RU Cape St. James
11 November 1943 – 10 August 1945
Cape St. James, the southernmost point of Haida Gwaii, was named by Captain George Dixon who rounded the point on 25 July 1787 (feast day of St. James). In 1914, an octagonal white tower with red topped lantern was constructed on Cape St James Island along with an aerial tramway to move supplies to the top of the hill. Cape St James Island is 4 ½ kilometers north of the southernmost rock of Cape St James. The lantern was removed in 1958 when a new aerobeacon was installed. In 1984, the original tower was replaced by a metal tower. The site was automated in 1992 and the old buildings were dismantled except for the light mast.
World War II had begun on 3 September 1939 but nothing changed at Cape St James, except there was an issuance in early November of a notice to Lightstations etc, by the Department of Transport. This set out the procedures to be followed, commencing Sunday 12 November 1939. Upon receipt of a message on the radio announcing ‘Instruction A’, all lights, fog signals and radio signals were to be operated normally. If the message was ‘Instruction B’, all lights, fog signals and radio beacons were to be extinguished and/or turned off. When the presumed emergency was over, ‘Instruction C’ would be sent, which effectively cancelled ‘B’ and all equipment would then be put back into operation. These broadcasts were preceded by a band playing ‘Rule Britannia’, and the actual instructions would be in the form, ‘Instruction A – A for Apples’; ‘Instruction B – B for Butter’ and ‘Instruction C – C for Charlie’. It continued to be life as normal until 7 December 1941 when an “Instruction B” was received and the light was turned off for the first time since 1914. The war in the Pacific had started.
Even before the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Canadian Government had been approached by the US Government with a proposal to use what were called ‘electronic airplane detectors’ (what we now know as Radar) to defend the west coast of British Columbia. This would complete the chain of radio defence already operating in Alaska and the US west coast. Prime Minister Mackenzie-King agreed to this but things moved slowly, and although two sites were chosen, Cape Scott and a site on the Alberni-Tofino road near Mt Arrowsmith, more were needed and a party was sent out to seek other sites in the Queen Charlottes. It was not until June of 1942 that the report was submitted and amongst the three recommended locations was The Cape. Life at this end of the world was about to change radically.
Cape St. James Island appeared to be one of the easiest sites, in that there was no clearing to be done and certain works that could be made use of already existed. The site itself was technically the worst of the three because it is a cliff-edge site and consequently would have gaps in the vertical polar diagram. The height, however, is about 350 feet and so the gaps would be quite small. The lighthouse on the island was only manned by one keeper and was not considered by the Department of Transport to be a very important light. In fact, just prior to the war, consideration was being given to doing away with it altogether as the light was useless for a large part of the time because it was in the clouds and there was no fog horn. After discussions with the Department of Transport Agent at Prince Rupert, it was concluded that they would accept a proposal to put the aerials, operations house, and power house on the top of the island. While the aerials would have to go in front of the light, they would not interfere with the light except at large angles of depression. The remainder of the camp would go down on the middle level or on the lower level beside the boat landing where there was a certain amount of shelter. The existing boat landing and aerial tramway would have to be improved but this would not be too expensive. No water source exists on the island so sea water would have to be distilled and, since wood was scarce, the station would have to be heated by either coal or oil.
- Station Layout (see diagrams and photos)
- Lower level (1) Admin Building, (4) Mess Hall, (5) Cook House, (6) DOT Boathouse. Hospital
- Mid level – #1,2,3 and 4 Barracks and # 5 ablutions building
Upper Level – the radar aerial, operations, power and lightkeeper’s house on the top of the island. Rose Harbour, a whaling station 17 miles up the East Coast of Kunghit Island, was a safe anchorage and aircraft landing location where most of the freight was brought in and loaded onto smaller vessels. These features and the emergency accommodation were very important as Cape St James was well known for its hurricane force winds and heavy seas which would stop traffic for days on end. Alliford Bay was designated the admin unit as it was easier to get to than Bella Bella.
No 9 CMU did the construction work and brought the site up to standards except for the operational equipment which #2MU installed. No 9 CMU assisted #2MU to unload the radar and communication material and move it up the hill. A lot of flexibility was required at the start as the distilling equipment was difficult to get going and water had to be imported from Rose Harbour, ten 45 gallon drums at a time. Getting construction supplies on time was also difficult as most were brought in by coastal supply boats.
Many of the coastal supply boats were requisitioned ex-fishing vessels operated by the Marine Section of the RCAF. On 23 July 1943, one of these vessels, the 70 ton seiner M 427 B.C. Star, manned by 10 RCAF crewmen and carrying six #9 CMU personnel, left RCAF Station Bella Bella enroute to No. 28 RU, Cape St James, with a second port of call at Rose Harbour on Kunghit Island. If the weather cooperated, the Star would be back in Bella Bella within the week.
By 3 August, Number 28 RU was running short of construction material and supplies. The Radio Operator contacted RCAF Station Bella Bella and inquired about the arrival of the next scheduled supply boat. This was the first indication that the Star was in trouble. For security reasons, arrivals and departures of the Star were not broadcast, and the ship maintained strict radio silence. With no SOS to describe the search boundaries, there was a large area to be covered. In the intense and lengthy search, little trace of wreckage was found, nor any conclusive evidence to explain the tragic loss of the ship. It had disappeared and no official explanation was ever recorded.
Other commodities that were difficult to handle were the yearly shipment of 500 barrels of oil and 2 tons of coal which weighed approximately 325 tons. This took the approximately thirty personnel available for unloading two and a half days, a major effort. There were also ongoing shipments of oil to keep the station going. Occasionally the station was down to the last few hours of operations before the new supply arrived. These situations were particularly bad in the winter time where it was not uncommon to have 20-25 days between boats due to wind. The winds played havoc with radar tower and the communications and power lines.
The weather also caused problems with the food supply. With the boats being delayed for long periods, some of the food, especially meats and vegetables, tended to go bad. On one occasion, the station cook was advised to treat rancid butter by immersing it in salt brine. It helped a bit as there was no replacement butter at the time. There were periods in the winter when emergency rations were used on a frequent basis. The problem with these rations is the rats liked them too, so it was a constant battle keeping the rats away.
One partial solution to food shortages was hunting and fishing parties. The men became fairly adept at supplementing the rations with fresh stocks of venison and fish. This unfortunately lead to one death and a few mishaps. On 27 April 1945, one member was fishing by himself near the station when he disappeared. The search lasted several days and included many surface vessels and aircraft. No trace of him was ever found. On another occasion, three members were trapped on an island for three days due to a storm but they were rescued as soon as the weather improved, with no ill effects. When the occasion presented itself, rations were exchanged for fish which was a welcome exchange for both parties. Small gardens were also started around operator’s barracks where flowers and vegetable were grown.
Life was not always difficult on the station as the members proved very resourceful in finding hobbies and sports. An area was blasted level in the lower camp so they could play volleyball. A league was formed and it proved to be a popular pastime. A hobby shop was built under the Rec Hall. Cribbage and bridge tournaments were a hit as well as spelling bees, glee clubs and even archery. The YMCA and the canteen fund provided a piano, billiard table, phonograph-radio and a library. Films were shown frequently if the boat was able to deliver them. The station newspaper “Peat Pile News” was a very popular addition to station life.
The lightkeeper and his wife were always included in the social activities on the station which was surely a blessing for them as well as the opportunity to get some fresh food occasionally. On 24 February, Toots, the station dog, gave birth to triplets under the Mex Inn. After considerable digging, the mother and children were dug out and placed in hospital, all were in fine shape.
All this activity started to come to an end on 6 August 1945 at 0900 when the station was told to cease operations. Dismantling was commenced immediately. On 10 August 1945, M/V Malahat arrived with a party of seventeen No 9 CMU personnel to complete dismantling and packing for final disbandment of the unit.
On 17 August, M/V Malahat arrived with a large scow. All equipment was loaded on the scow, along with the kit of personnel. A/Sgt Reyse, CM (Fitter Diesel) was detailed to remain to operate the Diesel Plant to provide power for the DOT radio equipment and a Naval Beacon. The Unit was finally disbanded at 1700 hours that day, and all service personnel with the exception of A/Sgt Reyse departed on the MV Malahat, for RCAF Station, Alliford Bay, BC for disposition.
The dedication of the plaque for Cape St James should take place in 2018.