For David Thiessen of Abbotsford and his family, Remembrance Day is of extra-special importance – and this year it is even more so.
Not only is Thiessen a Second World War veteran, having served in the Royal Canadian Artillery (RAC), but his birthday is on Nov. 11 – and this year, he turns 100.
Thiessen lives in the Tabor Home care facility in Abbotsford, and his daughter Josey McIntosh said it has only been in recent years that she has been able to gather more information about her dad’s war years.
“Dad, like his generation, rarely spoke about his war exploits,” she said.
Thiessen was born in southern Manitoba to a Mennonite farming family of 13 children. He was among the youngest children.
He and his first wife, Liddy Groening, whom he met because they lived not far from each other, married on Boxing Day in 1941, when he was 21 and she was 20.
It was just a few weeks later when Thiessen enlisted and was assigned to the RAC’s 42nd field artillery regiment (Lanark and Renfrew Scottish) in Pembroke, Ont.
This was an unusual decision for someone with his family’s background because Mennonites are conscientious objectors, but McIntosh said her dad wanted to serve his country. One of his siblings – an older brother – later joined the navy.
After basic training, his unit was shipped to England and then to Algiers, North Africa. One of the ships in the convoy was torpedoed en route, McIntosh said.
From Africa, the unit travelled to the east coast of Italy and saw action at Cassino. As the Allied forces drove the Italians back, they arrived in Rome.
McIntosh said her dad served as a Bren gun carrier driver throughout this period.
After the surrender of the Italians, Thiessen’s unit was moved to Holland, where they did not see action.
Her dad then volunteered to serve in the Pacific theatre of war between the Allies and the Empire of Japan, which covered a large portion of the Pacific Ocean, East Asia and southeast Asia.
McIntosh said her dad’s incentive in choosing this option was that he would get a 30-day pass back to Canada in the meantime. He did not tell his wife that he was en route to the Pacific, and, as it turned out, he didn’t need to – during his stay, it was announced on Aug. 14, 1945 that Japan had surrendered to the Allies, effectively ending the Second World War.
After the war, the couple settled in Kane, Manitoba – near where they had grown up –and took up grain farming and had two daughters.
They moved off the farm in 1975, and Thiessen went to night school to complete his high school education, after which he became a realtor.
Liddy died in 1977, and Thiessen married his second wife, Margaret from Kitimat, B.C., four years later.
Thiessen retired in 1987 and the couple then moved to Vernon, where they lived until moving to Abbotsford in 2006 to be closer to family.
The couple was involved in church activities and did missionary work for a few years, serving in Belize, Mexico and Swaziland, Africa.
After Marg died in 2013, Thiessen moved to Tabor Court and then to Tabor Home five years later when his health worsened, including the onset of dementia. He now uses a wheelchair to get around.
McIntosh said, over the years, her dad’s service in the war was commemorated by the family attending some Remembrance Day ceremonies. He and Marg also attended ceremonies in Italy in November 2004.
Although he didn’t reveal many of the specifics of his war years, he conveyed his sense of pride.
“I think he was always very, very glad he had done that for the whole country, for the next generations … He just felt very fortunate that he had come back,” McIntosh said.
“Because of that, I think we had it instilled in us a lot to really accept and to appreciate what (the veterans) did.”
Thiessen’s war medals – he has half a dozen – are displayed on a plaque, and this year he was among veterans who received a certificate and lapel pin to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.
His family had hoped to have a celebration for his 100th birthday but, due to COVID-19 restrictions that limit visits to one family member once a week, only McIntosh will be able to go into Tabor Home. But she hopes that other family members will be able to visit him at his window.
“Our family is very proud of him. His life has been an example to us of duty and service,” McIntosh said.