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A SUMMER IN BELLA BELLA

1944 ©
 

by

Charlotte Williamson


Charlotte offers a delightful adventure of she and her children following husband Nick, a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force during WWII, to a sea plane base "Bella Bella"  positioned on a small island off the rugged coast of British Columbia.  We also added a few photos of the RCAF presence during
WW2.

 

It all started in the spring. My husband, Nick, was posted to the R.C.A.F. station at Bella Bella, about 400 miles north of Vancouver, on the British Columbia coast.  There were two Bella Bellas, really, on different islands.  The first was a commercial one, with the Imperial Oil dock where the steamships called in, and the B.C. Packers’ store.  The other one was the site of the native village and the hospital.  The R.C.A.F. station was on the former, several miles from the store. 

 

Off Nick went in April and I was alone with my little boys, Peter (7), Paul (4), and the baby Neil.  He wrote home shortly and said that the North was beautiful, and, as quite a number of the men had moved their families up there, he was going to look for a “shack” for us.  It was not likely he'd find one, as most "shacks" were taken.

 

Meanwhile, little Neil came down with whooping cough, and was a pretty sick little fellow.  It lasted several weeks.  This, in spite of the fact that all three boys were inoculated. Luckily his crib was in my room, so at night when he
                                    Bella Bella Area Today                    got into trouble, I could be there to pick him up and see that he expelled the ugly phlegm.  As Neil recovered, I noticed that a small lump that was attached to his right nasal bone, below his eye, was bigger than in the past.  Back to the Doctor.  She agreed that it was growing, so we were sent to a specialist in Vancouver.  He examined it and x-rayed, and decided the lump should be removed

.

At this very time, Nick wrote to say he’d found a “shack”!  Oh dear, I was in a turmoil to say the least.  Dr. Alan Anthony got a date for surgery in early June.


I found renters for the house.  Thirty-five dollars a month, furnished!  Then I had to decide what to take with us in the way of clothing, bedding, dishes, etc.  Quite a chore.

 

The operation at Saint Paul's Hospital went well, and the Doctor came and sat with me when it was over, explaining the size and such.  Neil recovered well, but his sunny disposition got up and went!  When I visited him in the hospital - through a glass window - he'd cry, and I'd cry, and after two days of this, they asked me not to come until he was discharged, as crying was bad for the incision.  I did as I was asked, and on the day he was discharged, his brothers and I journeyed by ferryboat and streetcar to get him.  Quite a trip, and he was not at all pleased to see us.  The nurses had him all dressed and they raved about how sweet he was.  Well, he didn't even want to come to us, scowled at us, and kicked out with his little white boots.  He had no choice, however, and we trundled off to the streetcar.  He sat on my knee quietly, watching all three of us and nary a smile.  I then decided it was because I'd not visited him the last few days and he felt abandoned.  As time went on, he settled down and accepted us with all of our faults.

 

The older boys were ecstatic at the possibility of moving to a place that could only be reached by ship.  Nick phoned to say the "shack" had been a bunkhouse during the construction of the station, and a local man, Knut Ostrom, had bought it for a song and floated it to the beach by his property at Swede Bay.  Nick went over to Ocean Falls in the crash boat and bought lumber, a sink, a window, and the like, and would have it all refurbished on our arrival.

 


 

 

 

 

L-R   Paul, Peter and Nick at Bella Bella


           

I was very busy getting our house ready for our departure, packing, as well as getting stuff to ship North - table and chairs, a fold out cot for our bedroom,  Congoleum (linoleum) square, broom, dust pan, and a  round galvanized tub for baths!   Thank heaven for my mother, who baby-sat for me while I rushed around getting things taken care of.
 

Mother saw us off at the Union Steamship terminal, myself and my three boys, complete with Neil's brand new stroller, which we’d need up North.  The older boys were in heaven.  I don't know if we were on the Cardena or the Catella, but to them it was the Queen Mary, and we spent hours out on the deck.

 

Knut Ostrom's oldest child, Mary (17), was on board with her cousin Greta Ostrom (17) (also a neighbour), and Mary introduced herself to me.  They were returning from their first trip to Vancouver and did not like it at all.  I don't think they knew where to go, and were in a hotel close to the docks and didn't venture far uptown - poor girls.

 

 

 

 

          Nick & Charlotte - Bella Bella


We were met at Bella Bella by Mary's dad Knut, and he had us all aboard his boat quickly.  Off to Swede Bay we went.  Just a few minutes and we were there, and Knut said, "there's your house".  When I first saw the tarpaper covered shack, I was taken aback to say the least. But once I got inside it seemed better.  Before anything, Knut insisted that we go up for coffee as his wife was expecting us.  It was a nice welcome.  Mia had milk and cookies for the boys.  Their first taste of powdered milk.  I enjoyed sitting in their big kitchen, Neil on my knee, not smiling, just taking everything in and no doubt puzzled.

 

Royal Canadian Air Force at Bella Bella - World War 2
(Defending Canada's Pacific Coast)

 

 

RCAF Hangar at Bella Bella - WW2


                                                                                        RCAF Squadron 9 'Stranraer'
 

Dad arrived shortly and hustled us off to the "shack".  The small 20' X 24' building made of plywood was positioned on cedar pilings right on the beach.  At high tide the water was right beneath us.  Sometimes a piece of driftwood would get caught beneath pilings and clunk back and forth.  Nick had made it into three rooms.  One room, 12' x 20', was the kitchen/living room.  Two others, each 12' x 10', made for bedrooms.  He got a set of bunks from the station and built them in for Peter and Paul, and Neil's crib fitted in the same room.  We had the double bed, pull out couch, a chest of drawers, and a closet in ours.

 

No running water!  We had a sink in a corner of the kitchen and it drained directly on to the beach.  Each morning, Nick would take the Ostrom Boys’ red wagon, fill three huge tins with water, and pull them home for me.  I had to heat water on a ship's stove, but all the wives were in a similar situation, with a few exceptions, and it seemed like a lark.  It was back to a scrub board, but fortunately, clothes did not get terribly dirty there.  The beach was clean, and there was no real dirt, so it saved my knuckles.

 

Nick rigged up a cooler under the house.  It was one of the large tins he got from the cooks at the station.  About as tall as the average garbage can, and half the diameter, it had contained KLIM, a powdered whole milk.  He placed it firmly under the shack at the point most distant from the high tide.  It was sunk about 8" in sand and then banked with rocks.  Then, about 1/2" from the top of it, he drilled a hole and put a thin rope through it and tied it to a post.  Voila, a cooler!  I kept butter, eggs and fresh milk when we had it, all nice and cool.  I was quite the envy of Swede Bay!  Of course, if it was a really high tide and I needed to get to the cooler I had to go in bare feet with my skirt hiked up.

 

Bella Bella on Denny Island had no roads other than those at the air base.  The planes on the base were amphibious Cansos and Catalinas.  We would hear them as they took off on early morning patrols over the Pacific.  I heard they took pot shots at whales out of boredom, but that was never verified.  There was a compliment of 400 men when I went there, and about 60 wives.


In the early days of the war the airmen had constructed a really splendid boardwalk all the way from the base to the main dock.  This is what we travelled when shopping, etc.  The forest was magnificent.  Even the skunk cabbages were a sight to behold, so tall and graceful.  I never tired of the scenery.

 

Sometimes, for an outing, we'd put Neil in his stroller and the whole family would walk to the dock and see a ship come from Vancouver on Thursday at 6pm.  We'd stand and stare at the travellers, mostly military folk, and Nick would go aboard and buy a newspaper, and we'd catch up on the stale news.  There was no electricity, other than down at the dock, and at the air station.  Oil lamps, and flat irons that were heated on the stove were very important.

 

It was wonderful to see on occasion a pod of whales out in the narrows between us and the native village, seeming to have a wonderful time, diving and calling.  Certainly, our first experience in seeing them in a natural setting.

One neighbour, a fisherman, used to bring us a salmon, about 4 lbs.  I offered to pay him and he said, "no, they are only paying 10 cents a fish at Namu, so it's not much of a gift."  We loved it and felt lucky.


We made many new acquaintances; men were stationed there from all over Canada, and even a high school mate from West Vancouver, Ernie Harrison.  A young corporal from Newfoundland used to visit us, and on occasion he slept overnight when we went to some big "do" in the Sergeant’s Mess.  He slept on our couch and when we got up in the morning he'd be long gone, walking the boardwalk back to the station.  They showed movies once a week in the gym at the station – a very old projector and the reels had to the changed.  Sometimes I’d go along with neighbours, and I'd take Peter.  Dad would baby-sit.  Paul was too young for the long walk home at then end of the evening.  Oh, it was dark through the forest.  We all had flashlights of course and we laughed and sang all the way home to keep four legged critters at bay.  Nelson and Lois Berguin, who lived about 200 yards from us along the beach with their wee baby boy, became lifelong friends and we've always kept contact.  They live in Alberta.

 

It was a nice summer and our children thrived in this new lifestyle.

 


Bella Bella B.C. ca 2000

However, we were not without problems.  On the Sunday before Labour Day - a pretty day - the two boys were playing on the beach as usual.  They always invented a new game each day and the neighbours marvelled at their ability.  I was ironing and getting Peter's school clothes all ship shape.  Neil was sitting on the top bunk where he loved to be with his toys and he could see out the window and watch the gulls.  I had my ironing board placed so I was facing him.  All very peaceful when suddenly, I heard Paul shriek, "Mummy!"  I dashed to the door and he said "Peter" and pointed out to the float.  I saw nothing and suddenly a tuft of yellow hair appeared on the surface and arms flailing.  I ran the 50 feet or so in a panic to where I thought he was.  Up he came as I got close, but he sank quickly.  I lay on my stomach and hooked my feet on the far side of the float and reached out as far as I could and when he surfaced again I pulled him to me and dragged him on to the float.  I put him on to his stomach and pumped his back and water spewed out of him.  He was conscious and lay there totally spent, and at first kept saying, "mummy, mummy, mummy."  I assured him he was safe. A neighbour came running, Margit Ostrom. "What can I do?" she asked.  "My baby,” I answered,  “please get him off the top bunk."  She ran quickly, and found Neil sitting placidly with his little cars, oblivious to the emergency.  Peter was put to bed and later he told us why he was out on the float (forbidden territory).  His dad had a log tied up that he was going to haul ashore the next day to be sawed up for fuel.  Peter seemed to think that it was drifting away, and ran out to rescue it.  When he pulled with all his might, the rope broke and he was sent flying backwards into the sea.  What a scare!  If it hadn't been for Paul's scream, I could have been too late.

 

By the first day of school, Peter was fine, and so happy to be in Grade 2.  The one-room school was maybe 1/2 block along the boardwalk from us.  Paul was lost without his brother, so I let him go along at recess time and he'd play on the school ground with the children.  The teacher decided to let him stay after morning recess and sit in Grade 1 - but it didn't work out because he was unable to sit quietly when required.  He had his 4th birthday on September 15th, and we had a small tea party for him.  He loved to watch Knut out puttering on his boat, and Knut said he enjoyed his company.  He was a nice fellow.

 

By late September, postings started to come in and the numbers went down fairly quickly, and we all were resigned to the fact that we'd soon be gone.  There was a huge party at the station, great fun and everybody agreeing that we'd all keep in touch - which, of course, didn't happen - with the exception of the Bergums.

 

Nick was told he'd be finished late October and he was posted to Sea Island.
 

About October 15, one Sunday afternoon, the boys were out on the beach.  They were jumping off a big log.  Peter jumped too hard and put his left hand down to break his fall - and fractured his arm!  Over to the hospital in the village to get x-rays done and back to the station we went, with the x-rays and the doctor, Squadron Leader Arthur,  put the arm in a cast, and signed it, as did several airmen.  Peter felt very important.

 

When we got our moving date, I put a "For Sale - Furniture" notice at the store, and they came in droves!  It was the end of the fishing season and money was plentiful.  I sold almost everything to Johnny Starr, a young native who was getting married, and all was picked up and sailed over to the village the day we left.

 

Bella Bella B.C. - Another View

 

There was one more exasperating but comical incident, just a few days before departure.

 

There was a clinker built rowboat tied up at the float close to the house.  It was tied with a rope about 50 feet long and Peter, Mary Ostrom and Paul used to sit in it (no life jackets!) when the tide was high enough for the boat to float.  Peter would row out as far as the rope allowed, outside the boom sticks, and then row back to the float.  Soon Paul wanted his turn, and managed well.  On this cooler morning, I was sitting on the edge of the boardwalk with Neil, and Paul saw that the boat was floating and wanted to row.  "O.K.," I said and walked along the float to see that he was seated properly.  Away he went.  Somehow, in his back and forthing, the rope came untied from the float and he was horror struck.  I told him just to row back as he'd been doing all along and I would grab the boat and tie it up.  No way!  Suddenly, he couldn't row at all, and sat there crying.  My only option was to kick off my shoes and wade out, housedress pulled up around my waist, into the icy Pacific.  I convinced him to pull all the rope into the boat and toss it to me.  He did, and I grabbed the end and put it over my shoulder and pulled him in.  All this time Neil was sitting on the beach, rather puzzled about the activity.  Just as all this was going on, down the boardwalk came the Station Adjutant and two headquarters brass from Ottawa, with red braid or bands on their caps.  They all laughed at my plight as I quickly tried to drop my skirt.  "Good morning, Mrs. Williamson, I trust the water is pretty cold."  My feet and legs were BLUE and I acknowledged that it surely was, and told them I really didn't do this every day.  The brass were there to oversee the closing of the station.  I finally got the boat tied up and got Paul out of it and we decided it was his last turn at rowing.

 

Our trip back to Vancouver was a good one.  With Dad along I had some help.  The two big boys had lovely new pullovers that Curt Butterfield had just got in at the store, and Neil was in Mummy knitted finery.  People on the boat said how handsome all three were - I agreed!

 

We were back in West Vancouver for Halloween.  We had to stay for two weeks with my parents, before we could get back in our house.  Poor mother!  It was good to be home.

 

An insight into the RCAF at Bella Bella Area during WW2

 
Shearwater and the RCAF:
Accessible by scheduled airlines, Shearwater is a resort based sport fishing operation and marine center, with its own 45 foot charter yacht, the Pacific Lure. It is operated year round by Craig Widsten, son of the founder, a former airman. Located on Denny Island, near Bella Bella, the Shearwater community is a slice of air force history, once home to the Stranraer Flying Boat, Canada's famous sub-chaser of the North Pacific. The 1,000 man base was complete with amphibious aircraft, hangars, air raid shelters, bomb storage and mess halls. An original hangar still stands; now aluminum clad, it serves as a boat building and repair center.

Remnants of the "Santa Bella Trail" a boardwalk structure built by airmen during off duty hours, also remain.

 

Midi Tune playing  is  "A Kiss to Build A Dream On"