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Yorke Island and the Uncertain War: Defending Canada’s Western Coast during WWII

By Catherine Marie Gilbert

Review By Peter Moogk

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 182 Summer 2014  | p. 233-234

The Second World War is fading from living memory, and military veterans of that conflict are now rare. Their average age is 87. Given this situation, the author and Danny Brown, a Campbell River Museum volunteer, deserve praise for obtaining contemporary letters and for interviewing those people who had a connection with the 500-man garrison on Yorke Island. Coastal guns on this island at the junction of Sunderland Channel with Johnstone Strait guarded the north end of the Inside Passage against Japanese surface raiders. The cover’s claim that “from 1937-1945 this was Canada’s key western defence against Japanese attack [by sea]” overstates the island’s role. The gun batteries of Victoria-Esquimalt and Port Angeles deserve that honour. I also doubt that it was effective as “a lookout post for possible Japanese aircraft heading for Vancouver” (2). That would be a circuitous route.

The foreword exaggerates the originality of this book. In the early 1970s, R. Victor Stevenson began researching the island’s military history and contributed a chapter about Yorke Island’s wartime role to his and my book Vancouver Defended: A History of the Men and Guns of the Lower Mainland Defences, 1859-1949 (1978). Since then, the island, with its decayed brick and concrete buildings and gun emplacements, has attracted the attention of local historians. It is now an attraction for waterborne tourists.

The strength of this book is its account of living conditions on the island and its stories about the relationships that developed between the servicemen and civilians in this once-remote area. The book is generously illustrated with amateur snapshots and official photographs from the war years. The narrative is anecdotal and sometimes digresses into extraneous details. The use of sources is uncritical. Quotations from secondary and primary sources sometimes appear in the text without identification of the author or context. Conflicting opinions on the volume and quality of food served to the garrison or about the experience of being stationed on the island are left unresolved. All evidence is not of equal value and it can be appraised for veracity. A personal letter from the period carries more weight than later hearsay. In this book, first-hand memories from a few veterans, such as Sgt. Bernie Smith, Justice John Layton, and John Rorison, are supplemented by second-hand recollections from the children and even from a grandchild (39-40) of those who knew the fortified island. Some eyewitness informants were teenagers or small children during the war.

A proof-reader familiar with the Canadian army and navy could have prevented several blunders: the Canadian Scottish Regiment is called the “Royal Canadian Scottish,” the RCASC is identified as the “Army Service Corp,” HMCS is rendered as “His Majesty’s Canadian Service,” and there are “navel guns” (47). The 15th (Vancouver) Coast Brigade/Regiment, whose men manned the island’s guns and searchlights, is given various names. An officer in a naval uniform is identified as army Major J.E. Piercey (39). Canadian artillery buglers played “Retreat at Sunset” and not the American “Taps” (55).

Despite these shortcomings, the book is an attractive evocation of the war years in the area of Johnstone Strait and it contains some fascinating details, such as how servicemen evaded military censorship by giving their letters “to somebody going to town on leave” to be posted on Vancouver Island or in Vancouver (58).

Yorke Island and the Uncertain War: Defending Canada’s Western Coast during WWII
Catherine Marie Gilbert.
Campbell River: Ptarmigan Press, 2012. 72 pp., illustrated. $24.95 paper.