Reproduced with permission from The Beacon Supplement August 1, 1988


Gerald Smith recalls

A steam locomotive squeals to a stop beside a small shack, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

A small, sharply dressed man steps down and is greeted by a soldier brandishing a rifle with fixed bayonet.

The passenger is escorted to a guardhouse, where is methodically photographed and fingerprinted.  Officials then assign him a special pass, dictating the certain areas he is permitted to access.

It is 1941, the setting, however, is not a detainment camp in occupied Europe but a secret air base overlooking Gander Lake.

Such was the scene when Gerald C. Smith arrived at what would later become Gander International Airport.

Smith had joined the Royal Bank of Canada in 1930 and was working in Moncton  when his transfer came through.  He recalls that even as he boarded the train in St. John’s on the last leg of his journey, he had no idea where the then Newfoundland Airport was located. 

The tight security around the site stemmed from the airport’s indispensable role in the Allied war effort.  Just three years earlier, when the first aircraft touched down at Gander, it had been the world’s largest airfield, covering one square mile.

With the onset of war, Gander became the “jumping off” point for squadrons of bombers crossing the Atlantic.  Some 10,000 servicemen occupied the airport at any given time, housed in barrack blocks which were ever growing in number.

In addition to military personnel, there were a large number of civilians engaged in the construction of buildings and roads and provision of other essential services.

Smith’s early impressions of the airport, and the handful of buildings sprawling around its perimeter, are still vivid.  At first, he says, the only tarmac was on the runways, which seemed to him to be floating in “a sea of mud”, as secondary roads were still being carved out of the wilderness.

Yet, the airport and its tiny town were “a hive of activity”, both night and day.  And, the ceaseless roar of bombers and rumble of heavy equipment reflected an atmosphere of urgency in the work.

Such activity, however, had to be supported by a physical infrastructure of accommodations and services, all of which were introduced as the various needs became apparent.

As Smith relates, the establishment of a proper bank was one of the priorities.

“Here you had all of these people being paid with cheques and there was nowhere to cash them except the post office,” he explains, “and come payday you couldn’t get near the post office for the crowds.

On his arrival, Smith took a room in the  Gander Inn and the bank eventually opened in a room built onto the Eastbound Inn next door.  Money and records were kept in a safe standing in the corner and a wicket was provided, complete with bars on the windows.

Smith grins as he explains that the booth was not attached to the floor but, rather, sat like a huge piece of furniture in the middle of the room.

The payday mayhem was such, in fact, that the Newfoundland Rangers – the pre-confederation police force – had to be called in to control the crowds.  Smith explains that they would allow only five men inside at a time.  Once all had been served, the Rangers ushered them out and permitted another five to enter. 

Even so, the various contractors asked that the bank remain open on those nights to ensure all cheques were cashed.  Otherwise, workers were likely to board the train to seek cash elsewhere, thus missing the next day’s work.

There were few families on Gander during the war years, Smith relates, noted that of the handful of men who were permitted to bring wives and children onto the site, most were high-ranking military or airport management officials, met staff or radio operators and, by no coincidence, were those assigned to the duplex houses on Chestnut Street.

Smith was posted to St. John’s in 1944 and left the bank in August of ’45 to take a position as accountant with a city wholesaler.  With the end of the war, however, operations at Gander were being transferred from military to civilian control. 

The Newfoundland government retained many employees on their release from the military but others were recruited from abroad for their expertise in the fledgling industry of avionics.

Smith was offered the job of airport accountant at Gander, under the government’s new Civil Aviation Division, and returned in April of 1946. 

“By then, Mr. Pattison, who had been commanding officer for the Royal Air Force at Gander, had become Director of Civil Aviation .  Bradley was responsible for airport engineering, McGrath was Operations Manager and Rex Tilley was Tower Chief and later Airport Manager,” he explains.

His wife, Jean was here then and the first of their five children, a daughter, was born that year.  They had an apartment in the Mars Building and later moved into barracks across from the Airport Club.

“Stanley Samson had carpenters working steady for years, building those apartments,” Smith recalls.

Still later, the family was fortunate enough to move to a house on Chestnut.

Through those early years, Smith took an active role in community life, helping to develop services and facilities as more and more families settled in.

His involvement began back in 1941 when, as the story goes, he strolled into the Airport club during a board meeting and suddenly found himself elected president.  Presumably, the move was due to members’ respect for him as a banker, though he later admitted to having no idea how to run a meeting.  He pledged to learn,  however, and his position on the board became the first of a great many.

 Perhaps most notable of his community-related endeavors was his involvement in building a skating rink.  The facility was in great demand, though Smith recalls that hockey teams had to be brought in for an exhibition game when the stadium eventually opened.

Later, he helped organize a local hockey association and served in several executive positions on its board of directors.

Yet, Smith’s involvement in the community’s development was not restricted to the former townsite on the airport.  He was among the first local residents to build homes in present day Gander. 

“There were 12 of us”, he recalls, “who formed a kind of co-operative to start building in the new town.  I remember we paid a dollar per foot for the land and $250 for services,” he adds.

The lot he obtained for his new home was located on what is now Wilcockson Crescent, one of the new town’s oldest streets and where he still resides.


Researched by Carol Walsh


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