Sometime after Remembrance Day in 1955, 20-year-old Tom McLellan went to see a movie in downtown Saskatoon. In those days, the feature film was preceded by a cartoon and then a newsreel of current events.
That’s when Tom sat bolt upright in his seat. On the screen, Governor General Vincent Massey and Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, wearing waistcoats and top hats, solemnly looked on as Tom’s maternal grandmother, Regina Leboldus, lay a wreath at the national Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa. Tom didn’t know that his grandmother had been chosen as the Silver Cross Mother, the first from Western Canada.
Regina and John Leboldus, a German Catholic couple from Vibank, Saskatchewan, had 12 children — six boys and six girls. Four sons (Peter, Martin, John, and Michael) would serve in the Second World War, but only one returned home. (Michael, a doctor, survived the war but died at an early age from cancer.)
Peter John (b. 1918) enlisted in the RCAF in February 1940 and trained as an observer in Ontario. During a flight from Toronto to Montreal later that summer, one of his flying buddies pulled a prank on him. Leaflets were dropped from their airplane over Ottawa, claiming that Pete was a “lonesome flier” who wanted to “correspond with a young lady.” Dozens responded to the address provided.
Pete was initially posted in northern Scotland with the No. 418 “City of Edmonton” fighter squadron. Over the next two years, he participated in several bombing raids over France and Germany, while earning his commission as a flying officer. He even had tea at Windsor Palace with Queen Elizabeth (the queen mom) and the two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret.
On a night operation on Feb. 13, 1943, Pete’s Douglas Boston bomber aircraft was shot down over France. He is buried in the Grandcourt Commonwealth war graves cemetery, east of Dieppe.
John Anthony (b. 1922) enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in the Middle East in April 1943 as a gunner with RAF No. 142 Squadron. A noted singer and hockey player, Flight Sergeant Leboldus died when his plane, flying at low altitude through fog, crashed into a hillside during a raid on Turin, Italy on Nov. 24, 1943. John is buried in Genoa’s Stagliano cemetery.
Martin Benedict (b. 1921) was equally talented — on the guitar and piano — and equally determined to serve in the war. Like his older brother Pete, he attended Balfour Tech in Regina and then enlisted in the RCAF. Martin found himself stationed in Great Britain, not far from Pete. In fact, it was Martin who helped his brother into his parachute harness before he set off on his ill-fated mission over France.
Martin, a member of the No. 419 “Moose” Squadron, was killed during a bombing raid over Leipzig Germany on Feb. 20, 1944. The Halifax bombers had to contend with lousy weather and repeated air attacks from German fighters. Seventy-nine aircraft never returned. Sergeant Leboldus’ name is found among the more than 20,000 missing men and women on the Runnymede Air Force memorial in Egham, Surrey, England.
Tom McLellan had been told from a young age about his uncles’ war service — knew about their tragic deaths, all within a year of each other. But he never expected to see his grandmother on the movie screen as the 1955 Silver Cross mother.
Indeed, Regina Leboldus accepted the invitation to attend the national Remembrance Day services with trepidation. After her sons’ deaths, she vowed never to get into an airplane. By going to Ottawa, she demonstrated the same depth of courage as Peter, Martin, John, and Michael.
Tom never forgot his grandmother’s participation in the national Remembrance Day ceremony. Decades later, family friend Gerda Hnatyshyn, the wife of the Governor General Ramon Hnatyshyn, helped him find a copy of the newsreel. The hour-long CBC film is now a cherished keepsake.
Tom’s three uncles, in the meantime, have been memorialized in northern Saskatchewan as part of the province’s tribute to the men and women who gave their lives during the Second World War. Leboldus Lake, Leboldus Islands, and Leboldus Channel (roughly 56 degrees north and 107 degrees west) have been named in honour of Pete, John, and Martin.
These provincial geo-memorials (now numbering nearly 4,000) are a fitting reminder of their sacrifice — a special way to remember them.
They all deserve our thanks.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo:Regina Leboldus of Vibank, Saskatchewan was the Silver Cross Mother at the 1955 national Remembrance Day ceremonies. She lost three sons in the Second World War.
Photo Courtesy Tom McLellan
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers.