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

WestJet in flight. Black Press file photo
Two COVID exposures on WestJet flight into Comox

The BC Centre for Disease Control has posted advisories for two separate… Continue reading

Guenther’s efforts are aimed at persons in need. Photo by Mike Chouinard
Courtenay group provides showers of chivalry for those in need

Guenther just got federal tax status for Wiseland Humanitarian Association

Comox Strathcona Waste Management expects to go to tender this summer for the regional organics compost facility in Campbell River. File photo/Black Press
Comox Strathcona compost site should go to tender this summer

The regional organics facility is on target to open for the fall of 2022

The site of the King George Hotel in Cumberland. Photo by Mike Chouinard
VIU students research Cumberland’s past, future

Specific practicum topics were King George Hotel’s significance, densification incentives

Courtenay–Alberni MP Gord Johns says 12 million Canadians do not have dental insurance. Photo by Bofu Shaw, courtesy of Unsplash
Courtenay–Alberni MP, CDA consider dental care for all Canadians

Gord Johns has initiated a mail-out that asks constituents the date of… Continue reading

(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’

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The following is a list of restaurants offering take-out and patio dining. ADOBE STOCK IMAGE
List of Comox Valley restaurants offering take-out, patio dining options

Restaurants in the Comox Valley continue to adapt to government-imposed restrictions in… Continue reading

Pieces of nephrite jade are shown at a mine site in northwestern B.C. in July 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Tahltan Central Government MANDATORY CREDIT
Indigenous nation opposes jade mining in northwestern B.C.

B.C.’s Mines Act requires operators to prepare a plan to protect cultural heritage resources

The body of Brenda Ware, 35, was found along Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (RCMP handout)
RCMP ask for tips after woman’s body found in Kootenay National Park

Brenda Ware was found along Highway 93 in the park, 54 kilometres north of the town of Radium

People pass the red hearts on the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Embankment in London, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. On May 3, the British government announced that only one person had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kirsty Wigglesworth
For a view of a COVID-19 future, Canadians should look across the pond

Britain, like Canada, is one of the only countries in the world to delay second doses for several months

Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point this season with Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 8, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton superstar McDavid hits 100-point mark as Oilers edge Canucks 4-3

NHL scoring leader needs just 53 games to reach century mark

Most Read