RU Spider Island
11 June 1943 – 6 August 1945
With the attack on Pearl Harbour, the establishment of the chain of RUs (radar units) for surveillance of the Pacific Coast became a high priority. As part of the plan, the Royal Canadian Air Force built #9 RU, RCAF Station Spider Island, and seven other stations to provide early warning radar surveillance of the Canadian Pacific Coast. This station, along with RCAF Stn Bella Bella’s #9 Bomber Reconnaissance (BR) Squadron, provided the resources to patrol the Bella Bella Sector. This Sector covered from Cape St James to Cape Scott and from Spider Island seaward to 150 miles. There was overlapping radar coverage from Cape St James, Cape Scott and Spider Island, which meant that Spider Island provided back up coverage except for low level traffic and Alaskan traffic where it proved to be quite useful.
Spider Island is part of the Spider Group which is a cluster of small islands off the SW shore of Hunter Island on Queen Charlotte Sound. During World War II, to orient themselves, the pilots named many of the unnamed geographical features after fighter planes. The Islands to the north of Spider Island should have been called the “Air Force Group” since most of the feature names such as Kittyhawk, Hurricane, Spitfire and Mosquito came from air force planes. The islands south of Spider Island, from Typhoon Island southeast to Kidney Island, formed the Breadner Group named after the Chief of Air Staff in 1943, Air Marshall L.S. Breadner.
RCAF Stn Bella Bella was the administrative and supply station and used its resources to do so. # 9(BR) Squadron was equipped with Stranraer, and then Canso, aircraft and there was also a Norseman available for support duty. On the marine side, there was a boat attached to the Spider Island/Namu/ Shearwater run to pick up mail and supplies from Namu and then deliver them to the two stations. There were occasional problems getting rations in a timely manner from Namu which meant, in the winter, emergency rations were often used. From the transportation aspect, Spider Island had the best system on the West Coast as there were almost daily runs by either aircraft or boats and personnel could go on 48-hour passes to Bella Bella or Ocean Falls. This was unheard of at most other RUs. The downside was there were frequent visiting specialist, clergy, educational and trades, as it was an easy trip with no great dangers. After the war was over, the Shearwater portion of the station was purchased by F/L Widsten who started developing it into the bustling commercial centre it is today. It is still family run and services the central coast as a transportation centre and fishing resort.
RCAF Station Spider Island started with 13 personnel and gradually built to 70 by September 1943, then dropped back to 28 on disbandment. Spider Island facilities included 12 buildings, two docks and a 3.5-kilometre road running from the northeast corner of the island to Breadner Point. There was a large lake close to the Camp Site, so only pumping equipment was needed to get a fresh water supply. As there was an ample wood supply nearby, the coal heaters that were initially installed were replaced by wood heaters. The coal heaters were shipped to #28 RU at Cape St. James. The outflow winds in the area meant that Spider Island was one of the few Stations that got any amount of snowfall. It was also slightly cooler than most and required constant attention to wood cutting to keep the camp warm. Initially, they were hampered in this activity by a lack of saws and winches but this was gradually rectified. This RU had its fair share of bad weather and there was frequent damage to the lines and roads. The radar array had to be locked down frequently due to high winds.
Construction of the Camp site was started in late summer of 1942 by Marwell Construction doing the buildings, with #9 Construction Maintenance Unit (#9 CMU) carrying out the infrastructure work such as water, sewer, road, docks and power and communications lines. By the time the permanent personnel arrived on 1 November 1942, #9 CMU and Marwell had work well underway on the 12 buildings on the Camp site. The layout was fairly standard for a radio unit with four quarters (one for each shift), Ablutions, Recreation, Mess and Kitchen, Hospital, Administration, Oil Storage and garage. By the first of December, the sewerage system was being installed, hydro poles were being put up, and the road was within half a mile of the Ops site. The temporary generator was hooked up shortly afterwards and provided power to the camp. At the end of January 1943, a good portion of the pole line was complete as well as the road. Work was advanced on the fresh water system and by early April, #9 CMU had started moving out with most of the construction being finished. The last of the #9 CMU and Marwell men left on 13 April.
#9 CMU had established a work camp at the Ops Site and by early December 1942, most of the blasting had been done on the sites of the operations building and power house. By mid-December, most of the preparatory work for the concrete foundations of the operations building, power house and gantry were done and the temporary camp site at the Ops Site was shut down and men commuted from the Camp Site via truck. Unfortunately, there was a moderate snow fall (18”) near the end of December that shut down the road until it could be shoveled by hand. The plank road was finished by the end of January and the Ops and Powerhouse buildings were in the finishing stages, as was the power line from the Ops site to the Camp site. Finally, on 3 March the large secret radar equipment, that had been in storage at the Camp Site, was moved to the Ops Site along with the guards. By the start of April, #2 Maintenance Unit (#2MU) was starting installation of the radar equipment, which they finished by 6 May 1943 and the radar went on the air. It was functional on 1 June and actual operations started at 2055 on 11 June 1943. It had taken slightly less than a year to get #9 RU from bush to an operational radar unit. Improvements were continually being implemented. There were numerous problems with some of the antennae interfering with each other or the radar. A new DF was set up in early February 1944 and the communications site was remoted to a site near the Camp Site. Eventually most of the antennae sites were moved to the Camp Site area.
The 3.5 km road required constant maintenance due to the terrain it crossed and the amount of use it got. Whenever there were enough spare station members available, they did minor maintenance and #9 CMU came in for scheduled maintenance on a regular basis. Transportation was by truck unless it was broken down or there was too much snow or ice on the road, and then the personnel walked to and from work. Ongoing maintenance didn’t stop at the road. The station maintained a high standard of cleanliness and the grounds were drained, cleared, levelled and then kept neat, as were the buildings. This was appealing to the personnel that lived there. Then even the hydrants were painted, a flag pole was put up and street lights were installed to make the Station as pleasant as could be expected during wartime in the sticks. Gardens were planted, but the fawns and their mothers became so tame that they frequently came right into camp and made a clean sweep of the plants.
This can-do attitude carried over into the entertainment. On 1 April 1944, a new CO reported that “there are many recreational activities on the station. Two shows a week, tournaments of various kinds, station paper (The Spider Web), smokers, etc. An Entertainment Committee takes care of these matters. There is, however, a need for outdoor sports and plans are under way to construct a volleyball and badminton court. To sum up, the whole station is running well and morale is high”. It didn’t take long to get the volleyball and badminton courts built and tournaments going. Because of their great transportation network, there were many visiting entertainment groups and shows that visited the station and the men went to Bella Bella for dances or brought the ladies from Ocean Falls to Spider Island for dances held in the Mess Hall. They must have been well organized and fun, as 20-30 girls at a time came on 45 mile each way boat trip every few months. It was a great morale builder.
Life was good but change was in the air with the announcement of V-E Day on 7 May 1945. All the off-duty personnel gathered in the PT building and celebrated. Musters out of the services were allowed to increase and manning levels were dropping.
On 6 August 1945, the operational order arrived stating that, effective 0900 hours that day, the Station was to cease operations but the M/F Beacon and W/T were to remain operational. The next day, the dismantling of the Radar Equipment and preparing it for shipment commenced and, by 10 August, #9 Radio Unit Spider Island was officially disbanded.
This was not the end of the station. After the disbandment, a four man detachment remained on the island and, using the MF beacon and the radio facilities, maintained a 24/7 radio signal that U.S. aircraft used to fly between California and Alaska. Their duties were to be radio operators, manage supplies and send weather reports by radio to Port Hardy several times a day. They used the Camp Site facilities and had a tour length of nine months. This lasted until 1947 when advances in navigation and improvement in aircraft range made this detachment obsolete and it was closed.
The dedication of the plaque for Spider Island should take place in 2018.