They were farmers, students, northern fur trappers — ordinary young Saskatchewan men from all walks of life transformed into extraordinary warriors who helped end Nazi tyranny in Europe.
They were the men of the Regina Rifles Regiment, who were part of the invasion of Nazi-occupied France that began with the D-Day battle in Normandy on June 6, 1944.
Their Saskatchewan origins meant other Canadian soldiers got their digs by dismissing them as "just a bunch of Farmer Johns."
The men of the regiment, though, wore the nickname as a badge of pride.
One of the Farmer Johns was Denis Chisholm, who was a young teen when he lied about his age to enlist in the Rifles in Prince Albert during the Second World War.
Chisholm was not yet 20 by the time he arrived in France in 1944. He then fought through Europe with his Saskatchewan comrades until they ended their war on the Dutch-German border in the spring of 1945.
Like most combat troops, Chisholm’s wartime experiences were awful, but he was untroubled by them when peace came, at least at first.
"We were so busy when we got home, building families, getting jobs. But now … every other day is Remembrance Day now."
Chisholm jokes today that in his mid-80s, he’s "the baby of the regiment now."
Approximately 4,000 men went through the regiment in the Second World War. Today, probably only about 100 men survive, perhaps as few as six in the regiment’s home city of Regina.
Fifteen years ago I produced a documentary for the former CBC Radio show Sunday Morning, called The Farmer Johns. I had the honour of talking to four of Denis’s old comrades, three of whom have died since the show aired in 1994.
They told me some haunting D-Day stories:
Peter Matwiy — "When I woke up in the landing boat at dawn on June the 6th, I could not believe what I was seeing. It was thousands of ships! And there were all different types of them. It was just one long, big roar all morning."
Roy Pretty — "When my landing craft hit a mine, all of a sudden, there was the biggest crash you heard in your life. Bodies were flying 30 or 40 feet into the air. The back of the boat… we guys that survived scrambled up onto that. But the front of the boat was gone."
Jerry Molson — "This sailor who was manning a gun on our boat, he got hit. This [other sailor], he just rolled him into the water, and he climbed up behind the machine gun. It didn’t seem to bother him any. He just climbed up behind that machine gun and commenced firing."
Gordon Brown — "I found Dunc Grosch, the company commander. He had been badly wounded in the leg. I helped him up the beach a bit because the tide was coming in. The water was getting too close to him … A little further, I helped a cousin of mine who was a soldier in 'A' Company, who was badly wounded. I was terribly sorry. The sorrow was the greatest feeling at that stage."
Peter Matwiy, Roy Pretty and Gordon Brown are gone now. Jerry Molson lives on at his home in Regina.
Like Denis Chisholm, the four men I interviewed admitted to me that while they were proud of their service, it wasn’t easy in old age dealing with those troubling wartime memories.
They were even more worried, though, that the heroic deeds of Farmer Johns in helping free France, Belgium and Holland from Nazi oppression would be forgotten.
Thanks to their words to me, they won’t be.
(Sean Prpick is the CBC's network producer in Saskatchewan)