Cape Scott site of early warning radar base

Columnist Brenda McCorquodale on the history of Cape Scott

Cape Scott is located on the north-western tip of Vancouver Island.  In the 1700s it was home to the Nakomgilisala Tribes, and in the 1800s the First Nations people in the area were collectively known as the Nahwitti, their populations much decimated by war and disease.

When most people think about Cape Scott, their minds will turn either to the present day park or the early Danish settlers who took pre-emptions in the area in the late 1800s/early 1900s.

The Cape is of interest for other reasons of historical significance, one of which is the fact that it was home to a radar base (then known as a Radio Unit) in the 1940s.

During World War II there was a great deal of anxiety about a possible Japanese attack or invasion on Vancouver Island.  In July 1942 the Canadian military started construction on a base at the head of Cape Scott which was to serve as an early warning radar base looking for Japanese aircraft.  The station became operational on February 5,1943.

Military crews were sent to Port Hardy by steamship and then boarded a smaller vessel, usually the Combat (30 ft.), the Sekani (locally referred to as the ‘Sick Annie’, or the Haida, to travel around the north part of the Island.  These ships would anchor off-shore of Cape Scott and a skiff would be used to transport people and material onto the beach.  In bad weather the dory crew would wear wetsuits for the launch.  It wasn’t unusual for the skiff to tip over and for the passengers, mail, etc. to end up in the water.  Supplies were usually brought to shore by a barge which was hooked up to a tractor which would pull it in to the beach.  At times supplies and various pieces of military equipment were swept out to sea as the crew attempted to unload them in stormy weather.

The No. 10 Radio Unit at Cape Scott worked in cooperation with other units at Ferrier Point to the south, and Cape St. James and Spider Island to the North to provide continuous protection of Canada’s coast.  The radar unit was located at Cape Scott proper, near the current lighthouse, and the crew barracks were two miles inland, just inside the peninsula.  They were connected by a wooden plank road.

The base was considered top secret.  The crew building the base used trees in the area to string their antennas.  The station included six crew barracks, sick bay, canteen (which doubled as a movie theatre), mess hall, the operations centre, washrooms, and a series of plank roads.  About 50 men were stationed at the base.  Each shift would have a separate barracks, so as not to disturb each other when some were working the night shift.

There were limited recreational opportunities in the camp.  At times the crew would walk the old corduroy road toward Holberg to attend dances.

The military sent in movies regularly, and they arrived with the mail. At times, when the supply ship couldn’t make it to shore, there was no new movie.  This was very distressing to the men who really looked forward to their movie nights and didn’t like having to watch the same movie multiple times!

For recreation, the men tried swimming (too cold) and played ping pong. They cleared a volleyball court and would split into teams and have tournaments.  The group also set up a softball diamond. If the weather was good sometimes a team from the Port Hardy air force base would come and challenge the Cape Scott crew to a game.

The No. 10 Radio Unit was notoriously difficult to get to due to the weather and seas.  Many soldiers arrived without a lot of experience on the coast and wondered what they had gotten themselves into!

At times, when ships couldn’t get access the base, the military would use planes and would drop supplies in by parachute.

Crews on the station were mainly responsible for watching the radar for possible enemy invasions.  They didn’t see a lot of action, although on more than one occasion a flock of geese was mistaken for a convoy of enemy Japanese planes.  They both flew in a similar formation!

One airman stationed at the beach said the crew were all surprised one day when a cow was delivered up along with the normal rations.  No one at the base knew how to take care of the cow.  Then, one day the cow had a calf and certainly no one knew how to look after a calf, so the station’s cook decided to make veal.  Unfortunately the cow was so distressed that she ran away and the crew were unable to find her.

In January of 1944 one diary from the site noted that it had rained so hard that the plank road was floating in places.

The air men had to be quite self-sufficient, cutting word for the boilers and cleaning their own clothes. The men also wrote a regular camp bulletin for their amusement called “The Isolationist.”

The base was eventually decommissioned, after the surrender of Japan, on September 19, 1945.

 

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