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The Link Between the NAHANNI and the RCAF Station in Ucluelet, BC in 1940

Updated: Sep 19, 2019

Researched by Lawrence Charnell, owner of the NAHANNI and Kenn Whiteman, President of the Port Alberni Maritime Heritage Society in 2018

Imagine if you will that you have been transported back in time to 1941. Imagine as well that your mode of travel to Ucluelet on Vancouver Island consisted of a ferry ride from Vancouver to Nanaimo, a bus to Port Alberni and finally a five hour journey by steamer down the Alberni Canal. Roads that could have connected Ucluelet with the outside world where non-existent. Imagine as well, what might have gone through your mind when you heard radio reports on December 7, 1941 that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour. On that same evening all RCAF units on the West Coast where notified that a state of war existed between Canada and Japan. As well, all Japanese owned fishing vessels were seized by the Canadian Government as well as the removal of all telephones in use by Japanese residents in Ucluelet and it's surrounding area.

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here and we really need to step back to May1,1940 when the Number 4 (BR: Bomber Reconnaissance/Anti-Submarine) Ucluelet Squadron RCAF Station was established. For those of us who live on the west coast we are aware that this naturally protected location on the Pacific side of Barkley Sound was probably an ideal location for a west coast Flying Boat Station with a primary mandate to provide coastal defense, including anti-submarine patrols, reconnaissance, cooperation with coastal artillery, and the defense of ships moving up and down the Pacific west coast. The aircraft which provided this service was the twin-engine, biplane know as the Stranraer produced by the Super-marine Aviation Works Ltd. In Southampton, England and brought into service with the RAF in 1935.

The possibility of a Japanese invasion made the protection of Barkley Sound a main consideration in the defense of the west coast. The City of Port Alberni with its open harbour at the end of the Alberni Inlet was very open to attack and if this were to happen the enemy would then have direct access to the Straits of Georgia and the city of Vancouver. From May 1940 until December 1941 Flying Boat Stations where established at Alliford Bay, Prince Rubert, Coal Harbor, Bela Bella and Ucluelet. Prior to war being declared on September 10, 1939 No4 (BR) Squadron was based at the Jericho Beach Air Station outside Vancouver. The Squadron received orders to move to its wartime station at Ucluelet on May 1, 1940 and begin construction of RCAF Station Ucluelet. By the end of August 1941 the command at Ucluelet consisted of 352 men. Stranraer patrols continued throughout December of 1941 and by February 1942 an early warning device (radar) was setup at Spring Cove and the Ucluelet Station reached a strength of 445 personnel.

A recent article by Dr. Jamie Morton, Alberni Valley Museum Manager, for a recent WWII display spoke of the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers which I have included here for the readers information.

“Due to the public fear of attack in early 1942, the Department of National Defence organized the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers (PCMR). With 115 companies arranged along the coast, it reached a peak strength of just under 15,000 all ranks by summer 1943. The PCMR recruited men already active on the coast; loggers, trappers, prospectors and ranchers, including many First Nations participants. Their local knowledge was augmented with tactical training. Given their isolation, a critical part of this training came in the form of The Ranger magazine. The first edition, produced in September 1942, included topics such as "Know where to shoot,” and "Edible plants of BC."

The PCMR provided a way for those unable to enlist due to age or other factors to contribute to the war effort. At first PCMR members made do with their own clothing and firearms. However, they provided a front line of defence in remote regions, in an atmosphere of great anxiety about Japanese attacks. This was recognized by the DND, which then issued a standardized kit, including a .303 rifle, a helmet, and a uniform. The PCMR units trained diligently, and patrolled areas that otherwise would have been unguarded. The PCMR were stood down at the end of WWII, after making a valuable contribution to Home Defence in remote regions”.

Throughout May 1942 patrols from Ucluelet reported sightings of American Naval Craft and transports enroute to the Aleutians. On June 3/42 Japanese planes attacked Dutch Harbour in the Aleutians and every station along the West Coast was ordered to stand ready. Suddenly the threat of invasion by the Japanese nation was put on high alert. On June 7/42 the Ucluelet Squadron received a report that an American ship had been torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and an aircraft from Ucluelet was dispatched to look for survivors. In the same month the Government Signal Station at Estevan Point north of Ucluelet reported it was being shelled by a Japanese submarine. Many such sightings of enemy subs where being made off the West Coast in these troubling times. And although all of the information compiled on these RCAF Stations on the West Coast is interesting what interests us as members of the Port Alberni Maritime Heritage Society is a request that came forward on August 31/18 via David Cox our exhibits go-to-guy and a reply from RGR Lawrence Charnell on September 1/18.

“Great hearing from you. I'm not trying to put pressure on but time is critical to get the boat out of the water and once that happens it will be put on dry land and dismantled. I want this boat saved but have run out of resources. Having owned it for 45 years and tracking its history leads me to believe it has a place in our maritime history of Barkley Sound.”

A meeting was set up with Lawrence on September 13/18 at which time he presented his proposal and a brief history of the RCAF Crash/ Rescue Pelican M-264 used alongside the Heron M-157 and the Plover M-432 from 1940 until the end of WWII. A 2011 Legion Magazine indicated that crash boats were named for waterfowl. Once we saw the potential as an historical vessel for PAMHS a quick e-mail survey was done of the Board and 100% support for saving the vessel was obtained. An interesting e-mail from Dr. Jamie Morton, Alberni Museum Manager, sealed the deal so to speak.

“I know I don't have a vote, but I would encourage this acquisition. It represents an interesting and now largely forgotten part of the region's maritime history, as well as just being a now-rare object. There is a strong interest in military history, both Navy and RCAF that you can probably tap into. Just as a thought, we still have the “Home Front” exhibit ready to go. It was intended as a travelling exhibit, doesn't take up a lot of room, and would make a nice complement to this WWII era boat.”

Lawrence at the meeting that after WWII many of these surplus vessels were sent back to Jericho Beach, stripped of all fittings and metals and there hulls burned. There were approximately a dozen of these crash boats and this particular boat known in 1941 as the RCAF Pelican M-264 was likely built in North Vancouver and modeled after similar boats of the British Power Boat Co. in the UK. She was one of six 38 foot crash boats that had been sent to Victoria and eventually disposed of by Crown Assets after WWII in 1953. Lawrence believes the boat was converted to a single engine by the Wilby Machine Works in 1957 and then sold to a Victoria woman. In 1960 the vessel was listed in the LIST of SHIPS as the motor-vessel, NAHANNI”. From there she was sold to a logger by the name of Al Lavigne. The “NAHANNI” returned to Barkley Sound where she served as a crew-boat for his logging company. Al then sold “NAHANNI” to Orin Hubert, a Port Alberni man who used her as a pleasure boat. Orin and a partner, Earl Godwin removed the original cabin and installed a newer larger cabin to allow use for overnight trips and extended cruises. When the cabin was changed, it was done in Earl's driveway on Anderson St. south of Neill St. in Port Alberni.

In 1971 the “NAHANNI” was sold once again to a group from Port Alberni, one of whom was Bob Charnell. Over a period of years the original partners sold out their interest in “NAHANNI” and Bob became the sole owner. Together with his wife Lorna, they spent many years cruising Barkley Sound and the west coast of B.C. as far north as the Queen Charolotte Islands and up to Ketchican, Alaska. In 1991 Bob transferred ownership of “NAHANNI” to his son Lawrence Charnell. Since taking over the ownership of the boat Lawrence has spent many days fishing, cruising and scuba diving in Barkley Sound. As a heavy duty mechanic, Lawrence became the chief engineer of the vessel.

As the new owner Lawrence began to search in earnest for any history associated with the “NAHANNI” and in 2001, after removing all the paint from her bow, “NAHANNI'S” original RCAF pennant numbers could be seen scribed into the hull. Further research led to the UK. and the British Power Boat Co where records indicated that rescue launches of this type were built for the Canadian Air force to be used in support of Flying Boat Squadrons for Coastal Defense. In 2003 Lawrence moved to Ucluelet where he worked in the marine industry for Erik Larsen Diesel and continued his research into the “NAHANNI”. Finally the research paid off and a website was found that listed RCAF Marine Unit Radio Call Signs and on that list it showed ships and where they were stationed as well as the names given to many RCAF vessels. On this list was the pennant number found on the bow of the “NAHANNI”. The numbers are further confirmed in a book written by Christopher Weicht and published in 1997 and titled Jericho Beach and the West Coast Flying Boat Stations. It would appear that Mr. Weicht lives in the Chemainus area of Vancouver Island and will be contacted for additional information as our research continues.

At a meeting aboard the NAHANNI this morning, November 15/18 discussion centered around how we would go about transporting the vessel from Fisherman's Harbour up to Clutesi Marina boat launch and then unto the PAMHS compound at Lighthouse Pier. This next chapter in the history of the “NAHANNI” will begin November 23/18 when Lawrence Charnell, members of PAMHS, led by Bob Vandermolen who will be pulling the boat from its present moorage. From there it will be placed on a boat trailer owned by Don Garcia Boat Towing and moved over to the Port Albeni Maritime Heritage site where it will be cribbed and work begun to instill new life as a static display and an icon of coastal defense during WWII. The NAHANNI will become a prime example of why PAMHS has set as its mission, “To Present, Preserve and Promote the maritime history and heritage of Port Alberni, the Alberni Inlet, Barkley Sound and the West Coast”.

Brief biography of RGR Lawrence Charnell:

As the current owner of the vessel “NAHANNI” Lawrence has always been intrigued by its history. Over the years he has spent many hours trying to find information about it's past. Gradually, bits and pieces of the puzzle began to appear through questions asked of people and through the internet. My father, Bob Charnell became an owner in 1971 along with three other partners. Over time, he became the sole owner as others moved away or developed other interests. As time progressed, Lawrence became more involved with the use and maintenance of the NAHANNI and in the 1990's took over complete ownership of her.

The Charnell family had always known it had been a Crash boat for the RCAF but didn't know where it had served duty. Hours spent doing research yielded little about Canadian Airforce Marine Craft. However, there was much about the British Air force Marine Craft which eventually led Lawrence to some information about Canadian boats. It wasn't until he removed the paint from the bow one year and found the original RCAF Roundel and penant numbers etched in the planks that he was able to trace the history back to WWII and discovered that the “NAHANNI” previously known as the “M-264 PELICAN” had served as an Air-sea Rescue/Seaplane tender in Ucluelet, BC. And that it had been built in 1940. After the war it was sold off and came into the possession of several different owners until it was sold to a logging contractor named Al Levigne and brought back to Barkley Sound where it has remained for the rest of its time as crew boat and pleasure craft.

Seventy-eight years after it was built for the purpose as a Crash/Rescue boat and then being in the Charnell family for forty-seven of those years, it is time to retire the boat from active service and place it on display at the Port Alberni Maritime Heritage Society who will begin to restore it back to its RCAF trim and keep it on display for everyone to see. From what Lawrence Charnell has beenable to find from his research the “NAHANNI” may well be the last of its kind on the west coast. Not bad for a boat that was built to last the duration of WWII.

RGR Lawrence Charnell lives in Port Alberni and is a member of the 4th Canadian Ranger Patrol Group

The RCAF M-264 PELICAN in RCAF service.  Note the likeness to the BPB 37.5ft type with the different cabin top. Note also they retained the bipod mast arrangement on the cabin roof despite being built after the last of the type by BPB.

The NAHANNI Ex RCAF M-264 in 1960. Note the almost untouched appearance from WW2 with the exception of the added cabin extension.

The NAHANNI as she appears today with rebuilt cabin

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