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Remembering Rupert A HISTORICAL REPORT FROM THE NORTHERN VIEW

by Jenna Cocullo

To honour all those who bravely fought defending our country, The Northern View launched Remembering Rupert: A historical report on Prince Rupert during the Second World War on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy. We hope to update this historical account of Rupertites who fought in the war ever Remembrance Day.

June 6, 2019 marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy.

In Prince Rupert, we take the time to remember the people who travelled across the world and gave their lives to defend the rights and freedoms of Canada and her allies. Few are still alive today to remember when 130,000 Allied soldiers reached shores of Juno Beach by night. The massive Allied invasion broke the German forces and turned the tide of the war.In memory of such a monumental day, we were fortunate enough to have spent time speaking with our veterans in Prince Rupert, David Hill and Harry Stewart, who shared their memories of the war. At The Northern View we’d like to pay our respects to all those who served, either overseas, or here at home on the North Coast, defending our coastline, our communities, and our freedom.

REMEMBERING WWII WITH DAVID HILL

On Christmas Eve, 1943 Charlotte Hill received a knock on the door. To every mother’s worst fear, she opened the door of her Burnaby home to find an officer presenting her with Silver Star flipped over on the back was written:

K. 62172

PTE. D. Hill

Silver Star David Hill's mother received when he was presumed dead. (Jenna Cocullo / The Northern View)
Inscription on Silver Star David Hill's mother received when he was presumed dead. (Jenna Cocullo / The Northern View)

The Silver Star was confirmation that her son was presumed to have died fighting in the war in Italy. Or so they thought.

While Ms. Hill was processing her grief, her son was more than 9,000 kilometres away, marching to a Prisoner Of War (POW) camp somewhere between the Italian-Austrian-German border.

A few months earlier Hill was on his way to Italy on a ship that had departed from the north of Africa, bringing young boys back to the front lines who were recovering from malaria, including Hill.

When Hill landed in Sicily he and the other recovering men were sent alone on a small boat and sailed halfway up the coast of Italy to meet their regiment, which had moved onward while they were being treated in Africa. Three days in hellbent waters and a train ride later they found the unit ready to take over a plateau controlled by the Germans. Hill had left friendly territory as soon as he entered it.

“I finally got here, the end of the line,” Hill thought to himself at the time. The task was to get across the bank up to the plateau. He flopped down behind a shrub and hoped, like the rest of the men, that they wouldn’t get shot. There was not much cover.

Shots flew over the plateau, over the orchards and over the grazing cows and strawberry bushes in the bank below. One by one officers were hit until Pte. Hill found himself at the forefront of the battle. With no commanding officers left the privates made a decision and continued to fight their way up until they captured the hillside.

Big mistake, Hill later thought to himself. The hillside had only put them closer to the Germans who later that night shot him in the leg — taking him away to the POW camp, two years after he had joined the war.

Two years prior

Hill was just two weeks shy of his 18th birthday when he was accepted into the army.

Even though it was illegal for minors to enlist, boys managed to sneak past the system undetected all the time. Hill was one of the many boys desperate to join the armed forces because there was nothing to do in a country feeling the effects of the Great Depression.

Pte. Hill with his mother, Charlotte Hill. (Photo courtesy of David Hill)

Boys from Burnaby, Chemainus, and Nanaimo moved up north to help flesh out the protection of Prince Rupert. It was a major responsibility but Hill and the rest of the men had no proper training. Day by day, they learned what they needed, they began their route marches down the street, stood guard by the fort on Digby Island and diligently protected the only armoured train steaming up and down the Skeena River.

The boys stood on the streets and saluted people passing by. Some days were so hot, Hill and the boys would remove their shirts and quilts — the uniform code was set by Ottawa with little understanding of the Rupert temperature — and wear nothing under their giant grey Canadian jackets. With nothing standing between them and Ottawa they had to come up with their own solutions.

Only one rail line with a station connected them to Canada’s East Coast. Hill rode it with other privates and Scandinavian men singing Norska songs until they arrived in Halifax to be sent off to Italy.

But now in 1943 he was riding a train to a POW camp marching from camp to camp with nothing but the clothes on his back. Hill never thought he would see his most valuable possessions collected from the war again.

Treasures of war

Just before he was captured, Hill was on his way up the coast of Italy to the battle on the plateau, when they stopped by a ghost town to rest for the night. On his own, he had set up camp in an abandoned house and was drawn to the book shelf where a set of books had caught his attention. They were old and dusty but he knew, by the grandiose of the library, that they must be important.

Pte. Hill saved 300-year-old books from a burning house in Italy (Jenna Cocullo / The Northern View)

The next evening he came back to where he had set up camp only to find the house burning from other allied forces that had started the fire.

“You idiots,” he thought to himself as he wandered into the burning building to save the books. He carried those prized volumes with him until he was captured.

As a POW, he wondered if the books were still safe somewhere in Italy in his kit bag with his regiment or tossed aside.

Pte. Hill saved 300-year-old books from a burning house in Italy (Jenna Cocullo / The Northern View)

His days in the camp were spent eating brown bread, turnips and occasionally finding a horse shoe in his horse meat soup. The men spent their days secretly turning potatoes into alcohol, trading their beer for cigarettes, and building radios.

It would be a year and some months before he got the news about D-Day and eventually he was sent free to England to be declared a former POW. After spending months in England he finally returned home to the West Coast of Canada where he got to knock on his mother’s door.

(Jenna Cocullo / The Northern View)

After the war, David Hill went on to study at the University of British Columbia in a four year nuclear physics program. Upon graduation, he decided the field was not for him and he began a different career in business. In 2003, he made the move back to Prince Rupert where he has lived ever since. Now, at the age of 98, he is still independently living at home alone with his daughter, Andree Faucett, loyally visiting him. To this day he refuses to eat brown bread and turnips.

A few months after his return home, the books, which he saved in the fire, found their way back to him. They are 300-year-old books of Canon Law for the Roman Catholic Church, which he is now trying to return to the highest ecclesiastical authority for the Church.

Skirting the war: Women who served

Prince Rupertite, Rowena Hansen, was the face of the Canadian Women's Army Corps from 1941-1944

The formation of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) during WWII was created for women who wanted to participate within spheres that formally only men were allowed to enter.

"It is a milestone in the history of women’s participation in the Canadian military," reads their official site.

Rowena (Ronnie) Wilmod Hansen was like Rosie the Riveter, the female cultural icon of WWII, but for the CWAC. She served as the face of the Corps during the war, recruiting women to join around the country.

Women volunteered to be trained in Morse Code, arms drill, motor mechanics, military clerical duties and any other duty that would help the men and boys fighting overseas.

(Photo courtesy of Canadian Legion, Prince Rupert)

But to Prince Rupertites, Sgt. Maj. Hansen was more than an icon for the patriotic women of her country, she was also a loving friend and neighbour until her passing in 2016.

"She had the personality type of a sergeant major," said Derry Bott, member of the Canadian Legion in Prince Rupert and long time friend of Hansen. "She was the type of person everyone wanted to be around."

Hansen married Arvid Hansen, a member of the Canadian Air Forces. Together they travelled the world from Manitoba to France.

Sgt. Maj. Hansen retired from the force in 1957.

After retiring from the force the Hansens moved to Prince Rupert where he took up a job at Northern Savings Credit Union. Ronnie Hansen worked at the Prince Rupert Regional Hospital as the executive confidential secretary to the administrator of the hospital until officially retiring from the work life in the 1990s.

Hansen liked to spend her free time, even well into her 80s, doing tai chi, playing cards with the ladies, and devoting her time at the First United Church in Prince Rupert.

Hansen had two children, Chris and Karen, two grandchildren, Robin and Shelbie, and a great-grandchild Jacob.

REMEMBERING WWII WITH HARRY STEWART

In 1941, at the age of 17 years old, Harry Stewart told a lie about his age so he could get into the navy. Stewart wanted to join the military forces like his dad, Private Peter Stewart, and his uncle, who was the Commanding Officer of the Lake Superior Regiment.

Stewart preferred to be sailing on ships. The navy allowed him to travel all over the world. After training in his hometown, he moved to the West Coast and then to Montreal where he was drafted to pick up a giant merchant ship full of ammunition.

He sailed the Indian Ocean and landed in China, Sri Lanka (Ceylon during the war), Burma and Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) India. His route would take 10 days, one way, from Canada. Stewart’s duty was as a gunner to protect the crew from enemy planes.

Pte. seaman Stewart during WWII. (Photo courtesy of Harry Stewart)

In 1941, he became one of the first crewmen on the brand new ship, The Fointane Park, made in Montreal. They sailed out of port in Halifax in a convoy of 80 ships. One day, his ship was hit and in a span of five minutes they lost three gas tankers, which carry fuel for airplanes.

“But they never got us,” said Stewart. “Never got through the convoy.”

The war was not all bad memories for Stewart.

“The were some good days with the bad,” he said.

One of his fondest memories is running into Mother Teresa on the streets of India who stopped by to say “Hello.”

In 1943, he sailed to Italy where they dropped off young privates to invade Italy. On good days, sailing in the Mediterranean meant the weather was nice and sunny out on the convoy. Sometimes they would run into Italian submarines that would quickly surrender to the navy because the men wanted to get out of the war.

In 1945, Private Stewart was unloading his ship at the dock in Liverpool when he received word that the war had ended. He and the crew went up to London to get in on the celebrations.

When he was discharged from the navy back to civilian life, he returned to his hometown of Thunder Bay. One day while skating, he had caught the eye of a young woman at an ice rink who gave him a wink. They got married on April 5, 1950. Sixty-nine years later they have four kids and six grandkids, and eight great-grandchildren.

Stewart worked for 48 years at the grain elevators before moving to Prince Rupert to become a manager in the industry. In 1986, he retired from his job to enjoy life in Prince Rupert. Mr. and Mrs. Stewart are both happily retired. They like to spend their Saturday afternoons sitting side by side watching golf as they are visited by their neighbours.

From road of war to road of beauty

WWII's influence on the Skeena River Highway construction

In the late summer of 1944, a highway that hugs the river on one side and has a wall of mountains on the other, was officially opened. This was the Skeena River Highway. After years of cutting through bushes and chipping away at hard rock, Prince Rupert had finally established a road to Terrace.

In 2019, it is almost hard to imagine that this drive, dubbed as one of the most beautiful drives in the world, was built because of a worldwide, life-changing event that caused so much grief and pain.

The Skeena Highway, spanning from Prince Rupert to Terrace, was one of the larger projects to come out of the City of Prince Rupert during the war. Having officially opened on Sept. 4, 1944, the Skeena will also celebrate its 75th anniversary this year.

After years of the federal and provincial government tossing around the idea of establishing this link between both cities, the perceived threat of a Japanese invasion is what finally pushed them to build the highway along the Skeena River.

It was the presence of the American army in Prince Rupert that convinced both levels of government that an alternative road was needed in the event that the troops had to retreat to interior of B.C.

Off to a rocky start

Conception for the idea first began in the early 1920s but finding the perfect route proved to be a long and bumpy ride.

The first aerial photographs in the region were actually taken by a Public Works crew scouting out a possible route for their highway but they came up empty handed. Several years later a route was considered to go up from the Skeena River to Work Channel crossing through the mountains all the way to Exstew River then back down to the river until the road hit Terrace. A year later more aerial photographs were taken but it was concluded that any road not following the Skeena River would be nearly impossible to construct.

In the 1930s the first gravel road from the harbour to Galloway Rapids was built. The next phase was the construction of the bridge, establishing a connection to Port Edward on the mainland. The project continued up to Prudhomme Lake until construction was halted at the onset of WWII.

Top Priority

The American military began reinforcing Prince Rupert in 1942 when the threat of a Japanese invasion seemed more imminent. Fortifications were put in place and the road became a top priority.

Initially, U.S. and Canadian military authorities attempted to build a road from Prince Rupert to Hazelton in one year, a massive project which had never been attempted in the country in such a short timeline, according to Dirk Septer, aviation and B.C. historian.

The highway was divided into five sections. Eight railway crossings needed approval from Prudhomme to Tyee, cracks filled with muskeg had to be shovelled out and filled with rock, and 45 bridges were built in Vancouver for the project. To top it all off, the region's infamous rain season slowed down production and scared off many workers.

"Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week at sometimes in excess of $60,000 per mile, eight contracting firms worked to put in a highway through one of the world's toughest terrain of granite mountains," described one Vancouver newspaper.

Although the project employed many men before and after the Depression, historical records showed that the average worker only lasted 60 days before quitting in frustration.

But on Aug. 4, 1944, a month before the official opening, all their hard work came to fruition as Private Buddy Bodzash drove the first car over the new link between Prince Rupert to Terrace. Col. D.B. Martyn, Commanding Officer of Prince Rupert Defences and his wife, were Bodzash’s passengers on the journey.

"I came to Skeena Country 37 years ago with a packsack on my back and have worked all those years to get a highway. Now Pearl Harbour has brought it about,” said Skeena MP Olof Hanson as she cut the ribbon on opening day, according to an account by the late historian Phylis Bowan, in her book "Road, Rail And River!"

Nearly 100 people drove the highway to Terrace that day. But the road would face many problems in the years to come. Landslides destroyed parts of the drive, and once the war was over no level of government wanted to take responsibility for maintaining the route.

It was a long a windy road to get the Skeena we know today — but the war was the driver to pave the way to what would eventually become one of the most scenic routes B.C. has to offer.

Remembrance Day 2019, Rupert remembers Pte. Allan Olsen

November 11, 2019: Prince Rupert honours Pte. Olsen (Jenna Cocullo / The Northern View)

Private Allan Olsen, the only soldier who died in Prince Rupert during World War II, will have a permanent place to be remembered in the city, following a bronze plaque placed in his honour along east of Prince Rupert’s cenotaph along the path in the courthouse.

The first memorial in Prince Rupert honouring Pte. Olsen was unveiled on Dec. 28 1943 in the presence of an Ontario Unit. Pte. Olsen’s comrades made a cairn in his memory, resting 30 metres from Highway 16 across from the Industrial Park.

Private Allan Olsen had did a year prior, on Nov. 5, as he was on patrol driving a Bren gun carrier along the newly constructed road.

Pte. Olsen, 22, turned on a bridge the light armoured tracked vehicle hit a patch of ice and rolled over, pinned to the muddy earth under the vehicle.

As a member of the Midland Regiment of Ontario that was stationed in Prince Rupert, Pte. Olsen’s body was returned to his home province to be buried in Coboconk Cemetery, in a town approximately two hours northeast of Toronto.

Private Allan Olsen, the only soldier who died in Prince Rupert during World War II, will have a permanent place to be remembered in the city, following a bronze plaque placed in his honour on the east side of Prince Rupert’s cenotaph along the path in the courthouse. (Jenna Cocullo / The Northern View)

The new memorial in the city all started with an inquiry to the Prince Rupert library approximately five years ago who was looking for information about Lieutenant Colonel Cyrus ‘Cy’ Wesley Peck, a WWI veteran.

Deputy librarian Kathleen Larkin happened to answer the call and found that it’s customary to recognize a Victoria Cross recipient with a plaque so she reached out to the director of B.C. Veterans Commemorative Association for assistance. (See full story on Col. Cy Peck below).

“From there I learned more about what BC Veterans Commemorative Association does. They want to make sure that contributions of Canada’s servicemen and women are never forgotten and memorial plaques in various cities. And we thought [Pte. Olsen] should have something permanent in his memory in town,” Larkin said.

Rupertites stood out in the pouring rain on Monday, remembering those who never returned to their warm homes and their families. The Canadian Border Guard, Prince Rupert RCMP, the Royal Canadian Legion, fire department, MLA Jennifer Rice, Mayors Lee Brain and Knut Bjorndal, among many others placed wreaths and paid their respects at the cenotaph. (Jenna Cocullo / The Northern View)

Over the year’s the cairn has been found and forgotten. Most recently, in 2017 Mark Taylor, who served in the Canadian Armed Forces for eight years, located the cairn once more and decided to clean it up with rangers.

The Port Simpson Canadian Rangers don’t have any intention of moving the monument and are building a clearer path to the cairn and plan to polish it off.

Pte. Olsen’s $2,800 plaque was made possible by the financial support provided by the Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 27, Ladies Auxiliary Branch No. 27 Royal Canadian Legion, Islander Hall Society, Prince Rupert Lions Club, Government of British Columbia Ministry of Citizens’ Services.

Now Pte. Olsen will have a permanent place to rest, his memory never left to fade in the wilderness again.

Rupertites stood out in the pouring rain on Monday, Nov. 11, 2019, remembering those who never returned to their warm homes and their families. (Jenna Cocullo / The Northern View)

Col. Cy Peck remembered with stone memorial

By Shannon Lough, Sep. 5, 2017

A World War One veteran, Canadian politician and Prince Rupert pioneer will forever be remembered along the waterfront overlooking the Metlakatla Passage.

“I think he’s the greatest hero to come from Prince Rupert,” said historian and Rotarian John McNish on Aug. 31 at the small presentation honouring Lieutenant Colonel Cyrus ‘Cy’ Wesley Peck.

A stone memorial, with an engraved plaque outlining Col. Cy Peck as a “Legendary Canadian Citizen Soldier” has been mounted by the Kwinitsa Station near the Pacific Ocean.

Prince Rupert remembered this historic figure after a request came to the library to find more information about the man. Deputy librarian Kathleen Larkin said they were doing research on Peck and found that it’s customary to recognize a Victoria Cross recipient. She reached out to the Director of B.C. Veterans Commemorative Association and they provided Peck’s plaque.

Larkin learned that “Col. Peck had asked some of his ashes to be spread in Metlakatla Pass because it was one of his favourite places so we placed it [his memorial] so when you read the plaque you’re facing the pass,” she said.

Standing behind the newly mounted Lieutenant Colonel Cyrus ‘Cy’ Wesley Peck memorial is Kathleen Larkin, Deputy Librarian, Mayor Lee Brain, Dave Walker, Royal Canadian Legion, John McNish, Prince Rupert City and Regional Archives, Peter Allen-Reid, Commissionaires Security, Karen Basso, Rotary Club president and Michelle Bryant-Gravelle, president of the Prince Rupert and District Chamber of Commerce. (Shannon Lough / The Northern View)

He had died in 1956 of a heart attack after a storied life as a military leader, federal and provincial politician and businessman.

Pioneering for gold in the Klondike brought Peck to the area and in 1903, with his partner Donald M. Moore, they financed and built Cassiar Cannery. Four years later started the Georgetown Sawmill Company, located 27 kilometres north of the city.

His hero status comes from being awarded the Victoria Cross — the highest military honour in the Commonwealth — for bravery in 1918 after serving with the 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion overseas.

At 47 years old, he joined the war with Britain and France against Germany. In one of the bloodiest battles of the war — the Battle of the Somme in 1916 — he led his battalion as the first commanding officer of the regiment. Peck’s leadership and courage awarded him the Distinguished Service Order.

The Lieutenant Colonel Cyrus ‘Cy’ Wesley Peck memorial next to Kwinitsa Station. (Shannon Lough / The Northern View)

He was recognized once again for fighting near Cagnicourt in France along the Drocourt-Quéant Line where he risked his life to determine the enemy position, allowing his battalion, and others, to reorganize and advance.

During his time overseas he was elected as the Member of Parliament for Skeena in British Columbia in 1917, and he is the only MP to have been awarded the cross. He political career continued the Legislative Assembly for B.C. in 1924 and again in 1928. Peck was also an active member in the Chamber of Commerce.

“He really was an outstanding citizen in Prince Rupert,” McNish said, who had coordinated to have Peck’s plaque and memorial stone installed. Contributions for the memorial came from the Prince Rupert Rotary Club, the Prince Rupert Legion, the BC Veterans Commemorative Association, the Commissionaires and the City of Prince Rupert.

Jenna Cocullo / Journalist / jenna.cocullo@thenorthernview.com / @jennac_lo

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Prince Rupert (photo courtesy of David Hill)