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Defending BC’s Coast: How Yorke Island played a big role in the Second World War

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WATCH: When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor 80 years ago, it set off a chain of events on the west coast. Fearing that the coast of British Columbia could also be targeted, significant upgrades were made on Yorke Island. Jay Durant looks at this history in This is BC – Dec 2, 2021

Dec. 7 marks the 80th anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, an event that put defences along North America’s west coast on high alert.

That effort included tiny Yorke Island in Johnstone Strait, a site the Canadian military had picked as a good location for coastal defence before the outbreak of the Second World War.

“That made the war suddenly feel very real, people on the west coast of Canada hadn’t felt the significance of the war,” Catherine Gilbert, author of Yorke Island and the Uncertain War explained.

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“Suddenly the western side of the country felt very vulnerable.”

Construction began in 1937. The Canadian military installed docks and searchlights and mounted guns to help fortify B.C’s coast.

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“They had an expert in coastal defence come from Britain,” Gilbert said. “He thought Yorke Island was a good location.”

Naval reserve guarded Johnstone Strait, and the back entrance to Vancouver Harbour, stopping each passing vessel.

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Claudette Schulte’s father, Ed Gerlinsky, was stationed on Yorke Island. He would tell his family of some very long days he and others experienced while isolated on this remote island.

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“He told me about a ball diamond, so they played baseball,” she said. “But other than that, I don’t remember him talking about other activities.”

Nature has reclaimed a lot of the site, but some structures still remain — a reminder of a time filled with so much tension, when B.C. faced uncertainty about potential attacks from overseas.

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“There was a sense that it could happen,” Schulte said.

“So there was that fear and trepidation that they could be in danger and they might have a role to play.”

To contact Jay Durant with a story idea for This is BC, email him details and contact information at thisisbc@globalnews.ca

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