Three elderly men sat before a group of school-aged children, speaking to them of things their young minds could not fathom.
They talked of playing soccer next to a minefield, of starving with nothing but a cup of cold, watery soup to sustain them. They told of sleeping in air-raid shelters, in slit trenches, and underneath vehicles in the jungle.
Their audience sat riveted, wide-eyed, with hands spearing the air and a bevy of questions ready to roll off their tongues as soon as the opportunity was granted.
“Were there tommy guns and old-fashioned cars?”
“Did people get forced into the war if they didn’t want to go?”
“What are the Germans like now?”
“Did you ever get attacked by an animal?”
For 13 years, the Canadian Forces Base Chilliwack Historical Society has been offering Canada Remembers presentations to Chilliwack schools, inviting classes into the Masonic Hall to tour the artifacts and listen to local veterans speak of their times in war and peacekeeping missions.
Every year the program brings in more than 1,000 students during the course of the week it runs.
For CFB veteran Jim Harris, it’s personal.
“When I was in Europe, I noticed the kids over there knew more about Canadian military history than our own students,” Harris said.
“I wanted our students to know as much or more than what kids outside the country know. They’ve got a lovely, beautiful country here, they’re free, and they should know the reasons why, and what the price was that our Canadian soldiers, men and women, have paid.”
On a brisk morning last week, students from Evans elementary listened to the military tales of Pieter van der Maden, Harry Mayne, and Pat Johnston.
van der Maden was just five years old, living in Holland, when the Second World War broke out. He went from having a house full of food to his mom having to ride into the city, on a bike with a flat tire, to sell her jewelry just so she could get a handful of potatoes for her children to eat.
In 1944 – the “Hongerwinter” – van der Maden was nine years old and skin and bones. More often than not, the only sustenance available was a cup of ice-cold soup that was “90 per cent water.”
“I mean there was nothing to eat,” he emphasized. “I was a real scrawny kid, I looked like one of those kids on TV, skin and bones.”
Mayne, now 87, spoke of May 8, 1945.
Then, a young soldier, he was guarding the gates of the naval barracks in northeast Germany when he saw unknown planes flying towards him. Immediately he jumped into a trench for fear of enemy attack. But as the planes grew nearer, instead of enemy fire, they dropped thousands of pamphlets announcing peace had been declared.
The war was over.
To this day, Mayne has that pamphlet, now framed and hanging on his wall at home.
Johnston didn’t serve in a war, but he did leave his young children at home in Canada to serve two peacekeeping tours in Egypt and South Africa.
On his second tour in South Africa, he assisted with the first “black vote” that acknowledged black people as people, and helped create a program, that’s still running today, that provides a school with proper notepads so the students wouldn’t have to write on slates anymore.
In his 30 years with the Royal Canadian Air Force, Johnston’s most memorable moments were in the jungle hanging out with elephants, lions, leopards, and laughing hyenas.
Each speech lasted about five minutes, and in every one, the students were reminded of their fortunes many take for granted today.
“You guys don’t know how lucky you are to live in a place like Canada,” said van der Maden, who immigrated to Canada in 1954 at 18 years old, and served in the Canadian Armed Forces from 1958 to 1979.
“Canada, this is one of the most magnificent places on Earth.”