People of Stephenville
The American Influence
... A personal story
This page is from a heritage partnered project. It was written in 1998 by students from Stephenville Integrated High School and edited by their teachers. It has not been vetted by the heritage website's academic editor.
When the Americans descended upon Stephenville, they created many jobs for Newfoundland and Labrador civilians and showed them a totally new way of life. Through interaction in work and social contexts, each acquired an appreciation for the other. The presence of the U.S. Air Force dramatically changed Stephenville, especially the town's people. When the Americans left in 1966, the people knew they could never go back to the way things were before.
Working for the US Military
There were many jobs created when Harmon Air Force Base opened in 1941. The base was never entirely completed because there were always new construction projects. During the initial construction of the base thousands of people were employed as carpenters, pipe-fitters, electricians, welders, mechanics and foremen. These jobs were available to all Newfoundland and Labrador civilians who had the proper qualifications. After the initial construction phase the number of workers was reduced to about 1600 people. These skilled jobs were still available because of any ongoing repairs and new construction projects. In addition to these jobs there was a need for waiters and waitresses, janitorial staff and many other types of support staff.
The wages for these jobs were fair. One was paid according to the provincial standards of the time. Many people do not know this, but the Americans would have paid more except the government would not let them. The government was afraid that if Newfoundlanders and Labradorians working for the Americans were paid more than those working for the Newfoundland government it would upset the "apple cart."
Newfoundland and Labrador employees had both civilian and military superiors. When working on the base, your superiors were very good to you. The Americans always gave credit where credit was due. If you did good work, and got along well with others around you, you were recognized for it. My father worked with the base for twelve years and received many such awards. An example was when he, along with other men, received an award for his safety record while driving heavy equipment.
You did need some education in order to get a job on the base and, as in most times, the more education you had, the better job you got. There were also correspondence courses available to civilians who wanted to further their education. They could be taken at any time free of charge.
When you drove through military gates onto the base, it was like driving into a different community. The laws and rules changed, the amount of security increased, the personal property looked different, and the roads and roadsides were even different. Military checks were made when you entered the base, and sometimes when you left. Cigarettes cost 9 cents per pack on the base in the mid-fifties and liquor was also very cheap. Civilians were not allowed to buy them and take them off of the base. However, if you had an American buddy, he could buy it for you with no one being the wiser.
The security was very strict on the base. You had to have your base pass with you everywhere you went and there were some areas where you had to have a special pass in order to get in. One time my dad forgot his at home by accident and ended up in jail with some pretty intense questioning. For some people it was hard to get used to military law. In town, you could go anywhere you wanted. On the base you were restricted from going to certain areas. The speed limits were much slower than in town. It went down as low as 15 mph in the housing areas and was strictly monitored. The lawns and front yards of peoples homes were meticulously well kept and you had to be very careful not to walk on them. if you were caught walking on them often enough, you could get a reprimand. On the base, all of the roads were paved and kept in excellent repair.
Many long-lasting friendships and many marriages were a direct result of the interactions among people working on the base. When the base opened, "the promise of many jobs brought train after train of gangs of men from all over Newfoundland [who were] unregistered for work and trusting to obtain employment." The men who stayed in the dorms made friends instantly with the other men because they were forced to live with them. These men also got to know the Newfoundland women and married them. This happened in the case of my parents. My mother is from a community a short distance from Stephenville and my father is from a community about 140 km away.
Of course, with all of the American soldiers present many of them married Newfoundland women. In the whole island around 30,000 Newfoundland women had married American men by 1958. There were also American women who came here and married Newfoundland men, although that knowledge is not as well known. The Americans brought their own nurses and teachers, most of whom were women. The officers who were married lived in housing on the base with their families. If they were older officers, they probably had teenage daughters of around the ages of 17-19 who could have married Newfoundland men. When these couples went on dates they had lots of places to go. They would sometimes visit the theater to see a play. Visiting the movie theater was always a favorite. There were also clubs on and off the base which they would visit many times, not to mention the restaurants that were very popular. When the base first opened there were many restrictions about where the servicemen could go outside of the base, and who they could see. Many of the men obviously paid no attention to this at all, as was seen when at the "1986 EHAFB Reunion Banquet...a number of young people made announcements looking for their Army or Air Force fathers."
The United States Air Force Base changed Stephenville forever. The people that remain here will always remember the Americans and how kind they could be in a time of need. There is one time in particular that my dad remembers. There was this little girl who was deathly sick. When she needed a certain medicine to save her life, it wasn't available here. The Americans sent one of their jets on a training exercise to the United States to obtain the medicine. This little girl's life was saved because of a act of kindness. They would take any medical emergencies into their hospital if it was needed. Even my dad's life was saved in that hospital, and he will never forget it.
Impact of the Base
The Earnest Harmon Air Force Base left an indelible mark upon Stephenville. Their coming showed Newfoundlanders and Labradorians a way of life not even dreamed of before. My dad, along with many other Newfoundlanders and Labradorians coming into the base, experienced a culture shock. The number of jobs available helped the Newfoundland and Labrador economy through tough times, just as the work helped them adjust to this new lifestyle. Through the mixing of cultures and working together, many friendships and marriages resulted. Stephenville will never lose its connections to the base. When the base closed people thought that Stephenville would become a ghost town, and for a couple of years it almost seemed like it. Most of the homes on the base were closed, many businesses closed shop and many people moved away. The liner-board mill opened about 6 years later and along with the state-of-the-art airport left behind by the Americans, Stephenville bounced back to be the strong and vibrant community it is today.