Nadia Jarvis was nine years old in September 1939. Her parents, Ukrainian immigrants by the name of Peter and Anastasia BosHuck, owned the Venice Cafe on a busy street in downtown Saskatoon and the family lived in a second-floor apartment above the restaurant. Young Nadia had spent her summer holiday roaming back alleys and playing games in vacant lots with the children of the blacksmith, the grocer, the barber and others in the neighbourhood. She had no idea the world was on the brink of the biggest and deadliest military conflict in human history until one afternoon in early September. Suddenly, her tranquil life was upended by newsboys racing up and down the street brandishing hastily printed editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and screaming—at the top of their lungs—Extra! Extra! War Declared!
Everybody ran out onto the street,” recalls Jarvis, now 81 and living with a daughter in Cambridge, Ont. “My parents were confused and angry. I was following them around asking, ‘What is it? What is it?’ Nobody answered me and I kept chasing them and finally my aunt Helen, who was working as a waitress in the restaurant, got impatient and said, ‘It means your brother is going to go to war and he’ll go into the army and he may be killed.’”
Jarvis has plenty of other memories of a childhood spent under the shadow of a war—most of them, surprisingly, much more pleasant. Indeed, most people lived better than they had during the Depression and Dirty Thirties even though food rationing placed limits on the availability of such things as meat, butter, sugar, coffee, gasoline and various appliances. People also pulled together—shared more. Jarvis remembers her mother knitting socks and scarves for the troops, learning to operate a Lee Enfield rifle at one of the schools she attended and working on farms at harvest time to make up for the shortage of agricultural workers. The conflict influenced Canadian children of Jarvis’s generation in countless other ways, as the University of Ottawa historian Jeffrey A. Keshen points out in his 2004 book Saints, Sinners and Soldiers: Canada’s Second World War.
Hockey and baseball teams took on military names such as Corvettes and Brigades. Popular radio shows such as L is for Lanky told tales of brave and heroic Allied bomber crews who routinely defied death to deliver blows to the enemy and almost everyone set aside time to listen to news reports from overseas. For entertainment, young boys and girls also read comic books known as “Canadian whites” because the various dyes that went into their production were suddenly diverted to the war effort. One comic book superhero, Johnny Canuck, was portrayed as the “answer to Nazi oppression.”
Students sang God Save the King daily and many schools required that pupils take oaths of allegiance to the Crown. Even lessons were coloured by the war. Teachers used military terms to teach spelling and drew from aviation and navigation to explain mathematical concepts.
Many wartime teens had older siblings or a parent in uniform to worry about, and faced the daily fear and frustration of being separated forever. And like their parents, the most they could do was hope and pray everything would be OK. Many found ways to deal with the anxiety; when not attending school, doing chores or collecting tin or other “scrap to make a difference,” teenagers played sports and attended dances—with the girls often in bobby socks and the boys—if they could afford them—in zoot suits.
The memory bank of surviving members of that generation—now mostly in their late 70s or early 80s—includes many stories of friends and older family members enlisting, and stories of those who didn’t return. Jarvis’ older brother Victor turned 18 in November, 1939, and immediately tried to join the Royal Canadian Air Force with three or four friends, but wound up in the Army instead. “He had just finished high school and was supposed to start university,” she remembers. “There was a big scene at home. My parents were very upset.”
William Patterson and his twin brother Alec, who both worked for the Dominion Glass Co. in Redcliff, Alta., five kilometres west of Medicine Hat, joined the South Alberta Regiment one month apart in mid-1940. William enlisted on June 8, which happened to be the fourth birthday of his son Pat, now a retired Transport Canada radar and electronics technician who acquired his training during a postwar stint in the RCAF. The Patterson brothers had very different military careers. Alec went overseas in 1942 while a hernia kept William grounded in Canada until 1944, remembers Pat. The brothers had married sisters and the two women spent most of the war living under the same roof in Redcliff with their four children. “Mom looked after the kids and aunt Myrt worked in the glass factory,” says Pat. “We didn’t have much of a house. There was no indoor plumbing and no refrigeration. But there was a lot of love in that little home and my two cousins turned out to be like sisters.”
The legal age to enlist was 18, but that didn’t stop some patriotic and enthusiastic youngsters from trying to get in early. Hugh MacMillan, a former liaison officer with the Archives of Ontario, was 15 when the war began and living in the Ontario town of Kirkfield, 100 kilometres northeast of Toronto. He was the oldest of five siblings and the son of a Presbyterian minister who was a pacifist and had refused to fight in the First World War. But the old adage—like father, like son—didn’t apply here.
In the summer of 1940, MacMillan sprouted a moustache to make himself look older—it was a pretty pathetic effort, he recalls now—and abruptly left home without telling his parents. He hitchhiked some 25 kilometres into the town of Lindsay, lied about his age and joined the RCAF. “I was in less than a month,” he says. “One day the air commodore called me into his office and said: Well, MacMillan, you’re being discharged. My father had something to do with getting me out, though he never admitted it. He wasn’t pleased and gave me quite a lecture when I got home.”
Many tales of young men going off to war did not have such a humourous twist, or happy ending. MacMillan recalls that the son of the Kirkfield blacksmith was a member of one of the Canadian regiments sent to Hong Kong in November 1941 to reinforce a British garrison on the island. A much larger Japanese force attacked and those who survived wound up in Japanese prison camps. “We later heard that the blacksmith’s boy had led a revolt and was tortured and killed.”
Patterson remembers the day one of his mother’s closest friends, a woman named Marion Lawson, received news her husband had been killed in action. “We lived about a block away from Marion and I was good friends with her sons who were both my age,” he says. “Their father was part of the D-Day invasion and died a month later in July 1944. All the mothers got together and took food over to Marion’s. It was quite a shock.”
Canadian casualties began to climb in 1943 and 1944 with the commencement of the Italian and Northwest Europe campaigns. One such casualty has stayed with Joe Thistle of Charlottetown in the years and decades since. Thistle was only nine when war began and remembers a young man who lived four doors away and was ordered to report for duty with the army. “He would have been about 22 and he didn’t want to go to war,” says Thistle. “He ducked them and ducked them. My friends and I were just kids and we’d help him hide. We hid in a barn, a park and different places like that, but they found him. About six months later, his mother got a telegram saying he’d been killed in action.”
Keshen notes that the war’s inevitable tragedies and traumas sparked a vigourous debate among psychologists, educators and other experts about the impact on children and how parents should handle news from the front. Some suggested that mothers and fathers should always maintain an optimistic outlook. Others thought it best to shield youngsters from war’s harsh realities. In many households, however, parents wanted the news and that was that. They never considered the implications.
Such was the case with the Reverend Harry Mollins, the pastor at Central Park Baptist Church in Brantford, Ont. The Rev. Mollins was a Great War veteran and considered enlisting again as a chaplain, but decided against it—perhaps with some persuasion from his wife—since he was 44 when the conflict began and the father of four children. Son Carl, now 80 and a retired journalist living in Toronto, vividly remembers the daily ritual that occurred when he and his siblings raced home from school to have lunch. “The one o’clock CBC news was the big newscast of the day,” says Mollins. “It was an established rule that the five of us, mother included, had to shut up for half an hour when the news was on because he was quite obsessed by it, especially after D-Day when the Allies were going over territory he’d gone over in the first war.”
Kids in isolated and remote communities had much less access to the news, but still managed to keep up with events. And some weren’t traumatized in the least. Ivan Irwin was born in Chicago in 1927 and figures he attended at least six one-room schoolhouses as his parents moved from one small community to another in Alberta and Saskatchewan in the 1930s. They were living in White Fox, Sask., about 120 kilometres east of Prince Albert when war broke out.
The community did not have a newspaper, nor did the Saskatoon or Regina newspapers circulate there. “I think there was one radio in town and it was at the gas station on the corner of the main intersection,” says Irwin, a retired businessman and former NHL player who now lives in Ajax, Ont. “We’d listen to Saturday night hockey broadcasts on it. That radio was the only source of news about the war and a lot of it spread by word of mouth.”
In 1942, Irwin’s father moved his wife and son to Toronto and took a job with the Acme Screw and Gear Co. Ivan attended Scarborough Collegiate Institute, then the only secondary school in that suburban community, and the war suddenly loomed very large. “Our phys. ed. teacher was a man named Mr. Farrell and he was a major in the Queen’s Own Rifles,” recalls Irwin. “We used to practice target shooting with .22-calibre rifles in the gym. They had sand in big barrels and we’d fire live ammunition into them.”
He and many of his classmates belonged to a cadet corps and during school learned how to march in formation and participate in various military drills. During summer vacation they could attend two-week camps run by the Queen’s Own Rifles near Bolton, some 35 kilometres northwest of the city. Irwin says as many as 1,200 kids would attend each session. They would learn to fire Bren guns, watch demonstrations of flame-throwers and their instructors would illustrate the power of dynamite—sometimes by blowing up trees. “They took us on route marches. I can remember going on a very long one and we were really tired coming back. There was a Scottish lad up on a hill playing the bagpipes. When you heard the music you seemed totally refreshed. It was amazing.”
Mollins had gotten as far as Grade 9 while war was in progress, but remembers teachers promoting the idea that he and his male classmates might be called upon to serve. “The war was kind of eternal for us,” he says. “We had no idea it would end in 1945. I wondered whether I should go into the army, air force or navy and decided it would be good to join the navy because I could sail the Atlantic and hunt German submarines.”
The war did end, of course, and memories remain vivid of V-E Day—May 8, 1945—and the subsequent return of the soldiers. “I was sitting in history class at Brantford Collegiate when church bells started ringing all over the city,” says Mollins. “We were all getting up, ready to rush out and our teacher was saying, ‘All right 9B, you just stay seated.’ The poor woman didn’t have a chance of stopping us. We just went busting out.”
Jarvis had moved to Hamilton with her parents by then and they went to the city’s armoury to greet her brother when he came home. The building was packed with other families when the soldiers arrived. “We were all scrambling around trying to find each other,” she says. “It was a very confusing scene, but I managed to pick him out of the crowd.”
Patterson’s father was discharged on Jan. 25, 1946, his younger sister’s eighth birthday. He can’t remember his homecoming, but does recall an oft-repeated family yarn about something that occurred not long after his return. “One night he started talking in his sleep,” says Patterson. “He was calling: ‘Maria. Maria.’ My mother’s name was Susan. I guess Maria was one of the women he met in Europe.”
MacMillan enlisted in the army in early 1944, by which time he was 20 and didn’t need his father’s permission, but makes no claims to a distinguished military career. He spent some 12 months training before being sent to a base near Halifax to prepare to go overseas. He was in a barrack with some 70 men, one of whom got measles and the whole outfit was quarantined. The war in Europe had ended by the time they were released and there had been a soldiers’ riot in Halifax over price-gouging by the city’s merchants. MacMillan went into the city on a leave not long afterward, but didn’t get far. “I got off the train, started walking down the main street and got arrested,” he says. “I hadn’t done anything, but spent a couple of days in jail just because I was wearing a uniform.”
The end of the war was not the end of the story for Canadian children growing up in Jewish households. Rose Lavine, 83, lived with her parents and a brother in a cramped, five-room, coal-heated townhouse in a low-income neighbourhood just west of downtown Toronto. She can recall the blackouts that were part of air raid drills. She can also remember rationing. “It was all anybody talked about,” she says. “People would say: I know where you can get canned salmon. Or, I know where you can get this. Nylons were like diamonds.”
Jewish Canadians had an additional burden. They knew the Nazis had persecuted German and other European Jews before the war, but they had no idea of the scale and depravity of Nazi crimes against their people during the conflict. They learned afterward and many Canadian families shared in the painful search to find out what had happened to their relatives in Europe. Lavine’s mother and a brother were Polish immigrants and they had a brother who had stayed behind with his wife and children in the ancestral village of Lagov, Poland. “One of my cousins survived, but the rest of the family and their whole village was wiped out. It hit us pretty hard.”
The cousin, Meyer Millman, was in his early twenties. He had been shipped to a camp, but was put to work—rather than death—only because he was big, strong and healthy. He came to Canada after the war and was always reluctant to talk about what he had witnessed and endured, preferring instead to focus on his new life in a country that had fared a whole lot better than some countries during the war—a country where young people could at least be free.
Email the writer at: [email protected]
Email a letter to the editor at: [email protected]