John was born on August 26th of 1889 in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. He had an older brother, Percy, and a sister Evelyn. His father died while John was still a young boy and the family was soon forced to move to Winnipeg for economic reasons.

As a teenager, John was sent to Montreal to be his uncle's carpentry apprentice. He disliked his uncle so much that he soon ran away and worked in a lumber camp until he had enough money to attend trade school. In school he studied to be a secretary and wireless operator.

After school he worked as a wireless operator for Dominion Express but soon got a job with the railroads which allowed him to return to Winnipeg where his family still lived. Back in Winnipeg he became an avid athlete playing baseball, basketball and hockey. He even tried out for the baseball major leagues.

He was visiting a cousin in Georgia when he finally decided to join the war effort. He returned to Canada and on June 7th of 1915 joined the 1st Mounted Rifles Battalion of the 8th Infantry Brigade of the 3rd Canadian Division. By September he was fighting in France.