Born in 1922 in Sheho, Sask., Nick Melnechuk, 93, of Lacombe still considers himself a ‘youngster.’
And that’s exactly what he was, a young man, only 18-years-old when he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during the Second World War.
Melnechuk came from a large family and three of his brothers served in the army in the Second World War.
“I also had two sisters that worked in munitions plants in Toronto during the war,” said Melnechuk. “So our family of 11, we contributed to the war.
“I was 18 years old during the Second World War. So, I went to the recruiting unit and I said, ‘I don’t want to join the army.’ I was working in the Winnipeg General (Hospital) as an orderly at the time, so they said, ‘Oh no, we want you in the Air Force.’ So I went in to the air force.”
In 1942, Melnechuk began training in the second course medical assistance in Trenton, Ont. followed by more training in Pearce, Alta.
As an medical assistant in the RCAF, Melnechuk served in the medical inspection unit, where RCAF members were looked after before they were sent to an English hospital.
“I got all the training,” he said. “I did everything – suturing, I looked after the pharmacy. That’s what we trained for.
“People would come in sick and we would look after them and then we would send them to the hospital or we would give them treatment, do their blood work, urine analysis, whatever else we had to do.”
Melnechuk was stationed in England for three years. He still remembers that day when his feet first hit the English soil, as well as first seeing action.
“When we landed in Scotland, they took us by train to Bournemouth, England, ” he said. “I went to bed that night and in the morning, I got up and had to get myself something to eat and I could hear planes flying and guns going off.
“I walked out through a clearing and Germans were over there dropping bombs on us and I saw the first bomb go off. And I’ll tell you, I broke all the records. I ran back into the building and into the dugouts. I will never forget that. I’m 18-years-old. What do you expect? But then you got used to it after.”
After that, Melnechuk was transferred to Yorkshire, England to the RCAF group bomber command.
“I remember our planes going overseas and dropping bombs,” he said. “They flew at night all the time. The Americans couldn’t fly at night during the war. They had to fly during the day because they didn’t have the equipment like we had.”
He was then transferred to London to a new medical unit and with the intention that he would play hockey.
Hockey is a sport that is deeply embedded into our Canadian identity. During the Second World War, as many families throughout Canada faced hardships brought on by the war, hockey continued on to be that great social connector, including with those in the service overseas.
Melnechuk was one of the many RCAF members who played hockey overseas and he participated in the RCAF Overseas Championship in Glasgow, Scotland in 1944.
The year before, Canadian-born goaltender for the Detroit Red Wings Johnny Mowers enlisted in the Air Force and once overseas, became the goaltender for Melnechuk’s team in the 1944 championship, which they ended up winning.
“We had a professional hockey player on our team and before every game, he would get dressed up and he would get so nervous that he would throw up. We were just there for fun,” said Melnechuk of Mowers’ nerves.
Melnechuk remained stationed in London until he was discharged. By Christmas 1945, after the end of the war, he was on his way back home to Canada.
It was again this connection of hockey that brought Melnechuk first to Lacombe in 1946.
“After the Air Force, I got my leave and I wrote them a letter asking if I could play hockey and they said, ‘Yeah, come on,’ so I came here (Lacombe) and played for five years,” he said.
Melnechuk played for the Lacombe Buffaloes, a senior-level hockey team at the time that played teams in the region like Red Deer and Leduc.
During that time, Melnechuk met his wife Thelma in Lacombe in a restaurant. After a whirlwind romance, they were married in 1947.
In 1951, Melnechuk returned back to the service.
“I made a career in the Air Force until 1969,” he said. “I was stationed all over Canada, like Halifax and Quebec.”
While he was stationed in Quebec during this time period, Melnechuk had the privilege of testing out one of the very first Ski-Doos made by J.A. Bombardier. Bombardier created the first mass-produced snowmobile and in essence, created a new winter sport. Melnechuk, his sergeant and a few others went on trip in the deep snow to test out the new machine.
“We slept in a tent, put a fire in there and had some rations,” he said. “I feel honoured that we tested the first Ski-Doo ever made.”
Melnechuk and his wife returned to Lacombe after he concluded his service with the Air Force. Shortly after, he joined the Royal Canadian Legion Lacombe Branch No. 79 and has been a highly active member ever since.
“I’m still grateful at my age that I’m still here, that I can go to the Legion and still help out,” said Melnechuk. “It’s really something special.”
Melnechuk has two sons and one grandson.