Arriving in Montreal in January 1969 was a somewhat traumatic experience for this Englishman. At 23 years old I had just been hired by Canadian Marconi (in Portsmouth, England) to work at "Saglek - a communication site in northern Canada". Marconi had arranged my travel and immigration, and the Montreal cold was a great introduction to what would become a most interesting tour of duty.
Following processing and medicals in Montreal I was informed I would be travelling first to Hopedale where a temporary staff shortage existed and, within a few days, I was on my way to Goose Bay. The flight from there into Hopedale in a Beaver was uneventful except it was the first and only time I landed on skis instead of wheels.
Before I arrived in Hopedale (about the 21st January 1969) the US Air Force had vacated the site. The base was somewhat like a ghost town and contained much more space than the small contingent of Marconi technicians needed. I was only at Hopedale for a few weeks and so have only a few memories:
The first introduction to the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) tropospheric scatter system was extremely interesting and impressive to me. This was my first exposure to the concept of tropospheric scatter and most of it was new material to learn. I had worked with Radar before so that was a little help.
Attending a dance in the local Inuit village. One of our technicians was seriously dating a girl from the village and the couple were planning to marry. The dance was quite an experience and was attended by what seemed to be the entire population of the village including the Moravian pastor (who probably viewed us with some trepidation). The local pop group played guitars and drums from a balcony above the main door (reportedly due to shyness). Following the dance we were kindly invited into an Inuit home where I remember quite a bit of scurrying in the dark as children sleeping in the living area rushed to find more private bunking locations.
To travel from Hopedale to Saglek it was necessary to return to Goose Bay. Transportation to and from Hopedale was by Beaver aircraft whereas service to Saglek was by DC3. Arrival at Saglek was quite an experience. At Hopedale we were able to drive pickup trucks to work but at Saglek we had our first encounter with the Trackmaster. Trackmaster drivers were to become our great friends and protectors as I was about to discover fairly quickly.
Some memories of Saglek are:
The incredible services available in such a remote location. The Gymnasium, Bowling Lane, Cinema, TV Station, Audio Room, Photo Lab, Snack Bar, NCO & Officers Clubs, BX, food services and more.
A couple of days into my tour I was stranded in a trackmaster for about 6 hours. Our driver missed a marker pole in whiteout conditions and we slid down a steep slope ending up out of line-of-sight and thus unable to talk to upper camp, although we could hear their concerns on the radio loud and clear. A rescue vehicle was sent out when the storm abated and all turned out well - but for a minute there...
The radio call signs for trackmasters were "Weasel" followed by a number as in "Weasel 2 leaving upper camp for BMEWS" signaling the 5-mile drive at the start of our shift.
Watching the first Apollo Moon landing on Saglek TV (KSAG) but some time after it happened due to the inevitable delay in receiving news tapes;
There was an incident, likely in the Summer of 1969 where several USAF personnel were stranded in a snowstorm while camping. Luckily they had met an Inuit fishing family earlier in the trip and one of the USAF personnel set out in the worst of the storm to find the Inuit camp. The Inuit took the personnel to their own camp until the storm abated. I believe a new tent was acquired and presented to the Inuit family in appreciation. Update: In late 2007 I made contact with Dennis Stanley, one of the people caught in this unfortunate incident. He has written up a detailed account of his memories which he has kindly given me permission to include in this website. Click on this paragraph to read Dennis’ amazing story of misfortune and good luck.
That same Summer I was helping George Hiscock (one of our Motor Pool staff and Trackmaster driver) fix an outboard motor for touring up Saglek inlet to the fishing camp (see later). Somehow we managed to assemble the engine so the cooling water couldn't circulate. Setting out to test the engine we were out about a quarter mile when the engine overheated and quit. There was a stiff wind blowing us away from shore and George and I had to row somewhat past our physical limits to keep us in one spot while the engine cooled down enough to restart. Luckily it did or I fear we would have been half way to Greenland before anyone missed us.
I was also stranded with our site supervisor and assistant in the Tacan equipment room overnight in a storm. The following Summer a portable-type refuge facility was built alongside the Tacan shack including a bed and a much-needed toilet.
The fishing camp was a place I only visited on day trips, but the camp was equipped for overnight stays and had emergency supplies. We could never get the generator to start though.
Our base commander Major James Kelly and the Saglek site were the subject of an article in Ebony Magazine sometime during my tour. Information was provided by SSGT Lance Tlustos who also featured prominently on Saglek TV. Update: Dan Ball, USAF Sergeant at Saglek in 1969, sent me a photocopy of the article (Ebony October 1969). Click on this paragraph to view it.
Initiation ceremonies for new USAF officers were quite elaborate. Enlisted men, posing as the base commander and other officers, would meet the new initiate from the plane and attempt to "start him off on the right foot" so to speak. The rather intimidating day would end in the NCO club where order would be restored. Newly arriving enlisted men were required to wear the "I am a Lifer" helmet and were treated to a somewhat more gentle introduction.
I remember one particular brand of beer that wouldn't sell and so several cases were stacked outside the NCO club for free pickup. Even then it seemed to last for a good long time. A selected Spirit was on special in the NCO club each night for 10 cents a shot. Understanding fully the evils of drink, Marconi allowed its technicians to draw only $20.00 from their salaries each month, however, what they didn't know was that the NCO club cashed personal cheques.
We (Canadians) had to go through Canada Customs at Goose Bay upon return from Saglek. Canada Customs viewed the Saglek site as foreign territory. Customs officers, however, were rarely if ever present to check us.
Saglek was a great experience for me and I particularly appreciate all the help I received from so many people, whether Marconi, Base Civilian or USAF. I am indebted to these people for the best source of stories in my life to date. I am also very thankful to those people who served at Saglek and are still today helping me fill in the amazing details of the site.
Saglek Air Station Circa 1969 - Picture by Dennis Stanley - Used with permission
Memories of a Canadian Marconi Communications Technician at Saglek Bay, Labrador 1969 & 1970