The Japanese Threat: Impounded On The West Coast: Navy, Part 47

September 28, 2011 by Marc Milner
Japanese-Canadian fishing boats are impounded at Steveston, B.C., December 1941. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA170509]

Japanese-Canadian fishing boats are impounded at Steveston, B.C., December 1941.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA170509

In 1939, the bulk of the pre-war Royal Canadian Navy—four of six destroyers—had been deployed on the Pacific coast in response to the very real threat of war with Japan. War with Germany soon stripped British Columbia of its naval forces, so that when war with Japan came there was little in place.

Superficially, then, the naval situation in B.C. in December 1941 was reminiscent of August 1914 when the cruiser Rainbow was the only ship guarding Canada’s west coast against the might of the German Asiatic Squadron. In truth, things were quite different. The Japanese navy that secured B.C. from German Admiral Graf von Spee’s ships 27 years earlier was now the threat. It was one of the most powerful fleets in the world, with large surface and aircraft carrier forces and a modern submarine fleet. It helped enormously that the United States was now an ally, and few people outside B.C. really believed they faced any serious threat from Japan. But no one could be sure and so in the early days of this new war, B.C. once again had to fend for itself.

To guard against the possibility—however remote—of a Japanese strike, Commodore W.J.R. Beech, RCN, Commanding Officer, Pacific Coast, had to secure over 8,000 kilometres of shoreline, much of it rugged, remote and uninhabited. In late 1941, Beech had only three corvettes, five Bangor-class minesweepers, four armed yachts, one First World War vintage coal-fired trawler and the armed merchant cruiser His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Prince Robert to work with. Within hours of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, Prince Henry and Prince David were dispatched from the east coast to help. New construction from B.C. shipyards in 1942 would be assigned to Beech’s command, including four corvettes and eight Bangors, and six Fairmile B motor launches (MLs). Even so, it wasn’t much. Indeed, at no time in 1942 did Beech’s force provide a proper ‘defence’ of Canada’s west coast. It was, at best, a tripwire. Only the United States Navy, the vastness of the Pacific and Japan’s stunning success in southeast Asia (which drew their energies in the opposite direction) kept the war away.

To augment his tiny force, Beech relied on the Fishermen’s Naval Reserve (FR), the so-called Gumboot Navy in deference to their standard footwear. Formed in 1938, the FR was comprised of B.C. fishing boats and their crews of European extraction—no Japanese or Aboriginal Canadians. The FR constituted a fourth branch of naval service, distinct from the RCN, the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve and the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve. Crews served on their own vessels, were spared the rigours of the pusser navy, wore no uniform and they could not be transferred to another branch of the navy or enlisted for other military service. In December 1941, 29 boats and their crews were mobilized for service. Painted battleship grey, given a hull number, a radio, small arms, in some cases Lewis machine-guns or if the vessel was large enough, minesweeping gear or asdic (sonar) and depth charges, the FR was sent off to patrol the coast.

Sadly, the primary focus of its initial activities was their neighbours and fellow citizens of B.C.’s large Japanese-Canadian community. In 1939, some 32,000 Japanese-Canadians lived along the B.C. coast, and many made their living on the sea. Poorly integrated into Canadian society, this large community was looked upon with considerable suspicion by their neighbours and by the authorities. It was widely assumed that some were secret members of the Imperial Japanese Navy reserves, and were primed to pass on information or facilitate attacks should war come. Canada’s official history of the navy, No Higher Purpose, Vol. II, Part 1, notes that the naval intelligence officer at Esquimalt, Lieutenant-Commander F.R. Gow, RCN, reported to Naval Service Headquarters “the local myth that it was likely that many Canadian-born Nisei were returning to their homeland for military training.” It notes that Gow confided his personal belief to a retired  RN officer that Japanese-Canadians  on the coast were not only organized “to some extent,” but that there could be no “doubt  whatsoever that a very great proportion…are Naval or Military Reserves.” The book notes that “ironically, he admitted that because Japanese-Canadians were ‘for all intents and purposes, very good citizens,’ he admitted there was very little excuse for searching their fishing boats.”

But the ‘problem’ of a distinct Japanese-Canadian community shaped many British Columbians’ anxiety about war with Japan. This fear was fuelled within the military and naval community in 1940 by a warning from American intelligence that “Japanese diplomats, including the consulate in Vancouver, had been instructed to gather intelligence with the help of ‘second generation’ and ‘recent nationals’….” At the time, Beech refused to countenance it. He responded to the news of espionage by the Japanese consulate (a customary activity of consulates then and now) by observing that there was no evidence of disloyal or suspicious behaviour on the part of Canadians of Japanese background. Nonetheless, by June 1941 he planned to seize some of their boats to augment the FR fleet should war break out.

A Japanese-Canadian fisherman is questioned in 1941. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA170503]

A Japanese-Canadian fisherman is questioned in 1941.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA170503

The primary mission of the Fishermen’s Reserve was to conduct local patrols, report suspicious behaviour to authorities and allow larger forces to tackle the problem. With such a rugged and sparsely populated shoreline, this made excellent sense. Unfortunately, as the RCN’s new official history observes, “The most significant act of the Fishermen’s Reserve once the Pacific war erupted was to participate in the seizure of fishing boats belonging to Canadians of Japanese ancestry in British Columbia.” The move was not unexpected by the Japanese-Canadian fishing community, and some offered to either moor their boats for the duration or assign them to government service. None of these offers were taken up. Nonetheless, Japanese-Canadian fishermen co-operated fully with the seizure, believing—erroneously as things turned out—that they would get their boats back. The seizure of Japanese-Canadian fishing boats, therefore, became the first act in Canada’s shameful dispossession and forced removal of Japanese-Canadians from B.C.

Canada declared war on Japan on Dec. 7, 1941, and the seizure of Japanese-Canadian fishing vessels started the next day. The armed yacht HMCS Wolfe and the FR vessels Moolock and Talapus left Esquimalt for Vancouver on Dec. 8 to collect vessels there, while the armed yacht HMCS Cougar set off for the Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwia), and FR vessels scoured the Prince Rupert area and the coast south to the Skeena River. On Dec. 9, the corvette HMCS Quesnel led two FR vessels to the west coast of Vancouver Island to collect Japanese-Canadian fishing boats.

Japanese-Canadians did not resist, in fact many brought their boats into collection sites, and so seizure went on without incident amid mixed emotions on both sides. Many Japanese-Canadian boat captains and owners were Great War veterans, like Sasuke Nakagawa. He had served with distinction in the 10th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force. Nakagawa’s boat was seized in the Nass River on Dec. 9 by the FR Takla. “I felt sorry for the Japanese,” one FR sailor said years later, in a quote published in the RCN’s history. “A lot of them I knew personally and those fellows hadn’t ever seen Japan. Some were veterans of World War I. They wore their tunics when they brought their boats in, and all their badges. They had tears in their eyes. It was pretty sad.”

As the Japanese imperial forces crushed all opposition across a wide swath of the Pacific, hysteria over the potential for a Japanese descent on the coast mounted. On Dec. 16, the Canadian government simply banned the operation—without expressed permission—of any vessel by a person of “the Japanese race” along the B.C. coast. As the naval historian concluded, for all practical purposes this meant no Japanese-Canadians on the water, and all their boats subject to seizure. The legality of it was known to be suspect, but the circumstances seemed to justify the action. One FR sailor later put it succinctly: “There is no fair way in wartime.” Perhaps. But the treatment of Japanese-Canadians after Dec. 7, 1941, remains one of the most discreditable events in Canadian history.

While the FR was busy rounding up Japanese-Canadian fishing boats, most of the rest of Beech’s small fleet was on patrol. The seaward defence relied on layered patrols. The armed merchant cruiser Prince Robert, just back from escorting Canada’s ill-fated force to Hong Kong, and soon joined by her sisters Prince David and Prince Henry who were scurrying back from the east coast, patrolled up to 240 kilometres out to sea. They were supported by RCAF aircraft. In 1942, Prince Robert and Prince David conducted 24 such patrols, giving the B.C. coast distance coverage about 60 per cent of the time. Beech always sent them out of Esquimalt under cover of darkness to reduce the threat from submarine attack. As Prince David’s captain, Commander V.S. Godfrey, RCN, concluded, the night passage of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with blacked out ships and no navigation aids, was more dangerous than “the risk of attack of enemy submarines during daylight.”

The heart of the inshore defences, and the primary task of Beech’s tiny force, was a standing patrol in the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the gateway to both Vancouver and Seattle, as well to major Canadian and American naval bases in the area. In early 1942, securing this crucial artery fell primarily to Beech’s three corvettes, Dawson, Edmundston and Quesnel. The threat in the Strait was thought to be submarines, and so anti-submarine work was key. Most targets, however, turned out to be submerged logs. In theory, at least, the corvettes were Beech’s best anti-submarine vessels: certainly they carried the heaviest depth armament of any of his fleet, and all were fitted with asdic. However, their magnetic compasses made them less effective in protracted sub hunts than the Bangors which were fitted with modern gyro-compasses. The corvettes were augmented by the occasional minesweeper and the armed yachts. Moreover, defence of the Strait was a shared responsibility with the U.S., and so the passage of major warships and large liners involved the USN and U.S. Coast Guard.

A Fishermen’s Naval Reserve vessel hauls in confiscated boats. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA134099]

A Fishermen’s Naval Reserve vessel hauls in confiscated boats.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA134099

The second most important task undertaken by Beech’s fleet was the Western Patrol, conducted by his little fleet of Bangor-class minesweepers (initially only Chignecto, but soon to include Miramichi, Outarde, and Quatsino). The patrol cruised the seaward coast of Vancouver Island, inspecting its numerous bays and inlets. It then covered the open water northward across the 240 kilometres of Queen Charlotte Sound to Cape Saint James. This patrol by one or two small and poorly equipped minesweepers, notorious for their poor sea-keeping ability, covered by one Prince ship patrolling 240 kilometres to seaward, was a gossamer-thin ‘barrier’ at best. Inside it, along the craggy shorelines north of Vancouver, the armed yachts Cougar, Wolfe and Sans Peur, FR vessels and, in time, the MLs watched the coast.

The challenge was enormous. Apart from the vast area and harsh sea faced by the Western Patrol, the threat from the Japanese was well beyond the capability of Beech’s ships. Quite apart from the size and skill of Japanese carriers, battleships and cruisers, Japanese ocean-going submarines—the real danger as events unfolded—were huge. Much like U-156 on the east coast during the First World War, long-range Japanese subs dwarfed most of the local RCN fleet. The Type B sub which operated along the Pacific coast, weighed 2,584 tons surfaced: a thousand tons heavier than the RCN’s River-class destroyers, and some nine metres longer. Their one 140-mm (roughly 5.5-inch) gun was larger than anything carried by Beech’s fleet except for the six-inch guns of Prince Robert. The subs were fast, too, at over 23 knots on the surface: faster than anything Beech possessed. And Japanese torpedoes were soon to prove unsurpassed in quality. So only the Prince ships could match the size and firepower of Japanese submarines, but they were no match for their stealth and their torpedoes.

Canadian navy authorities, therefore, had reason to feel anxious. On Dec. 7, 1941, at least nine Japanese submarines were headed for North America. One of them, I-26, sank the U.S. Army chartered lumber freighter Cynthia Olson northeast of Hawaii that evening by gunfire. The crew escaped in boats and HMCS Prince David, en route home from Pearl Harbor, was diverted to search for survivors. None were found. Fortunately, I-26 never spotted the cruiser. If it had, Canada would have suffered its first Pacific war casualty. After a brief search for the aircraft carriers that were not with the U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbor, I-26 arrived off the Straits of Juan de Fuca. Local forces—whether Canadian or American remains unclear—were clearly doing their job, because they discourage I-26’s captain from a scheduled bombardment of American coastal communities on Christmas Eve. By early 1942, she was on her way home. She would be back, and her return in June 1942 would produce the only high drama on the B.C. coast during the war.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

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