The Canadian airfield at Goose Bay probably impacted its surroundings more dramatically than any other military base established in Newfoundland and Labrador during the Second World War.
In the span of two years, Labrador’s remote and undeveloped wilderness became home to the largest airfield in the Western Hemisphere. Its population grew increasingly centralized as people flocked to the base in search of work. New modes of communication and transportation, including radios, airplanes, and snowmobiles, altered traditional ways of life and helped open Labrador to the rest of the world.
Impressive in size and scope, the airfield cost more than any other Canadian military base built in Newfoundland and Labrador. It contributed greatly to North America’s overall defence and helped deliver vital aircraft and goods to the United Kingdom.
When the war began, Labrador was an undefended and obscure frontier. There were no roads, access to the interior was limited, and transportation was by foot, dogsled, boat, or canoe. Aside from trapping, hunting, and fishing, no established industry existed to support the small, scattered population, and local resources remained undeveloped.
Still, both Canada and the United States quickly recognized Labrador’s strategic importance after the war began. Left undefended, its remote lakes, rivers, and plateaus could provide plenty of locations for an air-based invasion force to land – the Nazi invasion of Norway had followed just such a model. Conversely, an Allied airfield in Labrador would be an important asset. Aircraft could patrol the coast for enemy vessels and escort convoys into the Atlantic. The base could also serve as a refueling point to ferry aircraft from the United States to England.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) surveyed Labrador in the spring of 1941 to choose a location for the airbase. Heading up the investigation was Eric Fry, a government worker on loan from the Department of Mines and Resources. Within weeks of his arrival, Fry recommended a plateau in the Northwest River-Goose Bay region. The area’s level sandy surface, coupled with its almost fog-free weather made it an ideal site. It was also large enough to accommodate long airstrips laid out in any direction. After a July 15 visit, the RCAF approved Fry’s selection. A preliminary agreement was arranged with the Commission of Government giving Canada permission to build the airfield. A formal lease, not signed until October 10, 1944, later entitled Canada to occupy the base for 99 years.
Construction began in September 1941 and proceeded rapidly. The 3,000 labourers employed in the initial phase of construction worked almost non-stop, and through all weather. They bulldozed large swaths of spruce forest, built dock facilities to receive supplies, and installed temporary packed-snow runways. Although contractors were given four years to complete the project, three runways, each measuring more than 2,000 metres and able to accommodate the largest aircraft of the day, were built in just two months. The first military aircraft landed at the base on December 9, 1941.
As the region’s first large-scale development, the Goose Bay military base had a profound effect on all of Labrador. Air travel opened the region to the world, as supplies, manpower, and equipment were easily imported in hours, rather than days by boat. Snowmobiles began to replace dogsleds as the favoured means of transportation, while radios became more widespread.
The base also brought much-needed employment to the region, and hundreds of people traveled to Goose Bay from other parts of Labrador to obtain steady work. In 1942, the town of Happy Valley was established to accommodate civilians who had come from coastal Labrador. By 1945, the community had a population of 229. The nearby town of Northwest River also benefited from the base, as RCAF workers installed a water system at the hospital there.
Although doing much to bolster Labrador’s economy, the base also threatened traditional ways of life. Prior to the war, many Labrador residents sustained themselves by harvesting local resources – trapping furs in the winter, hunting seals in the spring and fishing cod or salmon in the summer. Year-round salaried work at the base disrupted this lifestyle. Trappers, for example, had to adjust to being rooted in one place and to working under someone else. Traditional diets also changed, and children in particular developed a preference for macaroni and cheese or canned spaghetti over game meat.
After the Americans officially joined the war in December 1941, air traffic increased dramatically at Goose Bay and it became necessary to expand the base. Work began to pave and widen all three runways, build additional hangars, and install a number of intercommunity roads. Construction crews built living quarters for 3,000 civilian workers and 5,000 military personnel, as well as heating plants, sanitation pumping stations, bakeries, laundries, and various recreational facilities. By the end of 1942, what was essentially a small city had been built at previously unpopulated Goose Bay.
Although the base was under RCAF command, American and British air forces also stationed troops there and had permission to build their own structures. In the summer of 1942, the United States Army Air Force began constructing its own accommodations and by the end of the year, the US garrison at Goose Bay numbered 325.
One year later, the base had become the largest airfield in the Western Hemisphere. It helped transport men, freight, and classified cargo to Britain and played a major role in ferrying combat planes to and from Europe. In 1944 alone, Goose Bay helped ferry more than 8,000 aircraft to Britain.
Immediately after the war, the Goose Bay airfield was used to transport troops and materials back to Canada and the United States for demobilization or transfer to other theatres. By the end of 1946, it was the only base in Newfoundland and Labrador still under Canadian command. British and American forces also maintained a presence.
During the Cold War, Goose Bay played a role in the air defence of North America against Soviet attack. It became a part of the Northeast Air Command in 1950, and the USAF made it a Strategic Air Command base seven years later.
In 1972, the USAF's lease expired and the base came under management of the Canadian Department of Transport. The department agreed to provide services and facilities to the USAF until July 1976. In September of that year, the USAF announced that it would end its active involvement with Goose Air Base and officially closed its base on 1 October 1976, which resulted in much unemployment. The economy rebounded somewhat in 1980, when the Federal Republic of Germany signed an agreement with Canada to use Goose Bay as a base for low-level flight training.
The base's current mission is to conduct North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and other Canadian Armed Forces operations.