The Disappearance of the RCAF Supply and Salvage Ship M427 B.C. Star

by Dirk Septer 2018


Article text (Photo from the Dirk Septer collection.)

The single sentence "A tombstone was erected at the Meadow Island Cemetery, Bella Bella, BC to remember the unknown airman" on this plaque designed by 101 Squadron (North Island) fails to relate that it would eventually take 64 years and three tries to finally get this unidentified Second World War airman his correct grave marker.

Before the start of the Second World War, Royal Canadian Air Force’s Western Air Command operated four high–speed crash vessels and a scow seaplane tender. The vessels and their crews acted as a very efficient quick–response rescue operation. But during the war years the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) would requisition an additional fleet of fishing vessels and tugs for patrol, transport and supply duties to the remote defence sites. along British Columbia’s coast. As part of the RCNR Fishermen’s Reserve Section these vessels were attached to the RCAF Marine Section.

At the same time a whole string of new remote early warning radar stations were being built and maintained. With a possible threat of a Japanese invasion, the RCAF Marine Squadron assumed an ever–increasing responsibility for preparing the defence of the vast British Columbia coast. Shortly before the United Sates were drawn into the Second World War, they proposed the Canadian government to form a joint electronic aircraft detection (radar) system. Including coverage of the west coast of British Columbia would complete the chain of radio defence stations already operating on the west coast of the United States as far north as Alaska.

In the agreement, Canada was to provide the base sites, construct the buildings required and furnish all the necessary materials and manpower to operate the bases. For their part, the United States would provide the actual detection equipment and train the Canadian operators.

In July 1942, Air Command Headquarters issued an order by which ten Radar Detection Units were to be established in strategic locations along the west coast. The units would be part of an early warning radar chain operating early warning low flying (CHL) radar equipment with an approximate range of 100 miles (160 km). Many of these Radio Detachments were perched on rocky shores. The isolated sites were at the edge of the wilderness, exposed to wind, rain and fog. Since they could not be accessed overland, the RCAF operated a number of tugs and fishing vessels to service these otherwise inaccessible locations.

These vessels made unscheduled runs transporting construction crews, building materials, and heavy equipment up and down the coast of British Columbia. As these radar units’ existence and location were considered top secret, radio silence was enforced on these runs and all information regarding the movement of this type of marine vessel was classified and all communications were coded. Sometime late in July 1943 on one of these routine supply runs, M–427 B.C. Star disappeared en route to Cape St. James.

BC Star

The M427 R.C.A.F. B.C. Star (Official RCAF Photo)

Disappeared and never heard from again

On July 21, 1943, the B.C. Star had left Vancouver with 41.5 tons of gravel, cement and other supplies for a RCAF construction detachment at Cape St. James off Kunghit Island on the southern tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands. She carried a crew of ten and three passengers. Two days later, the ship put in at the RCAF Station Shearwater near Bella Bella where she took aboard 2.5 tons of cargo and three more passengers. On July 24, the vessel departed for Cape St. James but was never seen or heard from again.

The B.C. Star was one of three seiners requisitioned by Western Air Command in January of 1942. The relatively new vessel, owned by Nikola Jurincich/ABC Packing Co., had been built in Vancouver in 1940. Together with the M425 RCAF Midnight Sun and The M426 RCAF Cape Canso, the 70–ton gross register salmon seine fishing vessel had been chartered to the RCAF "on bare boat charter without crew."

The vessel carried complete safety equipment including a lifeboat with a capacity for 12 persons and two life rafts each for 10 persons. Eighteen life jackets and two life buoys were also carried. Though vessel was wireless-equipped, under war regulations radio silence was observed in certain areas of the British Columbia coast.

Due to the lack of cipher equipment at Cape St. James, the crew at the radar station under construction was not aware about when the supply ship was coming. Information regarding the movement of these vessels was classified and all communications were coded. Consequently, the vessel was not immediately missed, until the construction crew at Cape St. James complained about the non-arrival of their building supplies, two weeks after the vessel’s departure from Bella Bella.

On August 4, a Stranraer flying boat from 9 BR Squadron started the search, while on August 5 Norseman #2470 was sent from Bella Bella to search the area. On August 8, the M.536 RCAF Skeena Maid also carried out a search. The intense sea and air search covered a wide area during the next several weeks, but only two bodies were recovered and very little wreckage was found. Local marine observers believed that an explosion might have sealed the fate of the B.C. Star and its 16 occupants. Eight of the men were from British Columbia, six of which from Vancouver. Apart from her regular crew, the vessel carried as passengers some personnel from the No. 9 (CMU) Construction and Maintenance Unit.

Discovery of the life rafts, one reported found 100 miles from Hecate Strait, between the Queen Charlotte Islands and the mainland, was the only clue to the fate of the craft. An empty 15–-foot rowboat, the oars missing, a number of wooden boxes and an oil drum were picked up but these were not definitely identified as belonging to the missing vessel. Initially only these two bodies were found. The crew of a United States freighter picked up one, approximately 50 miles from the spot where the two life rafts had been found two weeks earlier. A RCAF search boat near Goose Island found the second body. Several weeks later, a third body recovered. On September 3 an unidentified airman’s body was found on Price Island. As no identification discs were located, its identity could not be determined. Clothing, consisting of a ’Mae West‘, sweater and khaki trousers gave no clue to identification. Due to the advanced state of disintegration fingerprints were not obtainable and all facial characteristics were obliterated.

After the unidentified body was recovered from Price Island, north of Bella Bella, it was taken to Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Station Bella Bella for identification. Mr. G.H. Hill, the coroner from Ocean Falls, however, was unable to identify the body. The station dentist examined the teeth and forwarded the information to Western Air Command Headquarters for comparison with records there or at No. 9 CMU, Vancouver. Unfortunately, identification by means of dental charts was not possible in Vancouver. Consequently, a burial as "an unidentified Airman" was arranged under the authority of Western Air Command Signal K215 of September 17, 1943. Permission was obtained from the coroner to release the body for burial. A tombstone was ordered to be erected at the Meadow Island Cemetery, Bella Bella, to remember the unknown airman.

The sinking of the B.C. Star was the major tragedy that happened in the RCAF Marine Squadrons on either coast. No conclusive evidence ever came to light as why the B.C. Star went down. An inquiry into the vessel’s disappearance did not find any evidence of negligence on the part of the master or any of the crew. Rumours of the vessel with a cargo capacity of some 80 tons, having been overloaded were also discarded.

Though the exact cause of the sinking was never determined, it is generally assumed that the vessel’s hull had simply opened up under the weight of her cargo. It must have sunk very rapidly, since the crew never got the chance to send an SOS and apparently no one boarded the life rafts or launched the lifeboat. Clothing and other articles recovered from the bodies of the three victims that were recovered revealed indications of hasty dressing.

In his book "Jericho Beach and the West Coast Flying Boat Stations" Chris Weicht sheds another light at the vessel’s disappearance. There apparently was some speculation that a Japanese submarine might have attacked the B.C. Star. Rumours to this effect circulated and were only enhanced by reports made by the crew members of another RCAF Marine vessel inbound to the Flying Boat Station at Alliford Bay on the Queen Charlotte Islands. When listening to a Ketchikan, Alaska radio station, they heard the program interrupted by an unusual and unidentified transmission. The broken-up message read: "Star ... out of bread and water ... Alliford repeat message ... Thank you ... Good afternoon."

Marking of grave with head stone delayed by 37 years

Though a grave marker had been ordered and shipped, for the first 37 years the airman’s grave on Meadow Island near of Bella Bella, B.C. had gone without a head stone at all. When the remains of this member of the Royal Canadian Air Force were put to rest at the Meadow Island Cemetery in September 1943, the grave’s headstone was never placed until some 37 years later in 1980. Just a year earlier, a crated grave marker had been discovered in a B.C. Packers warehouse in Bella Bella, the remote community on the west coast of British Columbia. It had been delivered to the village but somehow had never reached the grave site of the unknown RCAF airman, whose body had been found washed ashore in 1943.

Subsequent to finding the grave marker, 442 (Transport and Rescue) Squadron of CFB Comox, B.C. in conjunction with the Rev. R.A. Ferris, the RCMP detachment, several members of the Bella Bella community arranged to transport the headstone to the grave on a nearby island. On March 19, 1980, Major Norman Hartley, on his last mission before retirement, flew to the coastal community and assisted with the placement. Major L. R. Coleman, the base chaplain at CFB Comox was invited to take part in the simple ceremony.

In a memorandum he put the circumstances of the event in context: "The event was significant from several points of view. First, it is probably the last World War II headstone to be placed on a grave. Second, it was an occasion for the Bella Bella villagers to share with serving members of the Armed Forces a poignant experience. The event was without fanfare and yet to those present it was significant as if it were the tomb of an unknown serviceman in any national capital. The scene was so geographically and socially different in contrast that it served to emphasize the uniqueness of Canada and the bond which can bring our people together in such a simple event of historical note. Third, the pastor’s graveside prayer in heartfelt dignity seemed to express so meaningfully the unspoken thoughts and feelings of many Canadian families who lost loved ones to unknown graves in the great wars. It un[der]lines again the constant memory shared by those who even though the turbulence of time should have rendered us less emotional, it has not in fact done so but rather lifted our spirits to a new understanding of sacrifice and devotion to duty. Fourth, in a very real sense I finally laid my own brother to rest. He was lost ‘somewhere North of Scotland’ on a flying mission in September 1943. His body was never recovered."

Grave Marker

The grave marker stone. (Photo from the Dirk Septer collection.)

Third time lucky. After 64 years Second World War airman’s grave finally gets the correct headstone

Intrigued by this uncommon oversight of not properly marking this Second World War airman’s grave, I decided to try to figure out what had gone wrong. Records showed that on 9 May 1944, the Canadian Agency of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission indeed had ordered this headstone to mark this grave on the Meadow Island Cemetery near Bella Bella. Having a closer look at the headstone with the RCAF crest, manufactured by B.C. Monumental Works Ltd., of Vancouver, I noted a small typo. The marker actually read: "An airman of the R.C.A.F. unidentified. Recovered at Prince (Italics are mine) Island 3rd Sept., 1943. Known to God."

Was it this typo on the grave marker as to the location where the body had been found that prevented the original placement at the time? Did someone spot the mistake and the marker and set aside till another one with the correct spelling could be produced? If so, it never materialized and the rediscovered, incorrect grave marker was eventually placed on the grave 37 years late.

Subsequently I contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, pointing out this error. Dominique Boulais, Deputy Secretary–General Canadian Agency of the Commission, Ottawa assured me they would make the appropriate modification to their file and make arrangements to replace the headstone during their next scheduled inspection visit.

Late in 2007, the brand new headstone manufactured by the Commission’s contractor was delivered and placed on the grave. Finally this unknown RCAF airman got the proper headstone after more than 64 years! Though Mr. Boulais had promised to let me know ahead of time about the date the new head stone would be placed, and Pacific Coastal Airlines having offered me free air transportation to attend this event, unfortunately I only learned much later this had already taken place.

Grave Marker

The second grave marker stone. (Photo from the Dirk Septer collection.)

Crew/Passenger list M427 B.C. Star 23 July 1943:

R128864 Cpl Charles Gordon Glover; R186865 LAC Harold Fredrick Dakenfold; R173910 LAC George Thornton Stead; R213870 AC1 Titus Vollhoffer R220368 AC2 Maurice Daniel Onuski; R58625 Sgt Philip Eric Olsen; R87823 LAC Clarence James Sherlock; P4319 FSgt Roy Henry Drouillard; R146033 Sgt Jack Douglas Hearfield; R220720 AC2 Gilbert Campbell McFadyen; R151826 FSgt William Ernest Mitchell; R128695 Sgt Jonathan Charles Slater; R255739 AC2 Arthur Garnet Davies; R124630 Sgt William Murray MacNeill; R56918 Cpl Tadeusz Ledwig Polec.

To quote from this article please cite:

Septer, Dirk (2018) The Disappearance of RCAF Supply and Salvage Ship M427 BC Star. 2018.

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