Remembrance Day in Canada holds profound significance as a solemn occasion dedicated to honouring the sacrifice and valour of the men and women who served in the country's armed forces. Canadians across the nation observe this day with reverence, reflecting on the profound impact of war on individuals, families, and communities. Saskatchewan, with its rich history of military contributions, stands as a testament to the unwavering spirit of those who proudly donned the Maple Leaf in service to their country. The province has been home to countless heroes, and this article aims to pay tribute to ten veterans from Saskatchewan, representing different eras of conflict, whose indomitable courage and sacrifice resonate through the annals of Canadian history. As we delve into their stories, we unveil a tapestry of bravery woven by those who selflessly served, leaving an enduring legacy that demands our collective remembrance and gratitude.
Private John Digness (WW1)
Originally from Decorah, Iowa, John Digness was living in Swift Current, where he was a driver, in September of 1914 when he made the decision to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He did have some military experience, serving with the 27th Light Horse in the militia.
The 32-year-old travelled to Valcartier, Quebec, where he signed his attestation papers, and would find himself in France, along with the rest of the 5th Battalion, in the spring of 1915. The battalion would take part in the 2nd Battle of Ypres, and the smaller parts of the battle, the Battle of Gravenstafel and the Battle of Sint-Juliaan in late April 1915. The unit would be moved back from the front lines after experiencing the horrors of war, which included the first recorded use of chemical weapons, to the reserve, but were still experiencing shelling on a regular basis.
On May 3rd, 1915, a shell hit the support trenches that held the 5th Battalion. Digness would be killed, and four others were wounded.
Private George William Thacker (WW1)
Originally from East Stockworth, Lincolnshire, England, George William Thacker enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in January of 1915 in Regina. He had settled in Saskatchewan, living in Indian Head where he worked as a labourer. He would be placed with the 102nd Battalion and would be deployed to France in December of the following year after his training, and a time away from the unit.
When he went to England for training, his wife Rose appears to have gone as well, taking up residence in Grimsby, Lincolnshire, England.
Thacker would be one of the thousands of Canadians who went over the top on April 9th, 1917 during the Battle of Vimy Ridge. He would not survive the day, however, killed in action during the assault on the ridge.
Private Harry Godwin Decimus Bird (WW1)
Harry Godwin Decimus Bird was originally from Plymouth, Devon, England, and had moved to Moose Jaw, where he was a bank clerk when the First World War started. Along with thousands of others, he volunteered shortly after the start of the war, enlisting in Moose Jaw, and then heading to Valcartier where the Canadian Expeditionary Force was assembling. By November, he would be in England, and was part of the 5th Battalion, taking part in the 2nd Battle of Ypres.
He was one of the four men wounded when an artillery shell hit the trenches on the 5th of May in 1915, the same shell that killed Private John Digness. He would be released from hospital, and back in France by April of that year. He took part in several battles from then until April 9th, 1917. On that day, he would be wounded during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, succumbing to his injuries two weeks later.
Private Edwin Goff (WW1)
Not all of those who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force volunteered. Some were drafted after the Conscription Act of 1917 was passed. One of those was Edwin Goff. He was living in Rouleau when he received the notice he had been called to duty in November of 1917, and he went to Moose Jaw. From there, he was formally enlisted in January of 1918 and was in England for training on March 4th, 1918. There, he would be taken on strength with the 29th Battalion, which was about to be part of the 100 Days Offensive that brought about the end of the war.
On October 11th, 1918, just one month from the armistice that ended the war, the 28th Battalion assaulted German positions held near the village of Iwuy. The fighting that day was described by the commanding officer of the unit as the hardest of the battalion throughout the war. There would be 143 men from the 18th who were killed in action that day, including Edwin Goff.
Flight Sergeant Harry Alfonzo Huntington (WW2)
Working as a hotel clerk in Nut Mountain, just east of Kelvington, Harry Alfonzo Huntington was 23 years old when he enlisted on June 13th, 1941. He would start as an airman second class in the Royal Canadian Air Force and would be promoted twice – on March 2nd, 1942 to the rank of Leading Airman Second Class, and then to the rank of Flight Sergeant on August 17th, 1942.
He was part of 415 Squadron and part of a crew that flew Hampden X-3145. The Hampden was a medium-range bomber that not only took part in bombing runs over Europe but also against naval targets. The squadron had developed a reputation as one of the best anti-submarine squadrons in the United Kingdom. Based on Thorney Island, they were on an anti-shipping patrol on July 17th, 1943, when they were reported missing. It is believed the plane was shot down, and the crew was presumed dead.
His commanding officer, Wing Commander George Howard Davis Evans, wrote a letter to Harry’s mother the day after the plane went missing. It read:
“While not wishing to raise your hopes unwarrantedly, I do feel that there is a good chance they ditched or force-landed successfully, although it was too close to the enemy coast for rescue to be attempted.
We lost one of our best crews when this aircraft did not return. Your son was an excellent wireless operator air gunner and a great source of confidence to his pilot and other members of the crew. Two members of his crew were Canadians.
Harry was very popular with this squadron, and his loss is deeply regretted by all, especially his fellow members of the Sergeants’ Mess.”
Private Anthony William Blondeau (WW2)
A labourer in Estevan, Anthony William Blondeau was 26 years old when he enlisted in Regina on May 6th, 1942. He was a rifleman in the Regina Rifles of Canada and would undergo training before embarking for the United Kingdom.
Blondeau would be active in sports and training and would end up spending time in a military hospital as a result of an injury he suffered in November of 1942. The records indicate he had been cut by a skate on the temple, requiring a number of stitches.
On June 6th, 1944, along with hundreds of thousands of men from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, Anthony set out for the beaches of Normandy, as Operation Overlord, or D-Day, took place. The Rifles would land between 8:05 a.m. and 8:55 a.m., and through the fierce fighting that happened that day, Blondeau would help secure the beachhead. The Next day, the Rifles moved into Bretteville-l'Orgueilleuse where they were received by the residents of the town as liberators.
As part of the defences set up around the village, the Rifles undertook patrols, and on June 9th, they were engaged in heavy fighting with the Germans. Tank support arrived, and the attack was repelled. The next day, however, harassing mortar fire from the Germans would hit the battalion, and Blondeau would be killed.
Private Gordon Cueneaude Parker (WW2)
Working as a clerk in Humboldt, Gordon Cueneaude Parker enlisted in the Saskatoon Light Infantry Machine Gun Company on October 18th, 1939, just over a month after the start of the Second World War. He would head to training, and from there to England. He would end up meeting a woman while he was there, Ellen, whom he married on April 5th, 1941.
The first military action he would see, as part of the Saskatoon Light Infantry, was Operation Gauntlet, where Canadian, British and Norwegian troops captured the island of Spitzbergen, roughly a thousand kilometres south of the Arctic Circle.
The next action the unit would see wouldn’t be until July of 1943, when, along with the rest of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, they landed in Sicily as part of Operation Husky. They then took part in the ensuing Italian campaign.
The Italian campaign would see Canadian and other Allied forces engaged in intense combat as they moved north through the Italian peninsula.
In December of 1943, the Canadians were tasked with moving up the Adriatic coast, and aimed to take the town of Ortona. The whole month would become known for the brutality of close-quarters combat and would be called Bloody December by those who survived it.
Gordon Parker would not be one of the survivors, though, as he was killed in action during a firefight on December 11th, 1943.
Private Henry Althouse (Korean War)
Henry Althouse was born in Canora, Saskatchewan on August 14th, 1931, and likely thought he wouldn’t see another war happen in his lifetime. However, the truck driver and heavy equipment operator enlisted in the Canadian Army on January 31st, 1952 in Regina.
He would serve with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, the storied unit that fought valiantly throughout the Korean War. Along with the other members of the Third Battalion of the PPCLI, they would relieve the 1st Battalion in the Fall of 1952 and were tasked with holding Hill 355, so named because it was 355 meters above sea level.
The hill would also see some of the fiercest fighting Canadians would endure during the Korean War, and nearly every Canadian unit spent time holding what would become known as Little Gibraltar.
Althouse would be killed in action on the hill on May 1st, 1953, just eight weeks from the armistice that ended the conflict.
Corporal Melvin Schwenneker (Korean War)
Hailing from Moose Jaw, Melvin Schwenneker was already a veteran, having served in World War 2 with the Regina Rifles. He had actually enlisted underage, being only 15 when he signed up. At the end of the war, he remained in the Canadian Army and was assigned to Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. They would find themselves on the Korean Peninsula, and fought bravely at the Battle of Kapyong in April of 1951, considered by many to be the most crucial battle of the war.
On June 21st, 1952, Schwenneker, along with B Company, was getting ready for a patrol outside of the battalion area. The enemy was known to be close, but not too close, and had made it a habit of shelling intermittently. Then, the shelling intensified. The Chinese would dire 125 high explosive shells where B Company, which included Schwenneker, was. He would be killed in action, just days before his unit was set to rotate out of the country.
Private Herbert Tolver (Korean War)
Herbert Tolver was born in Fort Qu’Appelle in January 1925 and served in the latter stages of World War 2. When the Korean War broke out, he returned to Regina, where he enlisted in Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Along with the rest of the Canadian contingent, he would be on the front lines shortly after the war started.
In April of 1951, the Chinese launched an attack, navigating through the valleys of the Korean countryside with the goal of taking Seoul, the capital. The battalion commander of 2 PPCLI, which Tolver was a member of, set up on the summit of Hill 677, determined to hold the position. They held a north-facing arc and would find themselves cut off from the rest of the UN forces. They were told they could not expect any help, and the commanding officer issued a straightforward order – no retreat, no surrender.
On the night of April 24th, the Chinese launched their attack. Through hours and hours of fighting, the Canadians held their line and didn’t move. The Canadians exhausted their ammunition, food and medical supplies, but repelled the Chinese attack. As the sun rose on the morning of the 25th, the Chinese slowly withdrew, back to their supplies, allowing time for the UN relief forces to arrive.
The battle would see 12 Canadians killed in action, including Tolver. The Chinese, however, had seen two divisions, over twenty thousand men, repelled by the Canadians, along with Australian and New Zealand troops, over two days – a force one-tenth of what they were facing.
As we conclude this tribute to the ten valiant veterans from Saskatchewan, their stories stand as poignant reminders that their lives, though tragically cut short in the crucible of war, were not lost in vain. Their sacrifice, imprinted in the very fabric of our nation's history, serves as a testament to the enduring resilience and courage of those who answered the call of duty. In the spirit of 'In Flanders Fields,' where poppies blow between the crosses, these heroes have passed the torch to us, the living, urging us to uphold the principles they fought to defend. May their legacy echo through the corridors of time, inspiring future generations to cherish the freedoms earned through their sacrifice and to strive for a world marked by peace, unity, and remembrance. In honouring their memory, we ensure that the flame of gratitude and reverence for our fallen heroes continues to illuminate the path toward a brighter, more compassionate future.