Jim Parks was as determined as anyone to join the military in the Second World War. The only question was if recruitment officers would believe he was over the age of 18.
In 1941, Parks was a baby-faced 15-year-old living in Manitoba. But once his friends from the cadets enlisted, he decided he didn’t want to be left behind. Shortly after his 16th birthday, he gave it a try.
“Even though I was only 16, I got a card that proved that I was 18,” Parks, now 95, said in a recent interview with Global News. “When I went to join up, the sergeant was there. He knew me, I was certain of it. He’d been my sergeant in the cadets and militia. He said, ‘That’s OK.’”
And with that, Parks went to basic training with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles.
Enlisting wasn’t as easy for 17-year-old Norm Kirby. He had been working on tugboats in Vancouver Harbour since the age of 14 so he thought the navy would take him. He was undeterred when they said no.
“I went to the air force, and they laughed at me,” Kirby, now 94, recalled in an interview with Global News. “I went to the army, and they said: ‘Look, we’ll work it out. You’re not quite old enough. Take this letter home to your parents and get one of them to sign it. And we’ll see what we can do then.’ So, I gave this to my mom, and she said, ‘I’m not going to sign that — they’ll kill you over there, OK.’ So, I gave it to my dad, who said: ‘Where do I sign?’”
Kirby served with the North Shore Regiment and would eventually be promoted to become Canada’s youngest combat platoon sergeant in the war.
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Canada had more than one million volunteers join the military in the Second World War.
In 1940, Canada adopted conscription for home service with the National Resources Mobilization Act, which allowed the government to put men and women into jobs considered essential for the war. Conscription was allowed for the defence of the country, but those soldiers, who were called “zombies,” were not allowed to be shipped overseas.
The 1917 conscription crisis was still fresh in the minds of many Canadians. It was one of the most politically divisive debates in the country’s history and ultimately cost Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals the 1917 federal election.
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Leading into the Second World War, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had promised not to resort to conscription. His promise was popular with Quebecers, who opposed conscription, but not with English-speaking Canada. With heavy losses in Europe, the government felt it was ultimately left with no other option and, in 1944, made conscription mandatory.
In the early years of the war, it was easier for the military to recruit.
“I graduated from a small high school on Vancouver Island,” Ed Peck of the Canadian Scottish Regiment told Global News. “There were 12 of us in the class, male and female. Everyone joined up.
“It was the thing to do.”
Historian and author Mike Bechthold says every Canadian soldier serving on D-Day was a volunteer.
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“They’d given up their lives,” Bechthold says. “They had put their families behind them and they’d made the decision that: ‘This is something that’s bigger than me. This is something that is so important that I’m willing to sacrifice my life to make sure this happens now.’ They didn’t want to die. They wanted to come home. They wanted to return to their families and their loved ones. But they recognized that the evil that was in the world — Hitler’s Nazi Germany, in particular — was so terrible that it had to be defeated and had to be defeated at any cost.”
Alex Polowin, then 17, certainly wanted to fight for his country, but he was primarily motivated to help his extended family in Lithuania. First, however, he needed one of his parents to give him permission.
“Well, my father couldn’t read or write English or French, and because I was born in Europe, I came to Canada in 1920 at age three,” said the now 95-year-old Polowin, who would go on to serve in the navy on board the HMCS Huron.