'This too shall pass': Pandemic pep talks from Canadian WW II veterans

Veterans of the Second World War find similarities between the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenging times in history. They offer up lessons from their past, and words of encouragement to Canadians.

Veterans who have persevered through the Depression, war and disease applaud Canadians' efforts

Reg Harrison earned the nickname 'Crash' after surviving four plane crashes in the Second World War. (Mike Zartler/CBC)

Seniors are some of the most vulnerable in the coronavirus pandemic, but they may also be the ones the best equipped to handle the mental and emotional strain that goes with it, having lived through the tumultuous last century, replete with its own horrors.

We turned to four Canadian veterans for advice on how to weather the stress of isolation, separation and the ever-present health risk. They persevered through some of humanity's most challenging times, including the Great Depression, the Second World War and deadly outbreaks of influenza, polio and measles.

Now they are offering up encouragement to others to get through the pandemic.

Jeanne Tweten, 98: 'Keep calm and carry on'

Jeanne Tweten, 98, of Regina, was an aircraftwoman in Britain's Royal Air Force who did "hush-hush" work tracking enemy planes as a radar operator during the war. 

She remembers how air-raid wardens would patrol the streets at night to enforce the blackout regulations, making sure everyone had heavy curtains drawn to block the escape of even a glimmer of light that might attract an enemy bomber's attention.

Food rations included just one egg a month and a square of margarine a week, she said. Clothes purchases were rationed by coupons.

These days, stuck inside her seniors' complex, Tweten sees some parallels between the war and the pandemic.

"It's the whole world, so we're all the same, and we're all together in it," she said.

WATCH | Jeanne Tweten's pandemic pep talk

WW II veteran Jeanne Tweten's pandemic pep talk

3 years ago
Duration 0:48
An aircraftwoman during the war, Tweten, 98, encourages people to 'Keep Calm and Carry On.'

Tweten urges people to remember: "This too shall pass."

In the meantime, she points to a motivational slogan that was printed on posters produced by the British government in 1939 as ringing true today.

"It's the ole 'Keep Calm and Carry On.' That's all you can do," Tweten said.

Bob Middleton, 96: 'Fight for your country'

Bob Middleton, 96, describes himself as a fierce patriot.

But that wasn't always the case.

Middleton said he only signed up to go to war because, as a teenager, he didn't like his boss at General Electric and said, "To heck with this."

He wanted to fly, so he joined a Canadian heavy bomber squadron and eventually flew two dozen missions bombing German targets in Europe.

After the war, Middleton returned to Toronto a fervent military man, and a proud Canadian.

These days, he's proud of how his fellow Canadians have responded to the pandemic. He believes the public health crisis has galvanized people's willingness to sacrifice for the common good, and created a sense of patriotism.

WATCH | The National's Nicole Brewster talks with Bob Middleton about the meaning of sacrifice:

WW II veteran Bob Middleton's pandemic diary

3 years ago
Duration 1:04
Bob Middleton, 96, shares what life is like for him during the pandemic, and what gives him hope.

"There is something happening to people's outlook, because they're obeying the rules of separation ... they're doing all kinds of things you would never imagine," Middleton said.

"It means you would fight for your country."

Reg 'Crash' Harrison, 97: 'Life is a learning experience'

Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot Reg Harrison survived four plane crashes during the Second World War, earning him the nickname "Crash."

Today, at the age of 97, he thinks about how lucky he was to make it home, and about the ones who didn't.

"My whole life has been a learning experience, and I think I learned a lot in the war about the need for being kind to people," Harrison said.

The wide-eyed Saskatchewan farm kid was just 18 when he arrived in Europe in the 1940s, and he quickly realized just how tough, and isolated, life had been back on the Prairies in the Dirty Thirties. 

The farmhouse they lived in had no insulation, and the Harrison family would escape to the barn on winter mornings to find heat from the livestock. As for the summer, he said, "I remember days after days you couldn't see the sun. The dust was blowing and the sky was full of grasshoppers and army worms.

"I often wondered how my mother ever kept her sanity," he said.

WATCH | Reg Harrison's encouraging words

WW II veteran Reg Harrison's pandemic pep talk

3 years ago
Duration 0:38
Reg Harrison, 97, who survived four plane crashes during the war, offers up encouraging words

Harrison, who is self-isolating inside his assisted-living apartment in Saskatoon, hopes the pandemic prompts people to pay more attention to each other.

"You kind of get wrapped up in your own little world, and you never think about the ones that are much worse off than you are."

Don Wilkinson, 94: 'Find the good'

As a young boy, Don Wilkinson wanted to become a cowboy.

He loved the feeling of riding a horse and the freedom of being out on the land.

But like most young men, he found himself heading overseas to fight in the Second World War. The war ended four months after Wilkinson arrived in England.

He never anticipated that veterans would be given priority for certain jobs when they got back to Canada, but soon Wilkinson landed his dream job of running a community pasture.

"I wouldn't have got the job as pasture manager had I not been a veteran, because at the time, the veterans got the first chance," said Wilkinson, 94.

Don Wilkinson served in the Fleet Air Arm of Britain's Royal Navy in 1945. (Submitted by Royal Canadian Legion Branch 47/Barb Blackmer)

He rode a horse until he turned 78.

Wilkinson is self-isolating in his house in Weyburn, Sask. He urges people to take this time to think about what they really want to do in life, and to remember that sometimes something positive can come out of a difficult experience.

"Find the good," Wilkinson said.


Bonnie Allen

Senior reporter

Bonnie Allen is a senior news reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. She has covered stories from across Canada and around the world, reporting from various African countries for five years. She holds a master's degree in international human rights law from the University of Oxford. You can reach her at

With files from Nicole Brewster

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