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

Victoria police arrested a man in a Yates Street grocery store Nov. 27 after he refused to wear a mask. (Black Press Media File photo)
Belligerent man arrested in Victoria grocery store after refusing to wear mask

Officers fined the man $230 under the COVID-19 Related Measures Act

A 43-year-old woman is facing charges for impaired driving and leaving the scene of a crash after attempting to flee from police by driving down the beach in front of the Oak Bay Marina on Nov. 23. (Oak Bay Police/Twitter)
Victoria woman drives over seawall onto beach near Oak Bay Marina

Driver faces charges for fleeing crash, refusing breathalyzer test

Friends with Dorothy opens in Victoria.
LGBT2Q+ lounge Friends with Dorothy opens second location in Victoria

The Kelowna-based lounge plans to open in Victoria mid-December

Oak Bay police are searching for two men caught on camera dumping garbage bags on the side of Brighton Avenue on Nov. 26. (Ray Bernoties/Twitter)
Police seek two men caught dumping bags of trash on Oak Bay street

Garbage left on side of Brighton Avenue could lead to $81 ticket

Victoria police were called to a single-vehicle crash shortly before 3 a.m. Nov. 27. (Black Press Media file photo)
Driver dies after fiery early morning crash in Vic West

The driver was the sole occupant of the single-vehicle crash involving a hydro pole

A woman wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as she walks along the seawall in North Vancouver Wednesday, November 25, 2020.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
911 new COVID-19 cases, 11 deaths as B.C. sees deadliest week since pandemic began

Hospitalizations reach more than 300 across the province

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

The Ahousaht First Nation confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on Nov. 26, 2020. (Westerly file photo)
Ahousaht First Nation on lockdown over COVID-19

“Emotions are high. The anxiety is high. We want our community to pull through.”

Screenshot of Pastor James Butler giving a sermon at Free Grace Baptist Church in Chilliwack on Nov. 22, 2020. The church has decided to continue in-person services despite a public health order banning worship services that was issued on Nov. 19, 2020. (YouTube)
2 Lower Mainland churches continue in-person services despite public health orders

Pastors say faith groups are unfairly targeted and that charter rights protect their decisions

A big job: Former forests minister Doug Donaldson stands before a 500-year-old Douglas fir in Saanich to announce preservation of some of B.C.’s oldest trees, July 2019. (B.C. government)
B.C. returning to ‘stand-alone’ forests, rural development ministry

Horgan says Gordon Campbell’s super-ministry doesn’t work

Freighter anchored off Kin Beach in Chemainus. (Photo by Don Bodger)
MP to host expert panel for virtual town hall on freighter anchorages issue

Residents can participate through MacGregor’s website or Facebook page Dec. 3

Lake Cowichan’s Oliver Finlayson, second from left, and his family — including grandma Marnie Mattice, sister Avery, mom Amie Mattice and dad Blair Finlayson — were all smiles on Nov. 16 when their pool arrived, thanks to lots of fundraising and the generosity of the Cowichan Lake community. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Cowichan Lake community comes together to help family get vital pool

Oliver Finlayson, 9, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and hydrotherapy is a big help

Most Read