Exploring Kamloops’ military history

Sylvia Gropp explains the history of the Bunkers near Kenna Cartwright Park.

Sylvia Gropp explains the history of the Bunkers near Kenna Cartwright Park.

by Jim Elliot & Marlys Klossner

On Saturday, Nov. 7, Kamloops Museum interpreter Sylvia Gropp led 20 Kamloopsians on a walking tour of Bunker Road, and then into the J.R. Vicars Armoury to learn about Kamloops’ involvement in the military. The tour was sold out, and Gropp said that there were nine people on the waitlist.

Gropp told the history of Kamloops in wartime through its legendary local personalities. J.R. Vicars, who the armoury is named after, once let a First Nations man who was a star player on a hockey team out of jail for one day so that he could play in a crucial game against Kelowna. Legendary pilot John “Moose” Fulton is said to have flown a damaged plane over a body of water, with the water lapping at the underside of the plane. The “Kamloops Kid” Kanao Inouye was hung for treason after working as an interpreter and later interrogator for Japan.

Gropp’s crash course in Kamloops history also included discussion of the War Measures Act, which is well known as the act that enabled internment camps. When the camps finally let everyone go, there was a huge influx of Japanese families looking for jobs and places to live in Kamloops.

“When they asked the Kamloops Kid why he had specifically targeted Canadians, he said that it was because of the treatment he got as a Japanese kid in Kamloops,” Gropp said.

Gropp also spoke about the other landmarks in Kamloops that serve as memorials, and the great support Kamloops has shown for its fallen soldiers.

“The federal building has a Cold War-era bunker in the basement, and before being developed, Rayleigh was a munitions testing ground,” she said.

The bunkers were constructed just a year before World War II ended and were never used to their full potential. Today, the bunkers are rented by different organizations, including the museum, as storage spaces.

The small houses on campus that are now occupied by TRU’s radio station, horticulture department and other campus services are a remnant of the area’s military past. According to current School District 73 Superintendent Karl deBruijn, who lived in one of the houses when he was younger, the entire TRU area was once a part of the ammunition storage facility built into the hills above McGill Road.

The ammunition storage bunkers and accompanying housing and administration buildings were built during 1944 and 1945 to house munitions for the Canadian and British Navies. Historicplaces.ca says that the bunkers were closed in 1963.

“People didn’t like that they were driving through town to the railroad with loads of ammo, so they ran a tram line down the hill. The winds were so bad that stuff was swaying all over,” said local historian Clarence Schneider.

Although the bunkers were no longer in use, the houses continued to see use from military and RCMP families until TRU’s predecessor, Cariboo College, opened in 1973. According to deBruijn, the other houses were occupied by five other military families and six RCMP families. DeBruijn said that he moved into House 5 in 1966, after his father was given a job at the Air Force radar station on Mount Lolo, and his family was given notice to leave in 1973.

The smaller houses, such as House 4 (Sustainability), were home to enlisted men, and the larger houses, such as the horticulture department, belonged to officers, according to Diana Skoglund, TRU’s media & communications manager.

House 5 is currently one half of Cplul’kw’ten, the First Nations Gathering Place, but in 1966 it was home to deBruijn, his parents and his six siblings. DeBruijn said that he doesn’t know how such a large family fit into the small house.

DeBruijn said that he went on to attend Cariboo College and attended a geography seminar in what was once his living room.

Retired Lieutenant-Colonel David Hanna lead a tour through the museum in the armoury. Kamloops has long been a place to train soldiers before they get stationed elsewhere.

The Rocky Mountain Rangers were an impressive force and integral in battles like Vimy Ridge. In fact, the armoury holds the original cross from Vimy that was built out of the wood from German trenches. “Six of the names on there we can confirm are from the area,” Hanna said.

The tour of the armoury felt very patriotic, with the walls lined with symbols of victory and photos of soldiers and the fields they fought on. The most recent displays were photos of troops in Afghanistan and fighting fires in 2003 in Operation Peregrine.

Hanna also mentioned the declining interest in military service, and the tightening of their budget, but said that the regiment still trains great soldiers.

While we toured, four Rocky Mountain Rangers were practising with ropes and equipment for the night’s hockey game, where two of them were to rappel down onto the ice. They were an interesting contrast to the historical Rocky Mountain Ranger uniforms on display.

The museum’s other Remembrance Day plans are to restore and update the cenotaph in memorial park before Nov. 11.