Tag Archives: RCAF

DeBeck Letters: Life After Parkhurst

When going through accounts of life at Parkhurst one name that keeps coming up is Denis DeBeck.

Denis DeBeck poses with some ties and the dog Micky. Photo: DeBeck Collection

Denis DeBeck was the eldest of six siblings.  Two of his younger brothers, Ward and Keary, also worked a few summers at Parkhurst.  It was during those years that their mother brought the younger three children, Betsy, Nedra and Fred, to stay on Green Lake as well.

The DeBecks came from the Marpole neighbourhood of Vancouver where the children all attended school.  Denis graduated from Magee High School in 1928 and got his first job at Coast Quarries.  Over the next few years he worked various jobs, including a stint as his father’s office boy.  In 1932 he began working for B.C. Keeley (who bought Parkhurst in 1933) at his mill in Marpole.  A year later Denis was on the train bound for Parkhurst (in a snowstorm, according to his letters) where he would work on and off for the next five years.

Dorothy DeBeck outside Parkhurst. Photo: DeBeck Collection

During these years he married Dorothy, a friend of his cousin Barbara.  After the original mill burnt down in 1938 the DeBecks left Parkhurst and in 1940 Denis and his partner John Brunzen opened their own small portable mill at 43.5 Mile on the PGE Railway.  This was also the year Denis and Dorothy had their first daughter, Wilma.  Their second, Barbara May, came after they moved the mill to 48.8 Mile.

We are fortunate at the museum to have copies of letters written by Denis to his brother Keary between 1943 and 1944, when Keary was serving in the RCAF overseas.

The letters provide a glimpse into life in British Columbia during the Second World War and into the DeBeck family.  Denis provided his brother with family news and commented on the updates Keary sent about their brother Fred who was recovering from a plane crash.  When Fred returned to Canada their roles switched and Denis provided the updates.  While living at 48.8 Mile the DeBeck family appears to have communicated often through letters and visits, described once by Denis as “a three week raid on Victoria” where their parents had moved.

Wilma DeBeck and another girl on the PGE tracks. Photo: DeBeck Collection

Denis also sent his brother news of the mills in the area in his first few letters.  By November 1943 he was already looking for the next location for his portable mill, expecting to finish the timber at 48.8 Mile by the next April.  Locations mentioned were Nita Lake, D’Arcy and Squamish.

Alf Gebhart’s house in the 1930s.  The Gebharts had a mill in the valley, but weren’t necessarily having the best year. Photo: Debeck Collection

From his news, mills did not appear to be having the best year.  As Denis put it, “Poor old Parkhurst.  Same old story, out of logs.  They are only running a 7 hour day and still run out of logs.”  There was also trouble with logs at Lost Lake and for the Gebhart’s mill.

In a letter from March 1944 Denis describes the new tool being used to fell the last of the timber at 48.8 Mile.  “We bought one of those power chainsaws and it works pretty good but not as well as we thought it would.  Very good for falling but no good for bucking in the woods.”  Despite taking awhile to start up, he claimed the sawing was “4 or 5 times as fast as hand sawing.”

Despite his predictions of moving soon, the DeBeck family was still at 48.8 Mile in October of 1944.  Though the letters we have stop there, the family moved to Squamish in 1945 and Denis continued to operate his own sawmills.  He lived there until his death in 2007 at the age of 96.

Searching the Callaghan

1956 was the year that a T33 military jet mysteriously disappeared over the Callaghan Valley area. The two pilots inside were never found and 60 years later only a few pieces have been found that would give us any clue as to what happened to the two men inside the plane when it went down.

The two men were First Officers James Miller and Gerald Stubbs of the 409 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Their flight was only scheduled to take an hour and a half and be within a hundred mile radius of the Comox base on Vancouver Island. Yet just seventeen minutes into their flight they were documented by radar as entering bad weather and were never seen again.

That is until eighteen years later in November of 1974 when the canopy of their plane was found in the Callaghan Valley, nowhere near where the search teams had been looking for the men. Forty-two years after the plane disappeared its fuselage was found not far from the Callaghan Country lodge, and then twelve years later in October 2010, remnants of one of the pilot’s helmets was found and identified by its colours.

Google Earth image of the location of the T33 crash debris. GPS data courtesy Whistler Search & Rescue.

Google Earth image of the location of the T33 crash debris. GPS data courtesy Whistler Search & Rescue.

The Whistler Museum now preserves those fragments of helmet in our archive room. It is likely they will have to be sent off to be cleaned at the Royal BC Museum though as our small museum does not have the resources to properly clean them. Archival-level preservation becomes especially challenging when you have multiple types of materials in a single artifact, like, for example, the plastic, foam, metal, and leather in a pilot’s helmet. Fifty-four years in the elements has not been kind to the pieces of the flight helmet and it will take a lot of care for them to be able to be displayed in the future.

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The remnants of the flight helmet.

The Whistler Museum also has what we can only assume is a piece from the windshield of the plane as well; a large jagged piece of curved plexiglass as well as a chunk of metal tubing. These pieces along with the helmet fragments were donated to the Museum from the RCMP after they were found in 2010.

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Callaghan Valley in the 1960s.

A television show called “Callout: Search and Rescue” even did an episode on this mysterious crash for the first episode of their third season. The episode covers the Search and Rescue team scouring the Callaghan Valley looking for any missed clues as to what may have happened to the pilots.

In October the Search and Rescue team does an annual search of the Valley and they continuously look for things like ejection seats, helmets or boots. Things that will withstand the elements and will also stand out in the forest. As of the last search in October 2015 nothing else has been found but the search still continues.

For more information check out this feature article written by Pique Newsmagazine in 2015.

By Michaela Sawyer