Growing up in Caronport and playing near the former airbase’s historic buildings instilled a desire in Joel From to write a book about the base’s interesting — but short-lived — life.
From grew up in Caronport in the 1960s and became familiar with the base’s structures since his father helped maintain and operate the buildings, while he himself helped repair them and played hockey in an arena erected in one of the hangars. He became interested in the buildings’ history and the thinking that went into their design, especially as the structures began to slowly disappear.
“In 2009, as I was watching them dismantle our large hangar, it occurred to me that although I knew the buildings, I knew very little about what happened here during the war (and) the story behind this base,” he explained. “And because the college moved here after the war, there’s no one around (who knows anything). Even the oldest people have no idea what went on here during the war.
“So it’s a big black hole in our history,” he laughed.
Thus began a 10-year journey to chronicle what happened at the Royal Air Force base, which trained pilots on 81 hectares (200 acres) of land that had been expropriated from bankrupt farmers in the late 1930s. During the base’s short existence — it operated from January 1942 to January 1944 — it turned out 1,837 graduates.
Based on interviews, published sources and research in Canada and overseas, From has written In Plain Site: A Biography of the RAF Airbase at Caron, Saskatchewan, which focuses on the complete lifespan of the training centre.
Since he recorded every name he came across during his research, From ended up with an 84-page document listing those names, which can be found on the book’s website at www.caronairbase.com. The book can be purchased online or from the Western Development Museum.
The book provides a comprehensive look at Caron’s selection and development, the air training operations, a big focus on the after-hours activities, the struggles of the English personnel to make sense of the Canadian prairies, and the hundreds of civilian contractors from British Columbia who operated the base for 18 months.
The book likely wouldn’t have been as comprehensive if From hadn’t learned about a trove of letters written by one of the base’s clerks. From — a professor at Briercrest College — was conducting research when a colleague told him about a cache of letters in the Saskatchewan Archives written by Vernon Peters, who worked at the base for 18 months.
The letters had somehow made their way to New Jersey before the Saskatchewan Archives learned about them and acquired them.
“When I read those letters, they’re beautifully composed and extremely detailed about the after-hours activities,” said From. “I thought, ‘Well, maybe this could become something more than just a little bit about air force buildings … .’ The availability of those letters made it possible to do something more broadly.”
Peters wrote more than 100 letters to his new bride, Vera, who was still living in England at the time. Some of the letters were three pages typed, describing in rich detail the “vivacious” after-hours social life of base personnel and the sports they played. Peters worked at the base from January 1942 to June 1943.
From met Peters’ daughter, Sylvia, while conducting research in England. She was completely unaware of her father’s wartime service or the letters he had written.
“Peters is our authority, an apt chronicler of Anglo and Canadian cultures as they intermixed at Caron … ,” From added. “His description of hockey games is a comedic gem. He really comes alive in these letters. It’s a wonderful narrative.”
From also discovered that the airmen participated in 16 sports in Moose Jaw, which, in the 1940s, was the most British city in Western Canada. The airmen likely fit into the community very well.
The airmen believed that everyone should be responsible for organizing the entertainment and not wait for others to do it, From added. This attitude persisted into the 1960s when he grew up at the airbase and is one reason why so many community-oriented service clubs were created.