After so much history, only tales of war left

Tales of war are always a hit with visitors to Prince Rupert.

Tales of war are always a hit with visitors to Prince Rupert.

A year after Major B.D.C. Treatt of the British Army arrived in Canada to review coastal defences in October 1936, the Canadian government began building the seven coastal batteries of Prince Rupert harbour.

The Canadian government was ready – had already been waging war for over two years – when the Americans were surprised and unready after Pearl Harbor. By the spring of 1942 the RCAF had stationed 115 (Fighter) Squadron at Annette Island (New Metlakatla) – Canadians defending US territory – and the US made Prince Rupert a Sub-Port of Seattle. Alaska was at first supplied through Prince Rupert, and everything grew even more frenetic in June 1943 when the Japanese attacked Dutch Harbour and then occupied Siska and Attu.

Acropolis Hill became Roosevelt Park as a massive US military presence in Prince Rupert created “Little America.” Protected by North America’s only armoured train, running between Rupert and Terrace, munitions funneled into the Pacific theatre of the war via Watson Island.

The city’s population grew to four times its prewar size. The Aleutian Islands campaign was waged just beyond the horizon. There were unconfirmed reports of a Japanese spy plane spotted over Seal Cove. City Hall was a Federal Building with sentries, there were antiaircraft guns on the roof of the Cold Storage, and the Sunken Garden was a heavily guarded munitions dump. One CKPR radio announcer said he couldn’t go on-air without heavy army trucks rumbling past the studio, and another fellow told me that he and his buddies once went the entire length of Second Avenue jumping from truck to truck without touching the ground.

The Drydock pumped out four minesweepers and 15 cargo ships – including the minesweeper HMCS Clayoquot, launched in 1941 and torpedoed and sunk by U-806 near Halifax in December 1944. The 7,130-ton North Sands ship Fort Stikine, carrying munitions when it all but obliterated the Bombay waterfront in the great Bombay Explosion of April 1944, was built here in 1942.

Visitors find these stories fascinating. Travel writers pepper us with questions about the war years. They ask questions going back to the Great War. In 1914 Prince Rupert was a boomtown of newcomers. Here one can clearly see how the bloodbath of Vimy Ridge forged immigrants seeking opportunity into Canadians seeking nationhood. Those newcomers who returned built Section Two with help from the Soldier’s Settlement Board, and founded the enduring families of Prince Rupert.

Yet it seems as if our visitors are more interested in Prince Rupert’s wartime history than we are ourselves. Sure, a cenotaph stands before the Court House, though it’s mostly forgotten 364 days of the year. The US Corps of Engineers cairn stands at Roosevelt Park, though I’d hazard a guess that most in Prince Rupert have no idea what it represents. The wartime buildings are transformed through time. Others, such as the Legion building or the Elizabeth Apartments, age and fall. The coastal defence batteries – described to me by Parks Canada as the best preserved in the country, and national treasures – lie overgrown in the forest at Barrett Point and ignored by all except those who would see them razed to make way for new development.

These could each be opportunities. Opportunities to tap into an existing market, a ready audience – particularly among fellow Canadians, and American cruise ship passengers, who hunger to touch the Second World War memories of their parents’ generation. Opportunities to celebrate a proud heritage, the only time in history when Prince Rupert’s port truly played on a world stage. But time passes, interest surges just once a year on November 11, and soon we will be left with nothing but the tales that we spin to amuse the visitors.

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