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A Lake Called Victory

When the Japanese finally surrendered without conditions, battered, nearly hollowed out and war-weary people around the world stood in disbelief (though they knew it was coming) for a few moments wherever the news had reached them—then burst out into a pandemonium of collective celebration. Like Victory in Europe Day three months previously, the world was awash in tickertape parades, convoys of cars draped in bunting and inebriated youths, jubilant service men and women grateful to have survived, and broken families, still looking at a future without a son. The following years would bring to light the terrible price and lasting psychological wounds of many, but for the moment, it was a wonderful thing to still be alive and hopeful, to take up life where it was left off. 

Folks everywhere found their way to the town squares, churches and gathering places to share their salvation from the horrors and deprivations they all had endured these past five years (longer if you include the Second Sino-Japanese War). Hope was in the air. Allied airmen, sailors and soldiers still fighting the Japanese from Burma to Okinawa took a knee and said a prayer of thanks to their various gods. Then perhaps a drink. 

When we think of Victory over Japan Day, 1945, we see crowds of thousands deliriously happy Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and Brits jamming central plazas like Times Square, but for veteran fighter pilot Bill Carr it was an entirely different experience. Photo via Wikipedia

When it ended, many were in remote places like Kodiak and Burma and the Marshalls, but few were as cut off from the world as Bill Carr and Bill McRae, two combat-tested fighter pilots, carrying out northern survey and mapping work in the unpopulated wilderness of what was then Canada’s Northwest Territories. It was a vast, trackless world of countless, uncharted and never-before fished lakes. Flying and camping light years from the conflict after years of constant combat flying was the perfect tonic for two fighter pilots who understood that soon they would be called to fight the Japanese. When the radio told him of the end of the war, Bill Carr and his surveyor team found a unique and lasting way to celebrate. Read on to learn more.—Dave O’Malley, Ed


Victory Lake—by Bill Carr

Bill McRae, a fellow Spitfire pilot, I and others, on returning from overseas, were lucky enough to be employed by the RCAF doing useful work while we waited to be sent to the Far East as part of Canada’s planned contribution to help end the war in that theatre. Our jobs for the summer of 1945 involved flying float equipped Norseman aircraft in the North on one aspect of the huge job to complete the mapping of Canada, where even then more than half of our territory had not yet been geographically surveyed.

Many of our 8- and 16-miles-to-the-inch aeronautical charts were pages with little or no topographic detail, but with horizontal and vertical lines printed on them to indicate Latitude and Longitude. Coupled to this lack of navigation help was the decreased reliability of magnetic compasses as one headed north toward the Magnetic Pole. Flying and navigating in these conditions was ‘seat of the pants flying’ and the term really described the type of flying the classic Bush Pilots developed when they had first invaded these unknown reaches of the vast territory they helped to open up.

With nearly 400 combat operations and sorties between them, Flight Lieutenant Bill Carr DFC (left) and Flight Lieutenant Bill McRae were highly seasoned Royal Canadian Air Force Spitfire pilots. Carr was a Spitfire photo reconnaissance pilot with 683 Squadron RAF at Malta and McRae was a Spitfire fighter pilot with 132 Squadron in Scotland and 401 Squadron, RCAF at Normandy. Photos via Bill Carr collection and McRae family collection

Project “Photo Canada” was launched by the federal government in 1944 and its goal was the earliest possible completion of the air survey of Canada by means of modern air photography processes. Before the War, the RCAF had been involved in this kind of survey and mapping work, but never on the scale nor the accuracy that in this new era was possible.

A key requirement in the program would be the method used to translate the aerial photographs to be acquired by high-flying aircraft into map detail, positioned and scaled accurately in terms of Latitude and Longitude. In those days, (long before GPS) the only way to do this was by means of astronomic observations made using a theodolite, to ‘fix’ specific locations on the ground that would be identifiable later in the air photographs.

The establishment of these ‘fixes’ was the job of the Geodetic Survey two-person teams delivered to locations throughout the areas to be covered by float equipped Norseman aircraft. The numerous lakes in the North were the runways for the aircraft and it was usually possible to deliver the surveyors within a few miles of the ideal location, which was to be approximately fifty miles from a previous site and in a grid pattern roughly north to south and east to west.

Our jobs were to fly each team and its equipment and supplies to these theoretical locations and land them on a lake that could safely be used by our Norseman aircraft. On locating a likely lake, the pilot would check it at low-level to make sure there was a landing area which was clear of obstructions, such as sand bars or rocks, and long enough for the takeoff run later.

Without accurate maps, the kind of bush flying involved navigation that depended on the pilot’s memory for surface features, such as lake shapes, eskers and rivers, and his sense of direction. The areas were vast, uninhabited and totally devoid of checkpoints such as railway tracks (The iron compass of the Prairies!), roads, bridges and buildings or radio navigation aids of any kind.

Flight Lieutenant Bill McRae in Norseman 372 flies over a Northwest Territorial landscape that includes Carr Lake in August of 1945 around the time of the Japanese surrender. The photo was taken from Bill Carr’s Norseman 2496. Photo: RCAF via Bill McRae Collection

Visual recall of areas flown over and good ‘air sense’ were the only means to avoid getting lost. ‘Bush Piloting’ was a knack some pilots had; many others didn’t. Much of the area we were working that summer, in the then District of Keewatin, North West Territories (NWT), and inland from the west coast of Hudson Bay, had never before been surveyed or mapped. A great deal of it had not even been travelled, even by the Barrenland Caribou Eskimos. It was mostly north of the tree line, fairly flat and abounding in undiscovered lakes and rivers.

Each of we Norseman pilots usually looked after a particular survey party. We kept it stocked with food and other supplies, and after off-loading them at a suitable (isolated and unmapped) location on a lake that could be safely used by the aircraft, returned to our base camp. This camp was always set up on a lake, useable by our Canso (PBY Catalina) support aircraft and it could be from fifty to upwards of two hundred miles distant, depending on how successful our survey party had been and how far we had moved them along. At the base camp, reserve stocks of supplies were maintained, a powerful HF radio station was operated and our ground staff included a cook, and our aircraft mechanics looked after the aircraft as they returned to camp. The survey party’s load filled the aircraft and prevented the carrying of crewmen. Thus, except when moving a party, the pilot was very much on his own most of the time.

The author, Bill Carr (left) and fellow pilot Bill McRae (right) join two members of a film crew sent to record their northern mapping activities. Photo via Bill McRae Collection

At the base camp we would check the aircraft’s serviceability, refuel, load up with food, batteries for their small communications transceivers and whatever else the party needed, and return to move them again within a couple of days in the hope that clear skies at night would have allowed them to have completed their observations. And, in retrospect, while I can’t speak for the other two pilots, in the back of my mind always was the earnest hope I would be able to find them on that unmapped lake, in the vast unmapped ‘Barrens’ of the NWT.

By August in the summer of 1945 we had progressed well in our work. On the 10th of the month I had landed my party of Mr. and Mrs. Tom Manning on a picture perfect very large lake about one hundred miles North West of Eskimo Point. The following morning, I headed for a small gas cache I had set up about seventy five miles distant to top up my gas tanks. 

Use of such a cache was a time saver as we progressed further and further from the base camp. Because I had this supply of gas fairly close by, there was no need to fly the nearly two hundred miles there to refuel. After topping up at my cache I flew back to spend the time with the Mannings until they would be ready to move on to the next point. They finished their work on the night of the 13/14th of August.

Like many of the lakes we used, this one too, until then, had no name. However, the surveyors often suggested a name and, sometimes, these suggestions were adopted by the officials in Ottawa. The lake in this instance is shown on today’s maps as Carr Lake. 

Along with McRae Lake, Carr Lake (above) remains a lasting memory to two fine young men who fought in the Second World War, who helped map the north, and whose humble voices have helped keep our aviation heritage alive. Image via Google Maps

After breakfast on the 14th, we took down the surveyors tent, packed their gear, loaded up, got airborne, circled and took the required air photos of the site and headed for the next point where we found there was another very big and deep lake which was by my calculation just about fifty miles from our previous Geodetic Point. It had an excellent sheltered shoreline for the Norseman and a dry rock free spot for the surveyors’ tent and theodolite.

Bill Carr’s Norseman 2496 is seen tied to the shore at a site known simply at Pt. 3. Carr’s Norseman was painted in standard RCAF camouflage and Type C-1 Roundels. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

A magnificent photo from August of 1945—a beach on Windy Lake, a tent, two float planes, pristine water and a wonderful reward for two weary fighter pilots. Carr’s Norseman 2496 is at right. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

My logbook shows I again stayed overnight. Before spreading my sleeping bag on the floor of my aircraft, and as was always the case, I had to use my old fashioned Flit Gun, which was loaded with DDT suspended in kerosene, to spray and hopefully kill off the Deer Flies and mosquitoes before I could sleep. Clearly, this was long before we became paranoid about DDT, but believe me it worked, and to my knowledge, none of us who had used DDT with such abandon, later suffered any ill effects!

I woke early the following morning, took care of my ablutions including a quick (cold) dip in the lake, and seeing no activity around the Mannings’ tent, decided I would try to tune in the BBC on the Norseman’s shortwave communications radio to learn what the news of the world might be. The Mannings had worked late as was often the case in getting the astronomic observations they needed. They obviously had slept in. 

The BBC’s shortwave News service came in loud and clear but much to my surprise, the BBC’s usual staid reporting was missing and a very voluble and excited announcer was talking about the surrender of the Japanese and something about things called ‘Atomic Bombs’ which had hastened the events of the past several days. (Again, thinking back, it is a wonder to think how isolated we really were and how little we realized it or worried about it.)

I scurried out of my Norseman and outside the Manning’s tent pounded on the canvas flap and shouted to them “The War is over!” That stirred them! The three of us gathered quickly in the Norseman and using headsets, together listened to more BBC reporting from all over the world. We had arrived on this beautiful clear water sandy shored lake on VJ Day! And, until that remarkable day, this memorable lake had no name. 

From the 14th of August 1945 onward, however, and forever after it officially is VICTORY LAKE.

Bill Carr

Bill McRae (left) and Bill Carr after arriving back at RCAF Station Rockcliffe on 5 September 1945. It seems they have cleaned up well after roughing it for the summer, likely at Kapuskasing before their 6-hour-long flight south to Rockcliffe. While McRae’s beard gave him the look of a swashbuckling submariner and was an effective shield against black flies, it was decidedly wrong for the RCAF. He was required to shave it off shortly after this photo was taken. Despite years of combat operations and participation in the mapping of Canada’s uncharted North, both men were still under 25 years old. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

For more on the author’s brilliant career, click here.

This vignette of flying on the north of Canada was previously published in the Canadian Aviation Historical Society’s Journal. The CAHS contributes immeasurably to the preservation of Canada’s immense aviation heritage. Aviation is integral to our country’s history and without the work, professionalism and passion of the CAHS and its members, much of our national heritage would be lost. You can join this remarkable organization by visiting their website.

The story was also published in 408 Squadron, the Rockcliffe Years and in Aeroplane magazine. 


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