Civilian Life




Reproduced with permission from The Beacon Supplement July 27, 1977


John Harvey Recalls


“The hustle and bustle, planes coming and going and what seemed like a million men moving back andJohn Harvey forth, this is the most vivid memory that I have of  Gander during the Second World War.”  John Harvey, who came to Gander in 1942 to work with the Atlas Construction Company, did not have too much time to get lonesome or homesick.  As a 19 year old, he was kept pretty busy, with the construction crews rushing to build the base at “a fantastic rate” and companies maintaining work around the clock.  It was work, eat and sleep.

Some of the men found time to relax and indulge in a little recreation in the form of poker games and drinking but not too many of the younger ones took part.

Of course some of the Newfoundland boys were too green to burn, Mr. Harvey recalls, and a lot got sucked into illegal lotteries.  Some of the more sophisticated men, usually from the mainland, would run a lottery or bet or sell tickets on anything and a lot of us learned the heard way.

A brisk trade was done in contraband cigarettes.  The practice was so widespread that the Military Police made nightly rounds to inspect the bunkhouses for these and other illegal items.  Only the military could buy cigarettes and other duty free items at the PX, the cost of a pack of cigarettes was 10 cents but the construction crews who worked for the Canadian government had to pay 35 cents a pack for them.

Mostly you brought everything you would need with you.  There was a small PX where we could get small items like shaving cream and soap but we brought most of our gear and clothing with us when we came.

Most of the men working here came because of the money.  Newfoundland and the rest of the world was just coming out of the depression and they were hard times.  Newfoundland had its share of real-life hobos.  During the 30’s there was no money at all, a trip to Deer Lake from my home in Carmanville cost $4.00 on the train so a lot of men simply left home without the prospect of work anywhere and literally rode the rails.  They would travel from one end of the island to the other riding under the trains and living in hobo jungles looking for work.

Most of the construction workers were fresh out of the boats or the woods, or, like me, young fellows straight from home though I had been working for a couple of years before I came to Gander.  I was the eldest of 9 children and when I was 16 it was time to get out and help support the family.  I cut wood for $1.20 a cord.  The average wage was $26.00 a month but we made $55.00 a month on Gander so a lot of men came.

In the 40’s the boom was on, construction companies were crying for workers and a man could quite a job in one town because he didn’t like the conditions or the pay and be sure of getting a job in another place.  A bunch of us had heard that there was work at Botwood so we set out and presented ourselves at the Botwood office as construction hands.  The quota was filled there but we were told they needed good men at Gander so off we went!   We just walked up to the gate, got a card, had our picture taken and that was it.

We lived in barracks, about 150 men to a bunkhouse with 2 or 3 mess halls to serve us.  The wash houses were in a separate building as we the outhouses.  There were about 4 or 5 thousand people in our section and we lived at the South Camps near where the present Terminal is now.  At the end of the runway on the west side of Chestnut Street was the rifle range for the Canadian troops.  This was the road leading to the South Camps and we could hear them practicing from the bunkhouses.  One pleasant thing I remember was watching the Black Watch Regiment parade up Chestnut Street playing the bagpipes.  It was a grand sight!

Most of the construction activity was taking place down the road on the Army Side near the railway station.  I helped to drive the trucks and I think I hit the first nail to being construction of the first “H” building on the Army Side.  We also worked on the Officer’s Mess and the Drill Hall. 

 The First Aid station was there too.  I can’t remember ever seeing a doctor but there were two First Aid men to look after the normal cuts and bruises.  Of course, the different branches of the military had their own hospitals and doctors and I suppose they were available to serious accident cases but I never needed them. 

 I remember one chap, Ed Green from Tilting, took sick in the bunkhouse.  He was in terrible pain.  We finally went to sleep and when we left for work in the morning he was no better.  When we got back that evening he was gone.  They told us he had died of meningitis.  I can’t recall that he ever saw a doctor though the First Aid men look in on him.

I was here only a few days when they moved some outdoor toilets.  They had filled the hole with quick lime and someone forgot to cover it up.  One old gentleman got up in the middle of the night and on his way out fell into the hole up to his chin.  He called and called and finally someone heard him and hauled him out of the mess.  The poor man was burned from the quick lime and was sick for days.  He threw up all the next day.

I would watch the planes coming and going on the runway but security was very tight.  I can remember watching an old DC-3 – it was white, I think, circling and circling all day.  She couldn’t get her undercarriage down and she was trying to burn off fuel.  We all wondered what happened to it – whether it made a safe landing or whether it crashed but we never found out.  The Battle of the Atlantic was on and planes were coming and going at a fantastic rate.  We saw a lot of interesting things happen but mostly we never found out how they ended.

I also remember a big Russian plane landing here and not a hangar could take it.  It was a six engine plane and not a common sight in those days.  Gander had a hangar that was reported to have the biggest doors in the world but the Russian plane was away up over the hangar.  They had to post a guard around it and leave it out on the field.

I remember taking my first driving lesson with a fellow from Quebec name Paul Gagne.  At that time, the men were moved from the bunkhouses to the construction site by dump trucks.  The driver  would pick up the men, back into the mess hall and lower the dump and the men would slide out and go into their dinner, then crawl back into the box of the truck for the return trip.  One day Paul forgot to lock the box and he dumped about 30 men out onto the road and right into the middle of all the traffic.  He was fired!  That night he was picked up with a couple of guns on him wand was arrested.  I didn’t hear about him again, in fact, I had forgotten him until a couple of years ago when I saw him on television with Hal Banks, the leader of the International Seafarer’s United, Paul Gagne was his bodyguard. 

Some of our boys were rough and ready and they were getting tired of being fleeced at the poker games and in the lotteries.  One of the Newfoundland boys got into a fight with a French Canadian and the Canadian hit him.  This didn’t go down too well with the boy’s brother and his friends so when they saw him beaten up they started to collect a few fellows to deal with the other guy.  By the time the word had spread around, there were about 500 Newfoundlanders looking for this one French Canadian.  They all cam to our bunkhouse looking for him and the riot started.  I was only young and pretty scared.  When I saw what was happening, I hit the floor and started crawling under about a hundred pairs of legs and into the bunk.  When the Riot Squad of the Military Police show up with drawn bayonets to break up the fight I was snug under the covers.


researched by Carol Walsh


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