RCAF Station Coal Harbour
Northwestern Vancouver Island was settled by five tribal groups – the Hoyalas, Quatsinox, Klaskinox, Giopinox, and the Koskimox between 1000-4000 BC. The Hoyalas people originally occupied much of the inner waters of Quatsino Sound, including Holberg, Rupert and Neroutsos Inlets. After this tribal group became decimated, the five tribal groups amalgamated and became the present Quatsino First Nation and resided in the village site of Quattishe (#IR 1) near Quatsino Narrows.
Quatsino was first spotted by the Royal Navy Gunship, the HMS Scout, in 1868. In 1883, the discovery of coal seams near Quatsino prompted the setting up of the settlement of Coal Harbour. A mine was built to attempt to extract the coal, but proved unsuccessful, and it was soon abandoned. One of the first mentions of Coal Harbour was when two of His Majesty’s ships took on coal from that mine, so we can say at that early date Coal Harbour started playing a part in the defence of Canada. In 1918, the “Hole” family moved to Coal Harbour, took over the boarding house and opened a General Store. A trail was built to Port Hardy and regular mail service was commenced in 1920. In 1927, the first gravel road to Port Hardy was completed, finally linking Coal Harbour to the rest of the island. The town of Coal Harbour, once established, became an important gateway and transportation hub to the west coast of Vancouver Island.
The outbreak of hostilities in 1939 hastened the decision to build a wartime station at Coal Harbour, and construction details were given emergency priority. A purchase agreement was negotiated with the Holes for the land required for the station. The site plans moved rapidly ahead and in June 1940, Western Air Command (WAC) informed Air Force Headquarters in Ottawa that construction crews were ready to begin work. They also requested permission to place an eight man detachment on the Station to operate W/T (radio) communication and provide drivers for road and marine transport. Authorization was received and WAC announced its intention to open the RCAF Station Coal Harbour at the end of August 1940.
On 29 June 1940, eight Airmen arrived at the station site. The advance party boarded for three months at the only hotel in the area – the Hole’s Hotel. Marwell Construction was already in high gear, and the airmen’s quarters, administration building, two hangars and the slipway rose up out of a sea of mud and tangled debris from fallen trees – in the rush, some of the stumps were not blasted out until after the buildings were completed. #9 Construction Maintenance Unit (#9 CMU) was making good progress on basic infrastructure such as water and sewer, power, roads and communications.
By mid-August, the rough but reasonably complete administration section was ready to accommodate staff. The Airmen arrived at the end of August in time to meet the deadline and officially open RCAF Station Coal Harbour. The Station had a considerable number of administrative personnel but no Squadron had been assigned and flying was limited to the transportation of men and supplies. The men took advantage of the situation and, as there was no accommodation for their families, they started building cabins. The cabins built by the airmen stood on land owned by the Hole family who rented out the building sites for one dollar a year. The airmen, when they were posted off the station, sold their homes to incoming families for $250.00 to $300.00. If there were no “for sale” signs in the settlement, an airman made his agreement with Mr. Hole, borrowed an axe and a shovel, and in a month or two of his spare time had a rustic home ready for his family.
On 27 February 1941, four officers and 76 men of the B.C. Regiment were posted to Coal Harbour to take over responsibility for the defence of the Station. Months went by and the long wait to begin operating a wartime flying boat station was dampening the airmen’s enthusiasm. On 8 August, the Inspector General recognized that the station had been opened for a year and still did not have a squadron and there was a noticeable sag in morale. Western Air Command responded with a promise that in December a Bomber Squadron would be placed at the Station.
Number 120 (BR) Squadron was originally formed as No. 20 (Bomber) Squadron (Auxiliary) at Regina, Saskatchewan in June of 1935, and renumbered as No. 120 (B) Bomber Squadron on 15 November 1937. A call to duty was issued in September 1939, and on 31 October, the Squadron was redesignated as No. 120 (BR) Bomber Reconnaissance Squadron. On 1 August 1940, No. 120 (BR) Squadron, flying Lockheed Hudson aircraft, moved to RCAF Stn Patricia Bay. On 21 November, No. 120 (BR) Squadron received orders to move to their war Station at Coal Harbour. On 7 December, four days before the Squadron was expected to arrive at Coal Harbour, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. On 11 December 1941, the day after their arrival at the Station, the Squadron completed the first anti-submarine patrol in Stranraer #950.
In January 1942, a group of like-minded Airmen decided that the personalities at the Coal Harbour Station deserved to be immortalized. Some of the men developed the format for the Station newspaper and christened it the ‘Coal Harbour Shovel’ – perhaps a reference to “digging in and getting the job done”, which symbolized life on the Station, or was it an interesting twist on “digging for dirt” to keep the publication lively? The newspaper “was an outlet for a rare sense of humour that was evident across the ranks” and “was partially responsible for maintaining high morale on the Station”. Also in January 1942, P/0 D.E. Hornell (j.7594) was posted to Coal Harbour. He was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously in 1944 for his outstanding acts of bravery in carrying out an attack on a U-boat in the North Atlantic and which cost him his life.
In April 1942, the Squadron recorded its first submarine sighting. Through a break in the undercast of low fog and shifting rain, a Stranraer patrol caught a glimpse of a submarine below them. The pilot circled and passed over the area at a lower altitude but crew members were unable to relocate the submarine – it had disappeared. On 4 June 1942, Japanese forces launched air strikes from their aircraft carriers against the port of Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island and on 21 June 1942, a Japanese submarine surfaced and shelled Estevan Point. This critical situation forced Western Air Command to order the evacuation of the small dependants’ settlement at Coal Harbour. By the summer of 1942, all families at RCAF Station Coal Harbour had been removed.
During that summer, Flying Officer J. Halpen created a Squadron insignia – a drawing of the Walt Disney character ‘Pluto’. Walt Disney was notified of the prominent part ‘Pluto’ was playing in west coast flying operations, and he sent an original drawing to the squadron.
On 26 January 1943, in accordance with a new WAC directive designed to improve squadron efficiency to rapidly deploy, No. 120 (BR) Squadron moved to Ucluelet and No. 4 (BR) Squadron moved to Coal Harbour. On 8 February, after two weeks away from “home”, each Squadron returned to its respective Station. The first Canso arrived at RCAF Station Coal Harbour and took off on the daily patrol on 6 April 1943.
By this time, events in the war overseas had forced Japan into a defensive position, which greatly reduced its threatened invasion of the west coast of North America. The degree of risk to the families evacuated from Coal Harbour had diminished, and they were now allowed to return to their rustic homes in the RCAF settlement. Families were reunited, the pioneer spirit was re-kindled and close relationships in the little community continued where they had left off. Coal Harbour’s total population reached its peak of approximately 1,500 people at this time.
On 21 April 1944, No. 120 (BR) Squadron flew its final patrol and was disbanded on 1 May 1944. Number 6 (BR) Squadron replaced No 120 Squadron by relocating from Alliford Bay to Coal Harbour on 23 April 1944. No. 6 Squadron was authorized as a Torpedo Bomber unit at Trenton, Ontario on 4 March 1936. The squadron commenced service training in November of that year with Vedette flying boats. It received Shark aircraft from England in January 1937, moved to Jericho Beach (Vancouver), British Columbia in November 1938, mobilized on 10 September 1939. Redesignated Bomber Reconnaissance on 31 October, the squadron flew Shark, Stranraer, Catalina and Canso aircraft on West Coast anti-submarine duty before being transferred to Coal Harbour.
In January 1945, a Station Canso forced down a Japanese Fire Balloon which settled in tangled undergrowth less than a mile inland on Rupert Inlet. It consisted of approximately eight hundred pounds of loosely packed, ” slippery material, stretched into a limp, snake-like package, forty-five feet long and at least two feet thick. After a difficult four hours of foot by foot endeavour, the recovery team finally covered the three quarters of a mile to the inlet. The balloon was recovered nearly intact and is now displayed in the national War Museum. On 1 August 1945, No. 6 (BR) Squadron flew its last patrol. The Squadron was disbanded at Coal Harbour on 7 August 1945.
There were three fatal aircraft crashes of RCAF Stn Coal Harbour aircraft, two have been marked with memorial cairns here and one is marked in Port Alice.
- On 23 August 1942, the crew of Stranraer #951, 120 BR Sqn were lost at sea and eight lives were lost.
- On 4 February 1944, Norseman 695 temporarily attached to 120 (B.R.) Squadron, crashed in a field on takeoff from Port Alice and burst into flames, killing four and wounding one. That memorial is located in Port Alice.
- On 31 July 1945, Canso 11043 #6 (BR) Sqn hit a submerged rock on landing on Rupert Inlet after having completed the last operational mission of the war for No 6 (BR) Squadron. One crew member was killed.
RCAF Station Coal Harbour was closed at the end of August 1945 and reduced to a care and maintenance basis. The population of Coal Harbour quickly plummeted to 100 people and stayed that way until 1948 when Western Whaling Ltd, a 50/50 Canada Packers and a Japanese firm, established a whaling station and industry was revived in Coal Harbour. The whaling station was the last one in operation on the North American coast when it closed in 1967. It had managed to catch well over 10,000 whales in its 19-year history. Eilertson Logging purchased the station from Western Whaling in 1975.
In 1969, Utah International started construction of the deepest open pit mine below sea level in the world on Rupert Inlet. In 1971, Island Copper Mine began a production run of copper, gold, silver, molybdenum and rhenium that continued until late 1995. The opening of the mine resulted in the paving of the road from Port Hardy and the expansion of the town of Coal Harbour to 850 souls.
After the closure of the mine, Coal Harbour became a pleasant modern hamlet with many reminders of its aviation past. In 1972, the Quatsino people relocated to their Quatsino Subdivision 18, two minutes from Coal Harbour, for education, employment and to be near the hospital. The Quatsino First Nation is now the owner of the original Island Copper Mine production site. The original # 1 Hangar is now the home of AirCab, a charter seaplane company that services the logging and fishing industry, as well as tourists. The hangar also houses a museum that has many artifacts and correspondence from the RCAF and Whaling Days.
The Dedication of RCAF Stn Coal Harbour
On 23 September 2017, members of 19 Wing and 888 Wing from Comox and 101 Squadron members, Rangers and Guests assembled at the RCAF Stn Coal Harbour Memorial to dedicate the memorial which was erected to remember the service and dedication of the members who had served there during the second world war. It was sunny but cool when the parade was called to attention at 1430 hrs. There were approximately seventy people in attendance including family members from each of the three fatal aircraft crashes. The MC explained how the Japanese threat was felt to be very real and the members of the RCAF and Army tackled their duties with vigour. There were ups and downs to station life in the wilderness, but people adapted very well to the challenges. The Acting Wing Commander of 19 Wing, LCol Paula Fraser, then covered the strategic importance of the Station during the war and the post war history of Coal Harbour. Three Beaver aircraft from AirCab and two Goose from Wilderness Seaplanes did a flypast in honour of the event.
After the parade was dismissed, people had time to visit the hangar and the RCAF and whaling museum where there were many interesting documents and displays to look at. Some lucky members had boat and aircraft tours, then it was time for the social hour and supper. 101 member Dave Gage, the caterer, did an outstanding job and presented us with a buffet table fit for a king. There was Indian style barbecued salmon, fire roasted pig and crab along with a variety of salads and desserts. Then it was time to introduce the family members in attendance and listen to their remembrances of loved ones that had died in the line of duty. This brought closure to many of them as they had not known the full story of their loved one’s accidents. This also brought home to the 101 members how beneficial our work at remembering the RCAF history in our area was to a lot of people and how proud we could be for having done the work. The presentation of the Award of Distinction to Jim Pollock, the Award of Merit to Larry Hemphill and the Big Foot Award to Russ Hellberg rounded out the Coal Harbour portion.
The entourage then retired to our club house in the Lyon’s Den Pub for an evening of comradery and an introduction of the three titted moose. A great time was had by all, which made it a bit difficult to be on the 77th Anniversary Parade of the Battle of Britain. The parade was completed before the rain started. Our goodbyes were done over lunch.