RCAF Station Bella Bella
Bella Bella has a long history of aviation and provided an early air force presence on the Central B.C. Coast. In July of 1923 Squadron Leader Earl Godfrey arrived and landed a Canadian Air Force Curtiss HS-2L flying boat to refuel on his way from Jericho Beach at Vancouver to Prince Rupert becoming the first successful Canadian flight along the west coast.
Previously in 1920 the first attempted flight up the coast was flown by Lieutenant Harry Brown in his Curtis JN-4 seaplane, which landed short of Bella Bella at Nalau Island with an engine failure. US Air Service pilot Lieutenant Roy Jones flew from Seattle and on to Alaska via a fuel stop at Bella Bella in July 1922 and thus flew the first successful flight up the coast.
The Royal Canadian Air Force determined quite early that the community of Bella Bella was strategic to its needs when flying along the British Columbia west coast. With war clouds on the horizon it established a detachment here in 1938. It was soon decided that the best location of the station would be on Denny Island adjacent to Klik-Tso-Atli Harbour with the station constructed behind Shearwater Island.
In June 1940 construction began on a full sized RCAF Station, which would include two full size flying boat hangars with ramps for beaching its aircraft as well as accommodations for up to 1,000 men, a hospital, administration and messing facilities. By November 1941 twenty-one buildings were ready for use. The Coast Construction Company of Vancouver accomplished the actual construction with consider
able help from the local Heiltsuk native workers one of which was the future chief Vivian Wilson.
On December 7, 1941 the station received notification that a state of war existed with Japan after that country had attacked Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. On December 8, 1941 Squadron Leader Fred. S. Carpenter arrived at the station with two Supermarine Stranraer flying boats from Patricia Bay at Victoria. Carpenter immediately assumed command of No 9 (BR) Bomber Reconnaissance Squadron.
Operational patrols commenced immediately with the two Stranraer flying boats #949 and #936 that responded to an alert that a Japanese submarine had been sighted north of Vancouver Island in Queen Charlotte Strait. On the aircrafts return they were both fueled to capacity from a tender, which carried 45-gallon drums. Aircraft patrols continued from the station day and night in most weather conditions searching for the nine enemy submarines that had been sinking vessels proceeding up and down the coast.
By February 1942 the station personnel now numbered 455 airmen that made for crowding of the unfinished barrack buildings. The off duty airmen used their time efficiently by building the Santa Bella Trail from the RCAF station to the B.C Packers store and post office on the opposite side of Denny Island.
In December 1942 the station received its first Consolidated PBY-5A Canso aircraft, which would allow the 9BR Squadron to extend its patrols out over the Pacific for up to 28 hours. In April 1943 the station Commanding Officer S/L Galloway decided that a control tower was needed on Shearwater Island and ordered its construction but the tower operators found that the tops of the island’s trees obscured their view. Galloway responding by ordering his Armaments Officer to top the trees with machine gun fire which worked fine but an army detachment across the bay had to take cover as their position was peppered by the gunfire.
By the end of July 1944, the station’s strength, including army personnel, was 750. By this time the Japanese had suffered major defeats and the threat of an invasion on the west coast of North America had diminished. For economic reasons as well as the difficulty of supply for these remote stations a decision was made to disband No 9 (BR) Squadron and the station. RCAF Station Bella Bella was closed effective September 1, 1944. The last entry in the Station’s diary sums up the unsung heroism on the Bella Bella Station: “The reports of the presence of enemy craft in our waters are investigated thoroughly and, no matter how inaccurate the report may seem to be, the squadron personnel embark on the searches with enthusiasm and keenness. The fact that the West Coast stations saw little action is in part due to their unceasing vigilance. They made the waters of the Pacific adjacent to the coast a most unhealthy and unproductive locality for the enemy. Theirs was not a glamorous job. They received no applause from the people and none from the Service. They had a dirty, dangerous, monotonous job to do and they did it. That was their reward”
Dedication of RCAF Station Bella Bella
Craig Widsten, owner of Shearwater Marine Group, wanted to build a monument to fulfill his father’s wish to commemorate RCAF Station Bella Bella and the serviceman who served there during WWII. At the same time Craig wanted to recognize the origins of the Shearwater Community which his father helped establish in 1947. A very important element of this celebration was to honour the Central Coast First Nation veterans who, having enlisted to fight for Canada during the war effort, did not receive appropriate recognition. This all evolved into the Denny Island War Memorial project. At the time, Shearwater was outside 101’s area of interest, but we offered to assist him in designing and managing the military aspects of the project. This led to: 101 Squadron designing and producing the six commemorative plaques; Heiltsuk artist Ian Reid carving the Warriors Pole to commemorate the region’s First Nations Veterans; internationally renown mural artist, Paul Ygartua, painting “United in History” a mural depicting the influential founders of the region; and the Canadian Museum of Flight building the Stranraer model. Veterans Affairs Canada approved the War Memorial with a commitment to help with funding.
July 6th 2013 was a beautiful sunny day. Shearwater Resort’s crewboats and other boats from the Central Coast brought in people from the outlying villages. A charter aircraft brought forty family members and dignitaries from Vancouver and a Buffalo from 442 Squadron brought in 888 Wing and 101 Squadron members and CO Lieutenant-Colonel Todd Sharp who spoke at the ceremony. Nearly 400 people attended the event. The dedication of the War Memorial started at 1100 with the Warriors Pole and the Cenotaph being dedicated first. This was followed by a memorial service for those who served and those that lost their lives serving. Standing at attention in the hot sun, the RCMP and Colour Party were rather warm by the time it was over, as were the seventeen Chiefs in ceremonial regalia. The 101 piper and bugler added to the solemnity of the occasion as did the Chiefs’ welcoming dance and the defenders dance at the Pole dedication. The CO of 442 Squadron spoke of how the military has evolved and how it is here to help residents of the Central coast. Two of the sons of the First CO of 9 BR Squadron Commander S/L Fred Carpenter spoke about their father’s experiences. The event was a very fitting tribute to those who served at RCAF Stn Bella Bella and the First Nations members who served in Canada’s wars. After the first half of the day’s ceremonies the RCAFA and RCMP members retired for a debrief and some refreshments.
This was followed by a traditional Heiltsuk salmon barbecue and then at 2:30 the dedication of the Bella Bella mural “United in History” began. It was an impressive ceremony that lasted five hours in the hot sun. There were members representing all seventeen native and non-native founding families. Each family described their attachment to the area and explained what their founding member did to earn this distinction. There was a unanimous voice that it was an excellent ceremony and that recognizing the founding families was done in a manner that respected First Nations protocol. The whole day was a great success.
Plaques unveiled at dedication ceremony (click on each plaque to open a window with a PDF file that is easier to read.)