As the terminus of two transcontinental railroads and a major seaport, Vancouver was a clear target for any Japanese attack on coastal North American cities.
When Pearl Harbour was bombed on December 7, 1941, an attack on the harbours in BC became a frighteningly real possibility.
The main base for Vancouver’s defence was located at UBC—right in the spot where the Museum of Anthropology now stands. It was called Point Grey Fort.
“Today it sounds pretty loopy that we thought the Japanese posed a serious threat to this coast, but they really did,” says Peter Moogk, a professor emeritus with UBC’s history department and the curator and archivist of the 15th Field Artillery Regiment Museum.
“During the war, the Japanese were torpedoing ships in the mouth of the Juan de Fuca Strait and off the Columbia River. Submarines occasionally surfaced and shelled Fort Stevens in Oregon and also Estevan Point on Vancouver Island.”
Point Grey Fort was manned with 250 soldiers and logistics personnel throughout the war. Three six-inch calibre anti-ship guns were stationed there, along with several anti-aircraft gun sites and an independent power supply.
Down on the water’s edge, two searchlight towers communicated with a three-level battery observation tower at the top of the cliff.
Any ship entering Vancouver’s harbour had to first stop in an examination area to pass visual inspection; the main worry was that a boat laden with explosives would get past the First Narrows and into the inner harbour, where the shipyards and docks were. If a boat failed to follow security protocol—which happened on a few occasions—a shot would be fired in front of it to force the boat to halt.
It’s all a bit hard to imagine now, given the beautiful and serene backdrop of the city. Had the Japanese ever tried an attack, it’s also doubtful our relatively sparse defences would have been able to put up much of a fight. Yet, for a few years during the war, UBC’s land was considered key to Vancouver’s safety.
The military history of campus
The endowment land that the university sits on has its origin as a military reserve. In the 1860s, British authorities determined that the tip of the Point Grey peninsula should be set aside for strategic defence of the harbour.
“Most of the major parks in Greater Vancouver trace their origin back to military reserves, rather than nature-minded politicians who are glad to take credit for it,” says Moogk. “Stanley Park, Point Atkinson, Point Grey, Central Park in Burnaby, for example. But it was never used [for military purposes] before 1914.”
In WWI, German naval forces based in China were considered a possible threat, so a few temporary gun batteries were set up around Vancouver. As during WWII, Point Grey Fort was built up as the largest base.
In 1920, the federal government surrendered the military reserve land on Point Grey to the provincial government in exchange for the Chilcotin military reserve, located near Williams Lake, BC. In the 1930s, as the threat of war loomed, defences were once again built at what was now the UBC campus.
During WWII, soldiers rotated through Point Grey Fort on a regular basis as part of their training.
“Most of the people at Point Grey Fort were army,” says Moogk. “But there would be a variety of trades. There’d be military engineers to maintain the engines of the power generators and to run the searchlights, and artillery people to fire the guns. And then there’d be transport personnel, and there was a little hospital there.
“One of the war’s first casualties, at least for the Pacific Coast, was a young recruit who was shot by accident at the guard house.”
There were three circular emplacements built to hold the anti-ship guns. Underneath each gun was an underground magazine protected from enemy shelling by a thick concrete pad. A tunnel connected all the magazines with the command post.
In the battery observation tower, soldiers scanned the harbour entrance with binoculars that were attached to rotating bases. “The soldier in the tower would survey the area, and the searchlights were coordinated automatically to move with the binoculars,” says Moogk. “The people who controlled the guns would be sent the angles of fire and the other data automatically from the battery observation post.”
The searchlight towers were built so as to be parallel with high tide. “If you bounced the beam across the surface of the water, anything that was projecting out of the water would become instantly visible, even a periscope,” says Moogk.
“The shortcoming of the defences around Vancouver was the assumption that the principle attack would come from surface vessels,” says Moogk. In fact, it was far more likely an attack would come from submarines or airplanes. The Japanese had even developed aircraft-carrying submarines; the planes had folding wings and tails and were transported in waterproof hangars. One of these planes bombed Oregon during the war.
Bizarrely, the Japanese also sent incendiary bombs by hydrogen balloons launched from the home islands. The balloons would ride the stratospheric currents across the Pacific Ocean and were timed to descend over the North American coast. The intention was to start forest fires and create a general panic, and although some did in fact hit BC, hardly anyone knew about it—partly because the Canadian government kept it secret, but also because the balloons weren’t very effective.
A museum replaces the fort
When the war ended, Point Grey Fort was slowly dismantled. The guns were shipped off to European NATO allies with a greater need to defend waterways. At the end of the 40s, the fort was used by UBC for overflow student housing, and students would sometimes hold parties in the tunnels.
When the new Museum of Anthropology was planned in the 70s, it was quickly apparent that the gun emplacements were going to cause a problem.
Under the design by architect Arthur Erickson, the No. 2 gun emplacement was going to be right in the middle of the new building.
Bill Reid’s sculpture of the Haida creation myth, Raven and the First Men, was going to be a centrepiece of the new museum.
“I suggested to Bill that he plan his work for the gun mount itself,” writes Erickson in the book Objects and Expressions: Celebrating the Collections at the Museum of Anthropology. “The gun turret, the symbol of war, base for destruction, was to be vanquished by his haunting portrayal of Creation.”
Meanwhile, Moogk took action to protect the other gun emplacements outside the museum.
“When they were starting to build the new Museum of Anthropology, I went wandering out there. They had started to clear the site, and I saw these bunkers, concrete structures and gun positions,” says Moogk.
“And I talked to some people and I said, ‘Oh, this is interesting. It’s part of the history of the campus.’ But then I was up here one time and I heard these explosions going on. They were dynamiting as much as they could. But because we’re dealing with, in some cases, metre-thick reinforced concrete, all of it couldn’t be gotten rid of.”
Moogk wrote an opinion piece for The Vancouver Sun calling for the site to be saved, and now it is maintained by the 15th Field Artillery Regiment Museum.
Today, along with the restored gun emplacements beside the museum, the searchlight towers can still be seen down below on Tower Beach.
On the pathway down, the remains of a powerhouse for the fort can also be found.
The searchlight towers have been spraypainted in bright colours and the entrances have been welded over with sheet metal. “During the summers the nudists were using them as latrines,” Moogk explains.
Seventy years after the Pearl Harbour attacks created a real fear that Vancouver might be attacked, only a small part of what Erickson dubbed our “dubious defence effort” can still be seen. Yet it’s a significant part of the university’s history that few students know about today. Thanks to the effort of Moogk, the 15th Field Artillery Regiment and the staff at the Museum of Anthropology who helped save the site, that history is still accessible to those who are looking for it.