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Harmonica playing Belfast veteran raising thousands for NHS aged 99


Alexander Johnston today aged 99

Alexander Johnston today aged 99

Serving in the Royal Navy during WWII

Serving in the Royal Navy during WWII

On the guns during the battle of Atlantic

On the guns during the battle of Atlantic

In Port Said, Egypt

In Port Said, Egypt

Alexander Johnston today aged 99

He bought his first harmonica in 1934.

And now inspirational 99-year-old veteran Alexander Johnston is using his talents to help raise money for the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic.

Father-of-four Alexander from Belfast has had an incredible life, serving in the Royal Navy during the Second World War which saw him cross the globe on North Atlantic convoys, the Mediterranean and in North and South America.

His experiences remain vivid to this day - including being a gunner during the Battle of the Atlantic and working on troop ships including the Princess Kathleen.

And in 1995 he carried the Royal Navy standard in front of the Queen for VJ Day at Buckingham Palace.

But his greatest memory when he looks back over his life was meeting his late wife Jeanie, who passed away in 1999.

He is a grandfather of six, a great-grandfather of nine and also has a great-great grandson.

Such is his volume of experiences and memories that his son encouraged him to write a book so they would have a record of everything.

And now, remarkably, he has decided to give back to those who are fighting on the frontline against what has been termed the invisible war - Covid-19.

Alexander said: "When I saw veteran Tom Moore walking up and down his pathway, I said I would love to be able to do something like that for the health service in Northern Ireland. And that's what put it into mind for me to do it.

"The health service have been so good to me over the years, especially Musgrave Park, and I said I should do something for them now."

He bought his first harmonica in an old shop at the bottom of the Shankill Road when he was a young teenager but lost it when he was in the Navy.

At Christmas, his son bought him a new one and reignited his love all over again.

He added: "I love playing the mouth organ. I'd sit here and play it myself.

"And when everyone started to go out to clap on a Thursday for the NHS, I would go to my hall and play a couple of tunes for anyone to hear."

Now he is recording videos and is taking requests to try and raise more money.

Alexander said he has had a "great life" and has an "amazing family" which is why he was keen to document his experiences for them "so they can see what I did through my life, and through the war and my experiences".

He added: "I think about them all the time, they never leave, they are very vivid experiences and they keep very vivid in my mind."

And the first that comes to mind is when he met his wife.

"My best memories in life were when I met my wife.

"I met her way back about 1937-38, just before the war started.

"I met her in the Jennymount Mill, Belfast. She came up with a message up to my boss and was standing talking and I walked down the room and I started chatting to them.

"When I went away she said to a girl, 'He thinks he's great running about in his white coat.' That's the first impression she got of me," he laughed.

But that impression didn't last long and they started their relationship after the war.

They got married in 1947 and would go ballroom dancing together weekly.

Of course, his memories of the war remain with him.

His ships would land troops around Greece, Italy and surrounding islands.

He recalled a traumatic experience when one of their convoys to Malta was bombed, adding: "We got hit in the middle of the night and that was scary, that was 1942.

"They had to get the Army engineers to the ship.

"It was about three days and the whole time we never got leaving our gun position. The food was brought up to us, because you were subject to air attacks."

He continued: "Another ship was coming in when she started getting bombed by German aircraft and watching that was tragic.

"They were bringing in the survivors of it. They came into the harbour and we all cheered them, it was sad to see it.

"But that's war - things like that stick in your mind."

His last ship was HMS Caroline after he requested a transfer to Belfast.

"I was the quartermaster. That was in 1946 and I was able to go out during the day and re-board the ship during the evening."

This meant he was able to see Jeanie and return in the evening for the night watch. "I went out with her to a dance or the pictures," he said.

"She lived on the Shore Road, and I left her about 20 minutes to 12 and I had to run across what we called then the iron bridge to where the Caroline was anchored - I had to run the whole way."

He had many other jobs in his life working as supervisor and manager in many fields and has been on trips around the world with his family - including going on safari when he was 84.

Reflecting on his life, he said: "I'm proud and I'm sure my family are proud of me anyway. There are ups and downs and scary moments and happy times and everything else.

"I'm still holding on and waiting on my telegram coming along when I'm 100 in February."

For now, he is delighted at the response he has received for his videos.

"Now we're just trying to raise as much money as we can."

To donate, visit www.gofundme.com/f/playing-my-harmonica-to-support-the-nhs

Belfast Telegraph