RU#26 Langara Island
17 June 1943 – 6 August 1945
The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR) was conceived in 1903 as the western portion of a second Canadian transcontinental railway with its terminus at Prince Rupert. Construction of the GTPR began in 1905, and the last spike was driven on 7 April 1914. The Department of Marine and Fisheries, recognizing that to handle the marine traffic from this project a major landfall light was needed on the northern end of the Queen Charlotte Islands to mark Dixon Entrance. They recommended the principal light be constructed atop the highest spot on Langara Island, the northernmost island. However, the chief engineer decided that the island’s 523-foot summit would be far too high so instead he selected a plateau atop Langara Point, on the island’s north shore, for the lighthouse and fog signal.
After five acres of timber were cleared, work began in 1912 on a thirty-foot, hexagonal tower, built of reinforced concrete with lighting apparatus, fog signal equipment and a double dwelling. The supply ship would visit the station every six months to drop off supplies. The supplies could only be landed in the cove below the station in perfect conditions. There was a 2,200-foot-long tramway that would lead down to a boathouse situated on a sheltered bight. This situation was not satisfactory so a more protected landing area was used and horses pulled supplies over a mile-long corduroy road to the station. A derrick was installed in 1915, and an aerial tramway was constructed in 1917 to facilitate unloading. A new building was erected at Langara Point in 1929 to house machinery for a radio beacon.
During World War II, it was decided to build a radar station near the lighthouse complex and all the white and red buildings were painted a drab camouflage “jungle green.” The keepers manned the light during the wartime period and resumed their normal duties after hostilities were over. The main difference for them was that now they had company and a weekly delivery of supplies while the radar station was active.
From a technical point of view, the radar site location seems to be entirely satisfactory. From the Ops Site, the radar could see well into Dixon Entrance and straight down the west coast of Graham Island. The camp site was located in a natural hollow close to the operations site so that no difficulties regarding high voltage power transmission were encountered. There was fresh water and a good supply of firewood for heating and cooking and the terrain was suitable for building. There were two main drawbacks; one was the fierce weather and the other was getting ashore as Langara Island is a plateau with steep rocky cliffs leading straight down to the surf, which pounds on the rocks.
On 17 July 1942, #9 Construction Maintenance Unit(CMU) arrived and started work cutting a trail to the Camp Site, 3/4 miles from the Lighthouse site. A short time later work on the dock began with the blasting of rock to prepare a bedding for the crib, which was constructed at Egeria Bay, and floated to the dock site. By 1 September 1942, the ramp and dock were finally completed, and the planking of the road, construction of braces for bridges between the dock and the Lighthouse were also coming to a quick finish.
Getting from the docking area to land proved to be a challenge as much of the island shoreline was inaccessible except for a few places where stony beaches exist. At Langara, the trip ashore rivalled a ride on any roller coaster. Access to the Station site was by means of a high line lift that would raise a rowboat with its occupants, out of the water and lift it straight up, then pull it horizontally along the highline and set the rowboat down on a flat rock surface. The highline was a steel trolley cable fastened to a high point on each side of a very narrow sea inlet in the cliff face. Riding this highline was a small-wheeled carriage with a centre pulley mounted so a lifting cable could be fed round the pulley and head downward toward the water. The highline was perhaps 70 feet above the water surface, and the lift up was probably about 50 or 60 feet. The rowboat, having left the supply boat standing offshore, would have to be maneuvered into this inlet (by oars) when the tide was right, and sea swells not too menacing. A stationary gasoline engine powered the highline trolley. Often visiting officers of high rank on an inspection visit were given a rather hair-raising ride on their outward trip. The operator would lift the rowboat (by means of four hooks attached to the lifting cable) from the flat rock surface, with departing people sitting inside, and let it slide along the sloping highline gathering speed quickly, then brake it suddenly as it centred over the water inlet. This would cause the boat to swing back and forth. As the rowboat stabilized, he would suddenly release the brake, letting the rowboat freefall at gathering speed until it was right above the water, brake it suddenly, then gently lower it the last couple of feet into the water where the four hooks had to be quickly released and the boat rowed out to the supply boat standing off shore. One needs to have experienced this to really appreciate either the scare or thrill of it, whichever. More often than not, officers so treated seldom returned to the Island!
The alternative to this Rube Goldberg arrangement would have been to hack out and build a road right across the island to one of the relatively safe harbours at Raff Bay or Henslung Bay but time was of the essence, so they built close to the lighthouse and campsite. #9 CMU established a tent work camp on Raff Bay where supplies and gear could be landed by rowboat and small barge or rafts, often with difficulty, from an off-shore supply boat. Their project here was to construct a pole line with one ten pin cross arm of #14 gauge copper wire which would provide about five circuits to connect the new Radiotelephone transmitter site which was located close to the #9 CMU camp to the Radar site on the opposite side of the island. No vehicles here, all hand labour and much effort to drag and carry materials up steep slopes covered with thick forest underbrush to reach the plateau area.
By 3 September, the trail from the Lighthouse to the Camp site was surveyed, and construction of the road began. The stumps were cleared, stringers and sleepers were placed, and the planks laid, averaging 200 feet of road per day. Soon an area large enough to permit construction of the campsite was cleared and the footings for the Mess Hall and No 1 & 2 Barracks were poured. Construction work on the Hospital, the Administration, the Ablution Hut and Recreation Hall started followed by barrack blocks three and four, the garage, the canteen hut, and the mess hall.
The discomfort of living in tents at the lighthouse area in inclement weather warranted the early use of one building at the campsite as sleeping quarters and soon personnel were occupying the Recreation Hall. By 11 January, all personnel and equipment had moved to the camp site. It took a further week and a half to make the barracks, mess hall, etc into suitable accommodation for the airmen as the weather was extremely cold with heavy snowfall.
Work progressed favourably on the road to the Ops site despite inclement weather and mud. Great difficulty was encountered in pulling stumps, and laying puncheon for stringers but the hardest part was getting planking to complete it. Sky-lines were rigged up to facilitate handling of equipment and supplies with safety during rough weather. At the Ops site area, bull-dozing and clearing was underway so that by mid March work on the Power House and Operational Building was in full swing. The Ops site was finally completed on 15 April, clearing the way for the main bulk of the radar equipment, including diesel power generators, to be unloaded onto the dock. Two members of the Installation Party from No 2 Maintenance Unit, Vancouver, were already present and by 23 May, the radar equipment was on the air for the first time at 2000 hrs and the gantry revolving. Results are very satisfactory, “PE’s” picked up at a range of 60 miles and a boat at 58 miles
On 16 May 1943, the Ensign was raised for the first time and the next day the diesel generating equipment was started for the first time. The transition to # 26 Radar Unit(RU) had started and the clean up operations of #9 CMU were proceeding rapidly. Before they left, they completed the electrical line to the Camp Site, inserted a plug into the “gut” to help hold back the surf during unloading operations and increased the storage space at water dam to approximately 400,000 gallons. On 25 May, #9 CMU loaded out completely and left for Vancouver. #9 CMU detachment from RCAF Stn Alliford Bay was tasked with the ongoing major maintenance and emergency repair for Langara and would be back often.
Aside from some growing pains, the Station settled into a “normal” routine of ongoing supply shortages, equipment failure, major storm damages and deadly landing and offloading of freight and passengers. As the only landing areas in the vicinity were exposed to the savage wind and waves, the supply ships were at the mercy of the weather which was especially mean in the fall and winter months. This would cause frequent shortages of rations and everyday living essentials and disrupt the normal flow of personnel. Where the maximum effect was felt though, was on the supply of diesel fuel and equipment. It almost got to be a routine event of having less than three days of diesel available and having to use stove oil instead to run the generating plants.
Some examples of the landing problems were;
5 Dec 43: One of the row boats tipped over while hauling in the mail and movie films. The two airmen rowing the boat swam and were washed up on the rocks, receiving minor cuts and bruises. The mail was retrieved out of the water but the films were lost.
10 Dec 43: The #9 CMU attempted to load out supplies to the Haida Girl at 1630 hrs but ceased when one of the row boats was washed up and broken on the rocks and a large quantity of their tools and effects were lost overboard.
8 Jan 44: A very serious accident occurred on the last trip which, fortunately, had no serious results. As the boat with the two oarsmen and two barrels of oil aboard was being brought in, the lifting cable of the hoist snapped and the boat and cargo dropped twelve feet back into the sea, capsizing the boat and spilling its load. The oarsmen swam to the scow and from it got a line on the overturned boat which was then hauled to safety.
17 Nov 44: Boats were put into the water; one reached the Nimpkish and was returning when the other boat was swamped by an unexpectedly large wave, throwing four airmen into the water. They were rescued by the other boat but the capsized boat was thrown up against the rocks causing it to be damaged completely.
23 Mar 45: Boat arrived 1300 and during first trip of rowboat out, boat nearly swamped. During return trip, rowboat swamped causing unfortunate loss of P/O Leece, Personnel Counsellor, by drowning, body not recovered, and loss of F/L Newman, Personnel Counsellor, possibly by exposure. Body recovered, but after 5 hours of artificial respiration by Cpl Cote and Lt McDougall, CDC, hope was abandoned.
There were other harbours and landing spots on Langara Island;
Egeria Bay– half way up east side of Langara – reasonable beach for landing. Entailed a walk through the forest and muskeg for five miles. The dock crib was constructed here.
Henslung Bay-south end of Langara- very good docks and a safe harbour. The supply ships overnighted here or waited out the storms. Present day location of Langara fishing resort. A very fit person could walk the eight mile trip in 3 hours 15 minutes.
Raff Bay– opposite side of Langara Island – location of #9 CMU, camp had a stony beach. It took about 1 ½ hours to walk the three mile distance.
After the fatal accident on 23 March 1945, WAC proposed a plank road to Henslung Bay which would have greatly improved landing facilities and handling of passengers. The war ended before this plan could be implemented.
No. 26 Radio Detachment at Langara Island did experience something out of the ordinary. They were visited by submarines.
2 August 1943: At 0235 hours, the guard at the dock saw what is reasonably supposed to be a Japanese submarine surfaced approximately 400 yards off shore. Evidence of “jamming” on the R/T was experienced at the same time and lasted. The whole camp was awakened and placed on guard. Demolition charges were prepared. No. 4 Group was advised at once.
6 Aug 1943: At 2330 hours, a guard reported sub 300 yards off shore at dock. No 1 alert raised immediately and visual plot passed to Filter Room. All gun pits were manned and road completely patrolled. Secret documents prepared for rapid destruction, demolition prepared.
As a result of these two experiences, the defences of the island were strengthened and surface and air patrols scoured the area. On 8 Aug, a naval boat arrived at 0900 hours with a 6-pound gun, 3 field telephones and a party of 6 Army men including one Sgt to bolster station defences. Phones, spotlight and gun were set up. Then, at 1159 on the same day, there was interference on the R/T again. Yogi calling someone that sounded like basso was on the same channel “B” as before. On 11 Aug, when they started night time testing with a spotlight used in conjunction with the 6 pound gun, it was found to be of very little use as the light would not focus to a small enough beam to cover any distance. Then on 19 August at 2300 hours, word was received from 4 Group that a submarine was sighted approx 100 miles NE of Langara heading south. It was not spotted again. On 2 Oct, a Navy patrol boat arrived at 1100 hrs to remove the army personnel and gun. By 1400 hrs, their task was completed and they departed despite rough seas. A standing lookout was placed at the Dock to replace the departed army personnel.
But all was not doom and gloom and warlike. The first edition of the local newspaper “Bah Wilderness” was issued on 15 Jul 43, which gave the personnel a way of keeping current on what was happening on the station and around the world. This station seemed to be very adept at obtaining films and short clips in spite of their supply problems and they organized all sorts of tournaments such as horseshoe, bridge, ping-pong and floor hockey. Then there were the hikes to Deep Lake for swims or to Fury Bay for a change of scenery, and there was always the wood cutting details to occupy time and it kept their wood stoves warm for cooking and heating. They had a drag saw and a power chainsaw to help them and plenty of wood surrounding the campsite and Ops site which made it relatively easy to accumulate a sufficient supply for their needs without too much effort. For a change of pace, one could go fishing to supplement or vary their normal rations – or lack thereof.
The other thing that made RCAF Stn Langara different from most of the other RUs was the close proximity of the lighthouse to the campsite and the strong relationship the Station had with the lightkeeper and his family who were frequent guests at the Mess for dinners and special occasions. As the lighthouse was only supplied every six months, the lighthouse keeper could only reciprocate on rare occasions. The keeper’s two young daughters visited the station frequently to watch the movies or to listen to records played on the jukebox at the canteen.
The news of the German surrender on 7 May 45 signalled the end was drawing near so it was no surprise when the signal arrived saying that No 26 Radio Unit was to cease operations effective 0900 hours, 6 Aug 45 and was to disband on 10 Aug 45. All the signal and radar equipment, gantries, towers and aerials, together with all relative spares, were returned to Prince Rupert along with any other valuable equipment. The generation equipment was left for the lighthouse’s use. Strangely, the Mess Hall burned to the ground the night before everything had to be moved.