Fred van Aggelen lived two miles away from Pauline Johnson School in West Vancouver, so when the air raid sirens went off in the early 1940s, he ran to an appointed parent’s house, close by, instead of going home.
“It was like a siren on a police car, it was a funny noise,” the 82-year-old recalled while seated in his quiet living room in Walnut Grove.
“I don’t know how to explain it. It would go loud then soft, loud then soft, loud then soft. If it was continuous I guess it wouldn’t be as effective.”
Just 10 years old at the time, van Aggelen, along with his elementary school classmates, practised several surprise air raid drills and learned to put on gas masks in case of enemy attack.
Though an actual air strike never occurred, the threat posed by Japan off the Vancouver coast was very real during the Second World War.
Van Aggelen is only finding out the details now.
“There’s so many people who don’t believe that this really happened,” he said, while thumbing through War on our Doorstep, a locally written book by Brendan Coyle, about the Aleutian campaign and war off North America’s West Coast.
“A boat would get sunk off the coast here, we never knew about it. But there were gun emplacements all put up.
“There’s gun emplacements in Stanley Park — and they still exist — and Point Grey there’s some, and up the coast there’s still gun emplacements. But nobody knew that they were there, originally.”
According to Coyle’s book, the first Japanese submarines began patrols of West Coast waters in December, 1941, from Vancouver Island all the way down to Mexico.
Searching for American aircraft carriers that escaped destruction during the Dec. 7 bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the subs began attacking merchant ships and land targets down the coast.
On June 20, 1942, Estevan Point on Vancouver Island became Canada’s first casualty.
Japanese submarines fired 21 shells at the lighthouse, where a radar/radio station was thought to be. With shells landing at the small village five km away, not one managed to hit the lighthouse. This was the first attack on Canadian soil since the War of 1812.
“We were so dedicated to the British that the Japanese didn’t seem to — there just wasn’t interest in it,” van Aggelen said.
“Everything was for Great Britain … even our own family, we were more interested in Holland and Europe and my brothers overseas than we were about the Japanese coming over here and sinking a few ships.
“We didn’t even know that was happening.”
From 1941 to 1942 there were 147 recorded sightings of submarines off B.C.’s coast from Alaska down to the Washington state/Oregon border.
Many turned out to be floating bamboo sticks, planted to look like periscopes.
One buoyed piece of bamboo appeared at Gordon Head, near Victoria, and was successfully destroyed by Canadian anti-submarine patrols on Jan. 31, 1941.
“(My parents) were always on the radio listening to the British part, but the Japanese part was really kept very quiet, and I don’t understand that,” van Aggelen said.
“Maybe they didn’t want people to get worried and stuff like that. People were really upset about the Japanese being put in the prison camps.
“For Canadians, that was sort of a — we just didn’t do that. Some of our best friends were Japanese.”
In the 1930s, a large percentage of the fishing industry in B.C. was run by Japanese-Canadians. Fearful that the fishermen could be spies co-ordinating with Japanese subs, in February, 1942, Parliament passed an order in council to allow authorities to search, confine, and confiscate property of all Japanese.
By March, an evacuation order was given.
Close to 23,000 people were relocated from coastal towns to six camps in the Kootenays, and were not allowed to return to the coast until 1949 — four years after the war ended.
In the Lower Mainland, many were first sent to Hastings Park, van Aggelen recalled.
“They got all the Japanese people, they took their boats away from them — I think they sold some of them — they took everything away from them and put them into Hastings Park,” he said.
“It became a prison. Nobody wanted to talk about it.
“The RCMP came along, and that’s what they did. They put them in prison.
“That was the start of people realizing that we were in trouble over here.”
Air raid sirens were installed on tall buildings or on top of power poles, and blackouts were in effect during drills.
Van Aggelen’s father, Cornelius, acted as a warden during these tests to ensure no light was visible.
“My dad was a carpenter and a builder so he would build frames, and the frame would sit in the window so you could have the lights on inside the house,” van Aggelen said.
“And he used to travel around during the air raid practices and make sure no lights were shining out of the houses, because one little light could point out to the airplanes that were going to come over where we were.”
Van Aggelen’s father was also involved in another important war measure — the construction of the Alaska Highway.
Built on an accelerated schedule by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the 2,500-km road linking Dawson Creek in northern B.C. to Fairbanks, Alaska was used to transport troops and supplies to the northern front, where the Japanese attempted a North American invasion through Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
Cornelius was sent with Northern Construction to build airplane hangars in Whitehorse, an important link.
Back home in West Vancouver, there were many other events that characterized van Aggelen’s wartime childhood.
Some of the teachers at school had husbands in the navy, and the students brought nickels and dimes to class to purchase boxes of apples to send to the boats, he said.
They collected grease from cooking to make ammunition, and aluminum pots and pans for constructing airplanes.
And everyone could tell the different between a Kittyhawk, a PBY Catalina or a Japanese Zero, just by its silhouette in the sky.
“When we were young kids, our hobbies used to be airplane identification and ship identification,” van Aggelen said.
“That’s what you learned. I knew all the airplanes and I knew the different classes of ships and stuff like that.”
He also knew the latest war developments from the local newspaper, which he delivered when he was young.
“During the Japanese war with the Americans, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died during that conflict,” van Aggelen recalled.
“I remember I was delivering newspapers and the bus stopped, and a lady got off the bus and she saw the headline and she just collapsed. You know, the Americans thought they had lost everything with Roosevelt.”
Although he does not remember the definitive moment when victory was announced in 1945, van Aggelen did keep a copy of the special edition paper that accompanied it.
“I used to be a collector,” he said. “Any newspaper that came out — Franklin Roosevelt, or James Kennedy, and ‘walking on the moon’ — I had all those newspapers, I had kept them.”
Today, van Aggelen hopes people will acknowledge the “war on our doorstep” and understand just how close it came to southern British Columbia.
“It was very, very secret,” van Aggelen said.
“If you really want to know the whole story, you should read this book.
“A lot of secret things were going on.”
– source: War on Our Doorstep: The Unknown Campaign on North America’s West Coast, by Brendan Coyle, Heritage House Books.
Photos, from top: Sixth graders at Pauline Johnson School in West Vancouver learned how to fasten gas masks, in case of enemy attack. Photo taken by Fred Van Aggelen in June, 1943; A young Fred van Aggelen (bottom, centre) sports a British flag T-shirt that says “there will always be an England.” Standing with him are his brothers John (right), Cornelius “Van” (top, centre) and Brenard. John was part of the West Van High Army Cadets, where “all the boys had black pants, white shirts, and a side hat and wooden rifles,” Fred said. “They were trained in sort of an army, cadet system.” Cornelius was part of the Royal Canadian Artillery and was awarded the Military Medal for his courage on a reconnaissance job, where he crawled on his belly to a German command hut to lay communication lines. Bernard lied about his age to join the navy when he was a teenager; Many Second World War gun emplacements, such as this one at Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver, still exist today as reminders of the war that lurked off the B.C. Coast 75 years ago. Photo by Miranda Gathercole/Langley Times.