In the warm lobby of Heaton Place, three men in their late 90s gather in uniform.
Most of the medals attached to their chests have been dulled by time, but their memories of the era when they earned them remain vivid.
The Armstrong retirement home has about 70 residents, and remarkably, three of them are veterans of the Second World War.
Now, 74 years after the war, Heaton Place residents Paul Koop, George Hoffman and Steve Makarenko hold the last true, first-person accounts of the battles that helped preserve our freedom at the greatest cost.
Watching them speak to one another is like watching them go back in time. Their minds sharpen around memories of when they were young and enlisted.
Koop — the joker of the bunch — could talk about the war and his passion for Canada for hours on end.
Koop turns 100 in December, and his 99-plus years of experience have culminated into one emphatic message for Canada’s youth: “Wake up! You’re living in the best damn country in the world!”
Hoffman, who turns 98 in July, has a more reserved manner of speaking, but has a vital message to pass on.
Born in Franklin, Man., Hoffman enlisted in the army at 19. He served with the 12th Manitoba Dragoons’ 18th armoured car regiment and was a sergeant by the time he retired from the military.
Hoffman has his fair share of grisly memories, such as when his regiment rolled off their ships in their tanks to the sight of dead bodies scattered about, and a tank engulfed in flames.
“I can still see it clear as ever, and the smell was terrible,” Hoffman said.
After years of fighting, Hoffman landed on the beach of Normandy one month after D-Day (June 6) in 1944, but the war wouldn’t end for almost another year.
When the end finally came, he was in German territory and his brigade laid low behind enemy lines unable to know for certain if the end all were waiting for had in fact arrived.
“All we heard was a voice over the radio saying “cease fire,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman was among the allied forces who helped liberate France and Europe and in recognition of his efforts and those who fought beside him, he was given a special honour.
Four years ago, Hoffman was awarded the Legion of Honour at the Royal Canadian Legion branch 35, which he accepted on behalf of his fallen comrades.
“This medal is equivalent to the Canada medal in France, it’s the highest declaration that France has. So I felt quite honoured to have received it,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman’s years and experiences have made him a wellspring of wisdom for younger generations.
“The way things look today, it doesn’t look too hopeful but as long as we stay out of a battlefield — I mean world-wise — then we’ve got it made. But we certainly don’t want to see history repeat itself as it did during the Second World War,” he said.
“There’s nothing honourable, we always felt, in killing another human being, and it left us a pretty sober-thinking bunch of young men. Some people could just shrug it off — I suppose a lot of those like me looked like they were shrugging it off. But you act differently than you feel.”
Two weeks before Koop turns 100, Makarenko will turn 98. As the building inspector with the Regional District of North Okanagan, Makarenko got to know Enderby, Armstrong and Vernon like the back of his hand.
“Armstrong just seemed like a natural place for him to live and he felt comfortable here, and when the retirement home was built, the timing was right,” said Cindy Makarenko, Steve’s daughter and acting manager of Heaton Place.
The Craigellachie, B.C., native was the first person to move into the retirement home, and his name is immortalized on a sign inside that reads “Makarenko Hall.”
Makarenko was a top student in high school but when the war began, serving became his priority. Reasoning that airmen had little choice of survival if a plane went down, Steve chose to go with the Navy. He ended up on the HMCS Nonsuch in 1942. He went on to serve through extreme storms and volatile battles for two years
Though he’s nearing the century mark like his two Heaton Place neighbours, Makarenko can still recall plenty of memories of his earlier years. He remembers the first car he ever bought (a 1947 Plymouth) and where he took his wife on their first date (a theatre performance in Cranbrook). He also remembers where he was when the war ended in 1945.
“I was at a dance in Glasgow, and all of a sudden we heard a voice that came over the radio, ‘the war has ended,’” he said.