Historic Walking Tour
Ucluelet's Seaplane Base
Defending Canada's Coast
During the Second World War Ucluelet was home to a Royal Canadian Air Force seaplane base. It was one of a network of air bases and radar stations that was British Columbia's first line of defence against Japanese military incursions. Protecting Canada's long, treacherous, and sparsely populated west coast was an immense challenge, and the flexibility of seaplanes, being able to take off and land without air strips, made them ideal tools for this task. After the war the base was abandoned, and little remains of it today. Much of the former grounds have been reclaimed by the forest. While this area is mostly quiet today, the photos in this tour can help reconjure the hive of activity that was once here.
This project is a partnership with Discover Ucluelet. We also owe thanks to the generous support of the Ucluelet and Area Historical Society.
1. The Pacific Theatre
The attack on Pearl Harbor was only the first blow in a series of attacks that spanned the Pacific; it was a campaign that was historically unprecedented in its breathtaking speed and geographic span. The American possessions of Guam and the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia), and the British colonies of Malaya (Malaysia), Singapore, Burma (Myanmar), and Hong Kong all fell to the Japanese in a matter of weeks. At Hong Kong, two Canadian battalions from Winnipeg and Quebec City, fought bravely until they were wiped out. Japanese aircraft carrier groups bombed Australia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and a few weeks later they captured the Alaskan Islands of Attu and Kiska--targets separated by over 10,000 kilometres. British Columbians watched in horror as Japanese forces ranged across the Pacific with impunity. Japan's campaign sent shockwaves of fear through the West Coast. Those in coastal communities feared attack, and their anxieties soon manifested themselves as suspicion towards their Japanese-Canadian neighbors. One of them, Johnny Madokoro from Tofino, remembered the tension: "It never entered my head that it would be real trouble for us, because we were all naturalized Canadians. But I guess there was anti-Japanese feelings building up right from the day the first immigrants came. It was building up, building up and bang!"xx1 Anti-Japanese sentiment and hysteria over homegrown spies culminated in one of Canada's darkest legacies: the internment of thousands of Japanese-Canadians in interior BC. Ucluelet's Japanese community, numbering around 200, was not spared this indignity and they were given only a day to prepare before being forcibly evacuated to British Columbia's interior for the duration of the war. The experience of Ucluelet's Japanese-Canadians is covered in more detail in the People of the Safe Harbour tour.
2. Defending the West Coast
Setting up defenses along the coast of BC was no easy task - the coastline the province is longer than that of most nations. Considering the limited infrastructure on BC's coast and the region's complex topography, planes--even outdated ones--that could make aquatic landings were the best possible resources. Most of Canada's military resources were already committed to the Atlantic coast and the war in Europe, and by 1939 all that the newly formed Western Air Command could cobble together for the Ucluelet base were two Shark floatplanes and two Stranraer flying boats, like the one you saw in the last photo. Both of these aircraft types were already obsolete. If the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) found the planes disappointing upon their arrival in Ucluelet in July 1940, it was nothing compared to seeing the state of the base. One of the air crew wrote: "They found nothing complete: the hangars, barrack blocks, storm sewers, wireless masts and workshops all needed a great deal of work. Stumps littered the area, and slash fires spread a haze of smoke over the base. Many personnel camped in tents, and those allocated to the unfinished barracks crammed into every available corner. The water reservoir had dried up that summer, and at high tide it filled with salt water."xx1 Despite a rocky start, by the time the Japanese were ready to launch their sweeping offensive, the Ucluelet base was fully functioning and manned by around 400 personnel.xx2
3. Taking Flight
While these types of planes were well-suited to patrolling the Pacific coast, the models that WAC acquired were painfully outdated. Years later, Legion Magazine wryly commented on the sorry state of aircraft on the home front, "For the first three years of its existence, Western Air Command was a formation where old aircraft types went to die."xx2 If the ancient planes and the half-finished base failed to dim the enthusiasm of servicemen stationed in Ucluelet, then the tedium of the assignment was quick to do so. Conducting patrols across the Pacific to search for enemy vessels was their biggest task, and it was rare that these missions spotted much of anything. The most exciting part of patrolling the coast was the temperamental weather and often dreadful conditions, which could very quickly turn excitement into panic.
4. Life on the Base
While aerial warfare was developed in the First World War, it dominated WWII. It was highly effective, but also exceedingly dangerous for the young, often undertrained men who piloted the planes. BC's coast swallowed more than one plane during training exercises and patrols. Some crashed with tragic consequences and others simply vanished, never to be heard from again. While the planes themselves sometimes ran into mechanical trouble, the largest foe was the weather. In a single week in 1945, particularly bad weather frustrated those trying to run patrols. The No. 4 Squadron in Tofino attempted 14 patrols, with four cut short, while the No.8 Squadron only completed six of the 12 they attempted.xx1 While airmen and the ground crew did their best to navigate poor weather and keep obsolete planes in the air, accidents did happen. On New Year's Eve in 1941, the British Colonist reported that four men died and another four were injured when a flying boat crashed in the forest near Ucluelet. During an interview, Michael Mead-Miller recalls an incident told to him by his parents in which a plane was lost in a massive explosion in the Ucluelet Harbour after a hard water landing detonated the plane's depth charges. Seven of the crew died in the explosion, and witnesses recall the blood-curdling screams of the single survivor, who suffered massive injuries upon being thrown from the plane. However, the most famous crash in the area is the wreck of Canso 11007, which belly-flopped on a slope near Radar Hill after the left engine failed during a routine training flight. Luckily, all 12 of the crewmen survived and were rescued shortly after. These crashes, and others in the area highlight the dangers that the young men of the Ucluelet Airbase faced every time they took to the air. The wreckage of Canso 11007 remains at the crash site and is now a popular destination for hundreds of hikers every year. While the site can be reached, Parks Canada discourages the practice since there isn't an official route and the swampy area can be confusing for intrepid visitors.
5. Closing the Base
Eric Stofer, a member of the ground crew at the Ucluelet base, writes in his memoir of his daily life on the base. Most of his recollections show a deep camaraderie with his fellow airmen and the majority of the discussions he recorded consistently revolve around two topics: planes and girls. The men discussed the women in their lives, who they were sleeping with, or planned to marry, and who provided a risque diversion on a much welcomed period of leave. On the base, the men ate together, slept in barracks, joked, gossiped and complained to each other about their peers and superior offices. In order to keep the mens' skills sharp, and more importantly to keep them occupied, the SO's frequently ran the men through drills, obstacle courses and training exercises, performed thorough inspections of the men's uniforms and hygiene, and assigned what Stofer called "joe-jobs," unnecessary tasks meant to keep the men busy.xx2 As hard as the men worked, they played even harder. During periods of leave, servicemen sometimes attended dances in town and attempted to woo local girls. Stofer reports one particularly rowdy New Years Eve in the base canteen, "Jammed with such roisterers, who rollicked about, or sat at cluttered beer-slopped tables, the crowded canteen became bedlam. In air heavy with the stench of tobacco, our voices competing with the blaring juke-box, we drank, reminisced, bitched, argued, praised one another, laughed, punched shoulders, slapped backs, and shook hands in lively good-fellowship. Finally, in drunken unison, slightly out of tune, armed entwined all round, all sang, 'Auld Lang Syne." Buddies forever."xx3 After the base became inactive, and the war ended, the brave boisterous young men departed for home and the town quieted. While some returned to homes across the country and to families, wives, and girlfriends, some returned to Ucluelet to marry the girls they had met during their time at the base. Now, in the Ucluelet Campground, two large bunkers remain as a testament to this perilous time when Vancouver Island's west coast was the last frontier of the Pacific home front.