‘It was a good life’: 101-year-old Alberta veteran reflects on unique wartime service

In places like Magrath, Alta., population just over 2,000, directions are given by way of landmark — like when 101-year-old Elden Coleman describes where he grew up.

“You know where the church is?” he asks.

“Well, the first house under the hill, that’s where I grew up.”  

And he’s been in Magrath his whole life. Except for that time in the army.

Growing up in the 1920s and 1930s was difficult, especially given the challenges that Coleman’s family faced. His father died when he was six months old, and one of his brothers was killed after being struck by a vehicle.

“So there’s two in our family that I never knew,” he said. “But I’ll get to meet them when I go.”

As he came of age, work was difficult to find. Low on money, he decided the best thing he could do was to join the army. He did that just four days before his 21st birthday in 1941.

Coleman took his basic training in Petawawa, Ont., and was soon sent overseas to England. 

Elden Coleman remembers sleeping in hammocks and using salty seawater to bathe while on a crowded ship en route to England in 1941. (Submitted by Wendy Coleman)

While on a troop carrier with around 1,000 men on board, about a day and a half out on the Atlantic Ocean, he found himself eating supper out of mess tins in the dining room. 

In the middle of supper, a loud bang shook the carrier and the ship’s hull echoed — depth charges had been dropped after a submarine was sighted. Coleman and his fellow troops ran to the deck, expecting to jump.

It was just the behaviour of a bunch of greenhorns, as he puts it today.

A life of physical activity

Eventually, Coleman ended up at a training unit located about 50 miles (80 kilometres) from London. There, he was asked if he would like to become a physical training instructor.

He said he would, obtaining the rank of sergeant and spending the next 4½ years providing physical instruction.

“And it was a good life,” he said. “There’s not many people that can say the army was a good life for them, but I can say that it was for me.”

Elden Coleman found an aptitude for boxing and track and field while in the army, once going on a trip from England to Amsterdam to the Olympic stadium to compete with other Canadian athletes. (Submitted by Wendy Coleman)

Coleman taught calisthenics, cross-country running, unarmed combat and competitive sports. He taught boxing, and would use an unorthodox method to drive the point home.

“Well, I told people, hold your hands up,” he said. “Then, I would punch them in the nose. They had to keep their hands up. What else do you do?”

He had success himself competing in various sporting events. He competed in track and field while in Cove, England, picking up 28 medals in track and field and boxing.

Elden Coleman, left, stands on his hands. Coleman said he has loved practising and competing in physical activity — whether that be boxing, golf or track and field — his whole life. (Submitted by Wendy Coleman)

And though his army life was spent away from the front lines in a support capacity, the realities of the war still loomed large.

There was the time when Coleman was jolted awake in a London hostel by the sound of a rocket that had exploded three blocks away. 

Or the time when he stood behind some concrete pillars, watching planes drop bombs on London as anti-aircraft shells exploded.

Tragedy struck Coleman, too. His brother, along with several of his close friends, were killed in the war.

Remembrance Day is a time to reflect, Coleman said — “quite a day for me.”

Remaining Second World War veterans

Coleman is part of a diminishing number of Second World War veterans in Canada.

As of March 31, 2020, Veterans Affairs Canada estimates there are 26,300 still alive in Canada, the average age being 95.

In Alberta, Veterans Affairs estimates there are 2,700 war service veterans, which include the Second World War and the Korean War.

In 1945, Coleman was sent home. He arrived in Lethbridge, Alta., after five years in the army.

At 101, Coleman said the secret to his longevity isn’t complicated: “get in shape, stay out of the bars.”

“I’ve had a good life. I can’t complain,” he said. “And I’ve lived all my life in Magrath. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

CBC Calgary has launched a Lethbridge bureau to help tell your stories from southern Alberta with reporter Joel Dryden. Story ideas and tips can be sent to joel.dryden@cbc.ca.

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