Once a month, the North Bay Museum provides BayToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.
In addition to an exhibit focused on the city’s military history, the North Bay Museum also features stories of individual soldiers on a rotating basis.
Now that the North Bay Museum has finally reopened, one of the new stories on display focuses on the story of John Joseph James (Jim) Sunstrum, who enlisted with the Algonquin Regiment in North Bay, Ontario at the beginning of the Second World War when he was 20 years old.
After training, Sunstrum arrived in Liverpool on June 10th, 1943, where he then received more training and joined the 4th Canadian Armoured Division. The division landed at Courseulles, France on July 25, 1944, where their mission was to join with other Canadian and Allied forces, pushing the Germans out of occupied Europe.
At the Hochwald Forest, Sunstrum received the Military Cross for his successful evacuation of many wounded and weary allied troops in battle.
On January 29, 1946, Captain J.J.J. Sunstrum returned to North Bay to a welcoming crowd and a parade that went from the former CPR Station (now the North Bay and Area Museum) to Chippewa Barracks (known now as the M.L. Troy Armories). His war service was over.
Following the war, Jim was promoted to the ranks of Major (in 1956) and Lt. Col. (in 1963). He was later appointed as Honourary Lt. Col. of the Regiment. He later held many positions on the Algonquin Veteran's Association executive committee and was involved in fundraising and erecting the permanent monument to the Regiment at the intersection of Front Street and Algonquin Avenue.
Along with his wife and fellow Algonquins, he travelled back to the Netherlands in 1985 for the 40th Anniversary celebrations of their liberation. Jim passed away on May 7, 1990 - one day short of the 45th VE Day Anniversary.
In 2013, a man named Hans Sisken from the Netherlands ran an ad in the Legionnaire seeking the family of J.J.J. Sunstrum to return to them a helmet that he had inherited from his father.
The helmet had been in the attic of his parent's home and in their possession since 1944 when the Algonquins liberated their town.
Sunstrum’s daughter Carol Miller saw the ad and responded, and the helmet was returned to the family with the story of the helmet’s journey published in several local publications in the Netherlands. Carol recalled the process “Mr. Sisken went to great lengths to return the helmet to the family. He worked through the Canadian Embassy in the Netherlands to have it personally returned to us by staff who were returning to Canada following their posting. Hans told us that as a child, he and his brother would wear the helmet while playing war games.”
Carol Miller and her brothers Gord and Jim Sunstrum recall explaining the story of the helmet’s return to their mother, Dorothea. When Sunstrum had enlisted, Dorthea had travelled to the various Canadian training destinations where Sunstrum was posted before going overseas. Her two brothers, J.A. (Jimmy) Lafontaine and W.J.L. (Pee Wee) Lafontaine also served in the Second World War. (Pee Wee) Lafontaine was killed in battle at Hill 88, Sottville, France. Pee Wee was awarded an oak leaf for his bravery and mentioned in dispatches.
Carol and Jim later travelled to the Netherlands in 2019 to meet Hans Sisken, and they plan to go back again someday.
After becoming aware of the story, North Bay Museum staff reached out to the family to see if it would be possible to build a display centred around Sunstrum’s story and the return of the helmet. The helmet is now on display at the North Bay Museum along with his medals and the original letter that Hans Sisken sent to the family, which ultimately led to the helmet being returned to his family.
The museum welcomes the public to submit ideas for stories to be featured in future exhibits by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Online exhibits can be seen on the museum's website.