about six years after the Second World War ended. He was an instrument technician who worked on the aircraft, first in Germany, then later in Newfoundland before his family returned to Nova Scotia and settled in Greenwood.
Harris would have been just 18 months old in 1956, the year his father’s dog tags were discovered. His father, who died in 2011 at 79, never mentioned them and he doesn’t know how they came to be left in a field outside of Dover.
But he knows his dad would have been excited to see them again.
After serving in the military for 14 years, Ian Harris went back to night school to get enough high school credits so he could study education at Acadia University.
He became a history teacher and spent the rest of his career working at a junior high school.
“He’d definitely want to know the whole story behind Ali and her aunt and how they found the tags and then he’d be starting to tell me stories about where he might or might not have lost them, whether or not there was a pub involved,” Harris chuckled.
Roberts said it’s been an emotional journey for her family, too.
“We all feel so passionately that things like this belong with the family,” she said.
She’s asked for photos of the dog tags’ homecoming to share with her aunt.
“It’s remarkable, really,” Harris said. “Most people would have just done away with them, I expect so it’s quite something that they did that and actually that Ali was able to find me.”