Puntzi Mountain, BC

1986 - Former Radar Station Residents Plan Reunion - Irene Stangoe

December 31, 1966 is a date that will long be remembered by the many airmen and civilians who peopled the Puntzi Mountain radar station in the Chilcotin for 13 years. This was the date when the base was closed permanently.

Gone is the radar dome high on the mountain along with the administration buildings, the barracks, the homes, the curling rink, bowling alley and theatre, and all the other amenities which made it a happy vibrant community despite the isolation and the severe winter weather.

We loved it there and were sad when it closed, said former RCAF Corporal Clint Marin of Williams Lake, who is organizing a first-ever reunion this summer for those who lived and worked and played at the big station during its heyday.

Plans for the 20 year reunion call for a gathering at the Legion in Williams Lake on Saturday evening, August 30, followed by a get-together at the Pioneer Days and Fall Fair celebration at Alexis Creek on the 31st.

The Puntzi Mountain radar station was built in 1953 in a joint US-Canada venture called NORAD (North American Air Defense Command), its mission being the defense of the North American continent against air attack.

The Puntzi station, part of the Pinetree early warning line was a vital link in the Pacific Northwest region of NORAD which included bases throughout Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, British Columbia and Alberta. (In this area the bases at Mount Lolo, Kamloops and Baldy Hughes, Prince George are still in operation).

No one knew why the base was closed said Eric Berkelaar of Williams Lake, who was the steam engineer at Puntzi. He too remembers the date as a time of sadness. It was like a funeral around the station. We were told in the summer (of 1966) that it would be open for another ten years. But suddenly, even as new building was going on, word came of the closure.

Manned by the U.S. Air Force for the first ten years, then by the RCAF for the last three, Puntzi had a complement of 200 airmen year round augmented by a civilian staff of 75 which included clerks, mechanics, truck drivers, cooks, heavy equipment operators, and their families, who lived in a nearby area called Puntziville.

Many of the airmen dreaded being posted to the remote Puntzi base said Marin, but they came to love it and usually signed on for another term of duty.

In talking of their years at the base, Marin and Berkelaar and their wives were equally enthusiastic about the tremendous community spirit at the station and the wonderful times they had. "It was a happy place".

They talked of the handsome buildings with a mess for each of the officers. NCOs and airmen; of the four lane bowling alley, games room and snack bar; of the beautiful dance-floor with bands from Vancouver providing the music, and entertainers like Fran Dowie being brought in; of bingo games and first run movies. The entertainment was fantastic they enthused.

We had a unique golf course among the trees they chuckled, a nine hole course of pure sand that we built ourselves.

They talked of fishing derbies and hay-rides; of big barbecues using whole steers; of the two sheet curling rink where the rocks were cement filled coffee cans with bent iron handles; of playing hockey against the Indian team from Anahim reserve; of the Puntzi winter carnival, the rifle range, and hauling sand to make a beach at Pyper Lake.

Almost a city unto itself, Puntzi had its own 50 watt radio station which broadcast all the gossip; its own phone system which was just one big party line; and a TV sub station created by running a cable down the hill and through the base and village. It was snowy they laughed, but we had television.

Even the bitter winter weather (one year it was minus 68, said Berkelaar) failed to daunt them, even though they sometimes ran all night trying to keep oil from freezing - heating irons, boiling kettles of water to put on the oil drums.

There was a barber shop, hairdresser and laundromat, and a dentist and doctor flew in once a week from Comox in a DC-3. Even the prices at the canteen were fantastic. Brought in tax free from the States, cigarettes were 13 cents a pack, and you could get a bottle of Crown Royal for $1.80 (1962 prices).

But it wasnt all play and no work at the big base where the radar dome, seven miles up the mountain at 4500 feet, was operated by the skilled force 24 hours a day, as well as maintaining a 6000 foot runway which was the best in British Columbia. Strangely enough, only one aircraft, an Otter, was stationed at the base, and in poor weather it sometimes couldnt take off. We had some bad times too admitted Marin, saying especially when there was an emergency medical problem and a flight out was impossible.

The radar base had a great impact on Williams Lakes economy. Puntzi residents were frequent visitors to the laketown, usually staying at the Lakeview Hotel, and groceries, car parts, steel, fuel, lumber, concrete - literally hundreds of items - were trucked out the 120 miles every week, a trip that used to take 3 to four hours. Marin believes the heavy traffic to and from the base helped to bring about the building of a new Sheep Creek bridge and improvements to Highway 20.

When the Americans turned the station over to the RCAF in 1963, all the recreational equipment had to be destroyed. Manufactured in the U.S. for military purposes only and entering Canada tax-free under a NATO agreement, it could not be returned or sold. Rifles, aluminum boats, motors, fishing poles, table saws, bowling equipment, clay pigeons, 4000 music records - everything had to be broken, burned or buried in what seemed a senseless waste. It could not even be given away as it would have interfered with the local economy.

When the base was closed in 1966, Marin said 99 percent of the equipment was salvaged, and he recalled plane after plane coming in - big Hercules and Globemasters - loading up to disperse the equipment to other military bases such as Kamloops, Comox and Masset. He believed some of the radar components went to Vietnam.

For a few years the big buildings at the Puntzi station sat empty and deserted; then in 1970-71 a salvage company from Coquitlam was given the contract to demolish them.

Today there is little left except a small empty guardhouse, a large garage (now a community hall), a paved runway and a bare windswept field to mark the existence of the once busy Puntzi Mountain radar station and the community which surrounded it.

This article was written by Irene Stangoe and printed in The Tribune, Williams Lake BC on August 14, 1986.

Additional Comments:

The radar station at Puntzi Mountain was just one of 44 units which comprised the Pinetree Line. One area which remains something of a mystery is Which came first - the chicken (the runway) or the egg (the radar station)? Were these two complexes related to each other, were they part of a master plan, were they constructed during the same time period, or were they separate entities - which just happened to be constructed in close proximity? These and many other related questions remain unanswered.

The runway is 6,000 feet in length, hard surfaced, but it has never had permanent lighting. I have been advised that flare pots were used for lighting, when necessary, in the good old days. It is generally accepted that this runway was built to serve as an emergency landing strip or a potential deployment location for jet fighters from the RCAF Station in Comox.

The radar station, on the other hand, was financed and initially manned by American Air Force personnel. Construction commenced in the early 1950s and this unit became operational in 1953. Control was handed over to the RCAF in 1963 and the base was closed in 1966.

Any additional information which you may have pertaining to the runway vs. the radar station would be greatly appreciated. Please provide your detail via email message.

--Ren LEcuyer - May, 1998.