La Macaza, Quebec

1998 447 SAM Squadron Paul Ozorak

La Macaza, Quebec
447 SAM Squadron

Nestled in the Laurentians a few quiet kilometers east of L'Announciation lies a medium-security federal penetentiary. The jail consists of a small number of buildings only a few decades old surrounded by a high fence topped with barbed-wire. A warning sign near the main gate cautions visitors that their vehicles may be searched at any time. While it may look like any other relatively-new jail, the La Macaza institution has something no other Canadian jail has: a nuclear past.

The co-operation Russia and the United States enjoyed during World War II for the defeat of a common enemy did not mean they automatically trusted each other. Ever since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Americans have cast a wary eye on the Soviets and the xenophobic Soviets, for their part, have reciprocated. This mutual suspicion continued during and after the Second World War and when the Soviets blockaded Berlin in 1948 and aided North Korea in the 1950s, their intentions became much clearer. The new Cold War saw a large increase in the bomber inventory of both sides and this increase meant new defences were needed.

Eager to join the burgeoning new field of anti-aircraft missilery, several American aviation firms began developing new rockets in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Raytheon, for example, developed the Hawk missile and Douglas Aircraft, the Nike-Hercules. The problem with these rockets was their limited range; a short range allowed enemy aircraft to get dangerously too close to its target before it was shot down. Boeing Aircraft took up the USAF's extended-range requirements and soon began work on a new concept called "pilotless interception". With the help of the University of Michigan, the company produced a sleek new missile that looked like an aircraft without a canopy. This new interceptor held great promise and was christened Bomarc after its two designers, BOeing and the Michigan Aeronautical Research Center.

The Bomarc surface-to-air missile (SAM) was created in twomodels. The Bomarc-A had a 230-mile range and was equipped with conventional explosives while the "B" had double the range and a 7 to 10 kilton nuclear warhead. The Bomarc-B's characteristics gave it a greater edge and when tests showed sufficient potential, a number of sites on the US's northern periphery were selected for basing. This made Canadian politicians somewhat nervous because a nuclear detonation over Canada meant radioactive debris over Canadian cities. A Niagara Falls, NY, base meant debris over Toronto while a site at Kinchloe AFB in northern Michigan implied a possible attack over Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Concerned over the fallout, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and his minister of defence Pearkes convinced the US Secretary of Defense to site the Bomarc in Canada at two locations north of the most populated part of the country. One of those bases was RCAF Station La Macaza.

Situated beside an RCAF emergency landing field laid out in the early 1950s and managed by the Department of Transport, Station La Macaza was built as a completely self-sustaining base. The site had all the amenities expected of an Air Force Station which meant married quarters, mess halls, administration building, recreational complex and a chapel. As the rockets final assembly was performed on site, the base also included missile assembly workshops. Fifty-eight Bomarc-Bs were ordered from the US with half destined for La Macaza; 28 were made operational and one was used for training purposes. These were housed in wheel-less and window-less metal shelters enclosed in a special fenced-in area. RCAF Station La Macaza and its operating unit, 447 SAM Squadron, were officially formed in 1962.

Despite the Canadian willingness to acquire these awsome weapons, there lay a political seed that would soon germinate into controversy. There were no serious problems placing the rockets themselves on Canadian soil but the US Atomic Energy Act forbade the exportation of its key ingredient: the nuclear warheads. But without these warheads, the missiles were useless. While in office, President Eisenhower had considered amending the Act to allow their release but a legal note from the Attorney-General's office recommended against it. The only way the warheads would be given (or rather, leant) to Canada was if a USAF unit remained in control of them, no matter where they were.

Some Canadian cabinet members balked at the idea of this American intrusion into their sovereignty. Despite the close co-operation between the two governments, some did not like having foreigners on Canadian bases guarding Canadian weapons. Meanwhile though, a Gallop poll indicated most Canadians favoured acquiring the rockets. The political row that ensued proved so fierce that some resigned over the issue. Lester Pearson, leader of the Liberal opposition, who first began as an opponent of the missile later changed his mind and decided his party would after all stick to commitments Canada made to the NORAD agreement. Pearson made political capital out of the Conservative split and when the next federal election took place, the Liberals won. The warheads were received in December 1963 and two weeks later, the missiles were declared fully operational.

The Bomarc's firing sequencing began with the horizontal separation of the shelter's roof into two halves and the raising of the missile from a horizontal to a vertical position. Ignition was controlled by a dual-key system, one carried by a Canadian officer of 447 Squadron, and the other by an American officer of the USAF's 425th Munitions Maintenance Squadron. The rocket was first propelled by a Thiokol M51 booster for the first 30 seconds after which the two Marquardt ramjet engines under the wings took over. With a speed of over Mach 2.5, the missile could outrun anything. At 65,000 feet, the Bomarc rotated itself to assume an interception angle. Its direction was controlled by a SAGE centre until the last ten miles when its Westinghouse DPN-53 pulse doppler radar kicked in. With a sevn to ten kiloton payload, the nuclear explosion assured the bomber's complete destruction.

Once construction was completed at La Macaza, the men and women settled down to their routine of tests, exercises and waiting for the big one. In 1970, the station counted 285 military and 74 civilians. Changes were relatively rare and one of the more visual was caused by unification, the amalgamation of the three services into the Canadian Armed Forces. This controversial process brought new uniforms for the airmen and a new name for the base, Canadian Forces Station La Macaza. 447 Squadron had its own heraldic crest. that consisted of a dagger held over a maple leaf. Its motto read Monjak Ecowi, Algonquin for "Always Ready".

As a young Member of Parliament, Pierre Trudeau was another Liberal who had spoken against the new missile earlier on. After he became Prime Minister, Trudeau ordered a review of Canada's defence policies. The resultant white paper issued in 1971 called for the dismantling of the two Bomarc squadrons in Canada as the only real threat from the Siviet Union was perceived to be from ICBMs and as the Bomarc was only designed to shoot down bombers, it had "officially" outlived its role. Some theorize that Trudeau simply did not appreciate the American paternalism veiled under the dual-key system. Whatever the real reason, the two SAM Squadrons in Canada ceased their operational role on 1 May 1972 and disbanded the following 1 September. The controversial rockets were sent back to the United States for disassembly.

Soon after the closure of CFS La Macaza, the establishment was transferred to the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. The department opened a school for natives there in 1973, the College Manitou. After a $6 million upgrade, the college offered courses in arts and social sciences to eligible students. Its life as an educational institution was brief since in 1977, the ex-base was converted into a Correctional Service Canada medium-security penetentiary.

Since adoption by the Correctional Service, all 114 married quarters at La Macaza have been removed by the rest of the installation remains today including the launch control centre in the Composite Building and the missile shelters. One of the large missile maintenance workshops is a fire hall and the base school, mess hall and chapel still serve useful roles. One of the additions to the penetentiary has of course been the high fence topped with barbed-wire. More recently, several large new buildings have been erected. The 6,000 foot airfield itself is no longer operated by the Department of Transport but rather by the municipality of La Macaza. Many of the missile shelters are now used for storage purposes, a far cry from the awesome power they once held.

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Updated: February 13, 2001