RU Marble Island
7 June 1943- 10 August 1945
For many years the Haida lived on the west coast of the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) opposite Marble Island and a few of the people lived on Marble Island itself. They had a larger town on the west coast than present day Skidegate, however, after contact nearly everyone died of smallpox. Those who lived hiked across the island to the east coast where they started a new village call Skidegate.
“Marble Island (No.27 RD) known to its RCAF inhabitants as “Alcatraz”, was a small knob of land that the Pacific Ocean was perpetually trying to swallow. It was a place where every landing ought to have brought at least a Mention in Despatches. The best that could be done was to anchor the barge about a mile from the huge boulders that stood offshore like jagged sentinels and float the supplies ashore on large rafts. The crew, dressed in rubber overalls, would swim to shore on the incoming tide, constantly aware of the surf pounding on the treacherous rock formations.”
Originally, the site considered for Radar Detachment #27 was Buck Point at the entrance to the Skidegate Channel. However, because of the difficulties of building roads, it was deemed unsatisfactory. Instead, it was decided that the station should be built on Marble Island which lies four miles off the entrance to Skidegate Channel. This site was quite good from a technical point of view and the Ops site, which was at a height of about 425 feet, had a good view up and down the coast. However, before any work could proceed, two small boat landings suitable for beaching a small scow and small boat had be constructed and some sort of breakwater to keep the ordinary swell out was needed. If these items were provided, access to the island could be available at all times except during the severest winter storms. Unfortunately, as will be seen, this never happened. Once on the island, an aerial tramway would have to be erected in order to get to the actual Ops site which was on top of a knoll that descended on all sides in the landward direction, ranging from a gradual slope to a cliff approximately 100 feet high. The aerial tramway would have to ascend the cliff and continue up the gradual slope to the site. An alternative approach would have been to build a road from the landing around to the seaward side and ascend the gradual slope which exists on that side. It was considered by Works and Buildings that the aerial tramway would be the cheaper option. As no water exists on the island, it would have to be distilled by means of a water distilling apparatus which could be bought locally. These serious disadvantages were considered to be easier to overcome than the larger disadvantage attached to Buck Point. The immensity of the undertaking can perhaps be understood with the realization that the unit would finally consist of a complete ground radar station, a cable railway to the top of the island about 400 feet above sea level, accommodation and mess rooms for more than a hundred personnel, power plants, and radar and communication equipment. #9 CMU considered this station to be beyond their scope of expertise and stated the work would have to be undertaken by a contractor.
Marwell Contracting was the firm chosen to do the work and they in turn tasked one of their senior staffers, Joe Garner, to do the job. Joe reviewed the plans prepared by the RCAF along with some engineering reports. He was concerned that the engineer’s closing comment was written on some water-soiled pieces of newspaper, stating, “Camp and tents blown off the island in a storm” and he was not sure if a station could ever be built on this island, though it was indeed a strategic location.
Joe and an accountant left Vancouver airport the next afternoon and landed at Alliford Bay where they were welcomed by Harry Winnie, the Commanding Officer. The next morning, they headed out to look over the situation from the skies. Marble Island looked much like a large ship in a rough sea. It was a reasonably quiet day for the west coast, yet the seas were running and breaking some fifty feet up on the rocky beach. On the return trip, they saw big spruce timber being yarded to the water, then lashed into “Davis” rafts. The logger agreed that if he were to build a raft about forty feet wide and eighty feet long, with logs not less than three feet in diameter at the small end, and four times stronger than anything they had ever built, it just might hang together long enough to put the machines and supplies on the island. He thought that the project out there would be impossible to complete and he was just about right.
The initial load of cargo consisted of cook stoves, dishes, beds and bedding, diesel lighting plants, prefab buildings, plywood, barrels of gas and diesel fuel, one complete water system, three 10,000 gallon storage tanks, food for thirty men for four months, first aid supplies, two machine guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition, a logging donkey, a small sawmill and a bulldozer. There was also a complete four-bed hospital unit, including drugs and supplies.
To feed and shelter thirty men out in the Pacific was going to be a major undertaking, until some buildings and cooking facilities could be established. Joe managed to get the cookhouse and one bunkhouse roofed in before the first storm hit with gusts well over 100 knots. Waves twenty feet higher than any seen up to that time washed half the lumber out to sea and all the cement was destroyed. Nails and hardware, soaked in sea water, had already begun to rust. The pile of bricks, over 2,000 of them, had been washed around in the waves and rocks until there was nothing left larger than a good-sized marble. Luckily, most of the plumbing and electrical supplies had been carried off the beach and into the buildings the previous day. However, they were critically short of food as the storm had taken four months’ rations in a single day. They lost almost all their groceries as sacks of vegetables and cases of canned goods had been swept off the storage ledge, which was over twenty feet above normal high water. It took four days before the sea quieted down enough to bring some replacement supplies ashore.
This incident made them realize that a second boat was needed to give them some measure of safety. The “Burnaby M”, a 50-foot seiner owned by the Haida Indians of Skidegate Village, was chartered to back up the “Quallace” operated by Jim and Frank Gale. Because Joe Garner was able to pay good wages, he could hire a dozen more young Haida men to help with the construction. They proved to be invaluable as they were able to take the boat through the waves and breakers and haul all the supplies and men ashore with no problem. An additional benefit was they were all members of the Rangers with combat training, and each had brought his Ranger rifle with 500 rounds of ammunition per gun, along with some hand grenades and emergency food rations. They also had an orchestra known as “The Harmony Boys”, and they brought along some of their instruments, which made them a hit.
Before long, the diesel generators were in operation and in only a week the main cookhouse was completed, a gravity water system was operating and there was hot water and a stove with an oven. They got a second cook to help with the extra work for the larger crew and bread and pastry could now be baked. A scow was on its way from Vancouver with cement, bricks and lumber to replace what the storm had destroyed.
Things were progressing nicely as a steep railroad had been built leading from the beach on the east side up a 300 foot incline to a level area. The little rail cars were pulled up this incline by a single-drum gas winch. The final 200 feet of track to the radar site was operated completely by manpower. This was particularly dangerous when a car was heavily loaded, yet the men managed with only one sprained ankle and some badly barked shins.
To get the secret equipment from the war supply depot in Vancouver to Alliford Bay, a small destroyer was used. On 5 March 1943, the cargo was transferred to a small scow which was beached on Marble Island rather than risk a transfer to the log raft. By daybreak, the lethal big tubes and acid-filled crates had been taken off the scow safely and were on their way to the radar building. Some difficulties were experienced in the landing of cases by hand, as their gross weight was as much as 3,500 pounds. All hands had worked through the night to accomplish the seemingly impossible task. For some, there had been no sleep for over thirty-six hours. The scow was pulled off the beach only to find the bottom was smashed out as it was being towed away from the island. Unfortunately, the towline parted and the battered little wreck drifted out towards the open ocean, never to be seen again. All felt sad at the loss but the completion of the radar station was now assured.
The RCAF team that arrived with the secret radar equipment consisted of an officer, six Security Guards, six members of the RDF Installation Party and seven airmen on Temporary Duty from No. 2 Maintenance Unit. The construction crews were not allowed inside the building once this equipment was being put in place.
During the last month, the sawmill, donkey and bulldozer were moved off Marble Island and shipped south. As part of the cleanup, all the buildings were painted with yellowish-green camouflage paint and some spruce trees planted to the seaward side of the camp so it could not be spotted easily by a passing boat or submarine. It was then Joe Garner handed the keys to a young Lieutenant and left for home. Phil Wilson, the Haida labour boss, was presented the British Empire Medal for the courage and bravery he displayed in saving the lives of two boatmen.
Though Marwell left the big skiff, it was understandable that the RCAF crew would have problems getting men and supplies on or off the island but no one thought that three of the Air Force men would be drowned within a few months.
At the start of the RCAF era, all communications depended upon the Coast Watch Unit until the arrival of an AT3 Transmitter, telephones, wireless equipment and remote lines along with a telephone installation crew who immediately put all equipment in working order for use on this Island.
The normal routine of visiting doctors, dentists, padres, educators and staff personal started on 7 June when the Detachment became Operational and the forwarding of plots to the Filter Room at Prince Rupert commenced.
The supply boat brought a live deer to add to the pets of Marble Island. This deer was freed and soon made itself quite at home on the island. A few weeks later, a deer was sighted swimming and was hauled into the boat and brought to the station as a good companion for the one already on the Island. On 24 July 1944, a gift from the boys aboard the Navy Boat FY15 was a deer which had already been named “Pat” in honour of Lieutenant Patterson, Commander of the FY15. Now they had a herd.
One of the first problems the RCAF crew had was solving a very acute shortage of water. It took a long time to get the evaporators working to fill the 5,000 gallon water tank and the 2,800 gallon water tank that 9 CMU had completed.
A sports area of sufficient size for volleyball was levelled and the opening game of a series held. Before long, basketball standards were erected so personnel could partake in a sport other than volleyball, which had been the only game played up to this time. A piano, washing machine and an electric cooler for the canteen arrived and a long-awaited pool table. The name of the station paper “Alcatrash” was submitted to WAC and was approved.
Command cancelled the Detachment’s coal supply as a cost saving measure and efforts were made to fire the heaters and stoves with wood. The use of wood in the kitchen range proved very unsatisfactory as the hot water heaters were designed solely for the use of coal. By spring, the wood crew was able to keep up to the demands for firewood and the stove was modified, improving the situation.
The fierce weather during the fall of 1943 caused a portion of the cliff above the eastern end of the Admin Building to fall, starting a small landslide. The new water tank came down the slope into the side of the Admin Building. Another exceptionally strong gale, with wind velocity estimated at approximately 80 miles per hour, caused a number of very large trees to be uprooted and fall across power and telephone lines to the Operations building, across the line leading to the F/M equipment, and across the inclined railway and the plank walk, causing considerable damage. As soon as daylight permitted, work was commenced in clearing the debris and repair the lines with the inadequate means available at the Detachment. Power and telephone lines were spliced and restrung on poles and the line to Operations was completed just after dark. This experience resulted in a detachment of No 9 CMU being transferred in to do most of the larger construction jobs. On 11 January, a gale estimated at 70 or 80 miles per hour washed out the lower end of the inclined railway.
A few passing fishing boats were intercepted and fresh salmon were obtained for a variation in the diet of steady meat rations. On 24 January 1944, an aircraft from Alliford Bay dropped some necessities, a quarter of beef, some cigarettes, yeast and mail. The Detachment had not been supplied with proper rations since January first and a considerable amount of emergency rations had been consumed.
On 1 January 1944, a boat carrying two passengers, LAC Jones and LAC Kelly, was caught by a large swell and the boat was thrown onto partially submerged rocks. The passengers were declared missing and presumed to have drowned in spite of all attempts to rescue them. On 19 January, one mutilated body of an airman, beyond hope of recognition, was washed ashore at the South Landing and it was presumed it was one of the lost men. On 16 September 1944, while out for an early evening walk on the northwest side of the island, a member was washed into the sea by a sudden, crashing wave and drowned.
On 9 February, the Royal Canadian Artillery arrived to choose a site for the installation of a field piece, but the 75 mm gun was never installed. On 10 September, construction of storage facilities for three months’ reserve of rations was completed and on 16 September, three months’ supply of rations were unloaded and stored away in the reserve ration building. On 25 December 1944, the day was clear and bright with some rain during the day and evening. Christmas dinner was served in the Mess Hall at 1330 hrs and was enjoyed by everyone, along with the beer that was donated by the officers. The remainder of the afternoon was spent enjoying opening Christmas parcels.
1945 would prove to be another bad weather winter. On 11 February, winds reached gale velocity and the entire island took a terrific pounding from high seas. Part of the boardwalk in front of the Admin Building was washed away by the waves. Water pipe lines from the pump house to the water storage tanks were badly broken in four or five places. Repairs were impossible to make until the storm abated because of trees continually being blown down along the path. The walk from the diesel house to Operations was badly smashed in several places due to falling trees. An attempt was made to use the distillation unit until repairs could be made to the water line. This proved impossible because the intake pipe for sea water was continually washed in due to the high seas.
Sensing the end was near, “Cindy”, the camp mascot, had 10 pups on 28 July 1945. On 6 August at 1530 hours, signalled authority from WAC directed the unit to cease operations and work began to dismantle the radar gear. Then Operation Order No 60 was received ordering disbandment effective 10 August 1945. On 13 August, five 9 CMU men arrived to assist in the closure. On 20 August, the last raft took off the remaining 14 officers and men. That was the last of No 27 RU as a separate unit, all future closing operations were handled by RCAF Station Alliford Bay.
All of the original buildings are now gone – swallowed by the elements over the years, or salvaged by the local population. The two 50,000-gallon oil tanks are still there as well as the original cooking stove which is now well rusted and just lying there. The entire area where the radar station once existed has grown over except for the flattened remains of the original Rec Hall. and the foundation for the radar tower.
The dedication of the plaque for Marble Island should take place in 2018.