Cortes Island Museum sponsored pictorial presentation by Vancouver Island historian, Catherine Gilbert, on Thursday, October 19 at Manson’s Hall. Catherine talked about protecting the southern coast of B.C. and the significance of a substantial defence fort on Yorke Island (part of Discovery Islands) in Canada’s WWII history.
Many Canadians, including British Columbians have never heard of Yorke Island, and are unaware that a substantial defence fort was built there in the late 1930s. With the use of archival photos and artwork from private and museum collections, Vancouver Island historian Catherine Gilbert delivered a pictorial presentation answering the question about where Yorke Island is, why its location was considered to be strategic in the 1930s and why it was significant to Canada’s World War II efforts.
Catherine told the story of Yorke Island during the war years and revealed why Yorke Island, a tiny, seemingly insignificant island, was chosen as a site for a fort. Much of her research was derived from personal interviews with veterans who served at the fort during the war years, and interviews with local residents from Kelsey Bay and Hardwicke Island who remember what it was like when hundreds of men descended on their communities to take part in the building and manning of the fort.
Building at Yorke Island began as early as 1937 (two years before Canada joined in the European war) and construction on the island continued right up till August of 1945, when the war with Japan was over.
Defending Canada’s western coast was a combined effort of the army, navy and air force. Many maritime vessels belonging to all three forces were going to and from the island during the war years: delivering goods and troops, performing examination duties and patrolling local waters on the lookout for Japanese submarines. A large number of these vessels were part of the Gumboot Navy or Fisherman’s Reserve. At a small air base at Kelsey Bay on Vancouver Island, the nearest community, efforts were being made to improve communications to Yorke Island.
Many soldiers and sailors posted to Yorke Island felt isolated and found it difficult to be marooned in this small place that earned the nickname “Little Alcatraz.” As the war progressed however, it was recognized that they needed recreation and were allowed to mix more often with the local population. Military personnel would visit Kelsey Bay and nearby Hardwicke Island, as well as other neighbouring islands, and could invite local residents to the entertainment that was brought in to Yorke Island expressly for their benefit.
In Catherine’s presentation there were humorous as well as tragic stories, and even some romance. It provided a glimpse into life on the British Columbia coast during World War II as seen through the eyes of the people who lived it.
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