Sitting at the huge lazy susan table in the RCAF room, Joel Eilersten flips through a book that tells of the military history on the West Coast. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

Sitting at the huge lazy susan table in the RCAF room, Joel Eilersten flips through a book that tells of the military history on the West Coast. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

Remembering the Forgotten War in Coal Harbour

The little hangar museum has seen it all, from submarine threats to whaling to quiet hamlet life

Joel Eilersten initially put his collection of curiosities on display for his Air Cab float plane transport customers to peruse while they waited for the plane, but it just kept growing.

The first room off the Air Cab reception office, located in the hangar that was formerly the Coal Harbour whaling station and the Royal Canadian Air Force base before that, displays a curious range of items.

A whale skull sits on top of a harpoon gun beside a air force uniform that hangs in front of a wall-mounted propeller and a half-rotary saw. Photos, news clippings and posters are arranged on the walls, and pieces from ships and planes are displayed casually beside a 1902 Sears catalogue the size of a city phone book.

“The prices are better than Amazon,” quips Eilersten, showing the range of rifles, violins, fishing tackle and even gravestones that used to be on offer from the venerable, now dead, department store.

The next room sports a taxidermy bear, a collection of boat motors and at least 100 telephones. He’s got the early candlestick models, wind-up box mounts, as well as novelty car phone and regular plastic bricks from the ’80s. Eilersten keeps whatever he finds interesting. In one corner, a steel box bristles with dozens of arms-length tools left over from the whaling station. A display case beside it holds a collection of flat, curved wrenches and monkey wrenches.

Pass through an impressive collection of chain saws — 234 in total, Eilersten said — and a scratch pad where Blackie the 18-year-old wild cat Eilersten adopted last year spends most of her time — and you come to the RCAF No. 120 Bomber Reconnaissance Squadron’s repository.

Amidst the 234 chainsaws on display, Joel Eilersten says he’s been a collector since he was a boy. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

It’s a bright blue library, with some aircraft pieces displayed between books holding lists of crew, histories of various wars — including one of Eilersten’s favourite, the Forgotten War, which tells of the West Coast threat from Japanese submarines, which this base was established for defence. There’s a poster on the wall for each plane that crashed on the coastline. There were three fatal crashes between 1942 and 1945.

Eilersten tells the spooky and tragic story of the Stranraer 951 “flying boat,” a submarine surveillance plane that was lost at sea in 1943.

The crew of eight set off on a standard surveillance route, but had engine troubles and landed at sea about 100 miles out. Radio records indicate 25-foot swells. It was too dangerous for the rescue float plane to land, so that plane circled above the floating crew for over an hour waiting for a rescue boat to arrive.

Somewhere between the stormy waves and the spotter planes tagging off, the 951 bobbed out of view and was never found. The rescue boat searched extensively, but the 951 had vanished, with all eight souls aboard. What makes it spooky is that one of the spotter planes saw what they thought was a Japanese submarine in the area. Did 951 succumb to the storm, or was it sunk by the enemy? The question still hangs decades later.

Joel Eilersten poses in a whale’s jaw bone that lives in his hangar. It came from a 92-foot whale back when the whaling station operated. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

Coal Harbour, a small hamlet at the beginning of a long inlet leading to the Pacific Ocean was home to a rudimentary RCAF base, built quickly in 1940 to fight the so-called Forgotten War. The first crew arrived four days after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, immediately commencing submarine patrols from the air. In 1942, two attacks from submarines, one in Alaska and one on Vancouver Island’s west coast caused the evacuation of RCAF families at Coal Harbour. The risk was too high and the base wasn’t adequately built to withstand a bombing.

A year later, Japan had been forced into a defensive position and families were allowed to return, which they did, surging the population of little Coal Harbour to a peak of 1,500 people. In 1945, when WWII ended, the RCAF base was decommissioned and the thriving little town plummeted to just 100 people for a few years until the whaling station and Island Copper Mine spurred development again. It was around this time that Eilersten moved to the harbour with his American parents. He served in the U.S. military during the Vietnam war, and returned to Coal Harbour to start Air Cab and this little museum.

The hangar at the Coal Harbour dock has seen it all, and Eilersten’s little museum helps ensure the feats are not forgotten.

Do you have something to add to this story or something else we should report on? Email: zoe.ducklow@blackpress.ca


Joel Eilersten’s mother made these scrapbooks. One for the RCAF base and three for Coal Harbour’s history. Many a visitor has found a family member in these books. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

Remembrance Day

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Busy day for Campbell River fire crews

Three incidents in rapid succession keep crews on their toes

New electric buses are coming to school districts. (Submitted photo)
New electric school buses will drive North Island forward

Travel on electric school buses is smoother, quieter, and healthier than traditional diesel buses

Destroyed window at Ministry of Social Development offices in Campbell River. Photo supplied by Campbell River RCMP
Police investigating arson in downtown Campbell River

Fire set at BC Employment and Assistance Office

May 3-9 was Mental Health Week, and the Campbell River RCMP is encouraging people, especially men, to seek emotional help if it’s needed. Black Press file photo
Campbell River RCMP encouraging men to seek emotional help if needed

‘Taking care of our Mental Health is not simply about accessing counselling,’ says Const. Maury Tyre

Campbell River’s waste collection schedule will be changing after Victoria Day. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror.
Campbell River Garbage pickup schedule changing after May Long Weekend

Pickup day will change after every statutory holiday

(The Canadian Press)
Trudeau won’t say whether Canada supports patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

‘Canada is at the table to help find a solution’

Garden centre manager Jack Olszewski and Chris Beaudoin say business has grown by 50 per cent at the Sooke Home Hardware Store. (Rick Stiebel - Sooke News Mirror)
Flower power: COVID restrictions fuel bloom boom on Vancouver Island’

More people seeking flowers to add colour, says Sooke landscaper

A sign indicating face coverings are required by the establishment is pictured on the front door of a business in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
A sign indicating face coverings are required by the establishment is pictured on the front door of a business in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. to start releasing neighbourhood-specific COVID numbers after data leak

Documents obtained by the Vancouver Sun show cases broken down by neighbourhoods

Ladysmith RCMP safely escorted the black bear to the woods near Ladysmith Cemetary. (Town of Ladysmith/Facebook photo)
Black bear tranquillized, relocated after wandering around residential Ladysmith

A juvenile black bear was spotted near 2nd Avenue earlier Friday morning

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix update B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, April 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count creeps up, seven more deaths

445 people in hospital, 157 in intensive care

Summerland’s positive test rate is much higher than surrounding local health areas, according to internal BC CDC documents. (BC CDC)
Summerland 3rd behind Surrey, Abbotsford in daily per capita COVID-19 cases

Interior Health is rolling out additional vaccine availability to the community

Amazon is pausing its Prime Day marketing event in Canada this year amid ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks at its facilities in Ontario. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Amazon Prime Day halted in Canada due to COVID-19 outbreaks in warehouses

The event was postponed to protect the health and safety of employees and customers, the company says

Ally Thomas, 12, seen in an undated family handout photo, died on April 14 from a suspected overdose. Her family says they are frustrated more public supports weren't available when they tried to get her help. THE CANADIAN PRESS
Minister says suspected overdose death of 12-year-old pushing B.C. to ‘do better’

Minister Sheila Malcolmson of Mental Health and Addictions says the government is working ‘as hard as we can’ to build a system of care for youths

At this Highway 3 check point, police officers will be asking for identification from drivers, documentation regarding the driver’s name and address, and the purpose for the driver’s travel. (RCMP)
No fines handed out at 1st COVID-19 roadblock as checks move across B.C.

Cpl. Chris Manseau says a total of 127 vehicles were stopped at a roadblock in the Manning Park area

Most Read