Remembering Harmon

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Jul 22, 2016 12:00 AM
A monument in honour of Ernest Harmon Air Force Base (Randy Smith photo)

This month, the town of Stephenville will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the closing of Ernest Harmon Air Force Base. This has inspired me to jot down a few memories of the American base, the mainstay of the area's economy for many years.

My recollections of Harmon are clear in my mind, but my memory of the area goes back quite a few years before that.

As a young boy in the 1930s, my family, from Curling, and two Goodyear families from Grand Falls, used to spend part of our summers in Stephenville Crossing. We often stayed in Bishop’s Hotel. It was a wonderful place and the Bishops were generous folk. One of their sons, Bob, had a vintage touring car and would take us on all-day excursions to Stephenville, Port au Port and Aguathuna, always stopping in Stephenville on the return journey to purchase strawberries from the fields of businessman A.V. Gallant. 

Years later, in 1941, the construction of Ernest Harmon Air Force Base began on those very strawberry fields.

In 1942, I accepted a summer job with the Newfoundland Base Contractors, an American firm engaged to build the base. I worked in the personnel department processing the paperwork required when someone got fired. I had an American counterpart and we worked together doing the same job, only he was paid three times my salary! (Equal pay for equal work - a point that is still being argued today.) Charlie O’Connell, my next-door neighbour in Curling, was my age and also had a summer job at Harmon that year. He was a grease monkey, applying grease to all the heavy equipment. Charlie went on to become a surgeon and, as I write, now lives in retirement in Ontario.

At Harmon, I was billeted in a building located in an area called Skunk Hollow. Why it was called that I have no idea - it was fine, clean and comfortable.

There was only one watering hole in Stephenville in those days, a tavern owned by Morris Boland of Curling. I remember it well - not that I consumed much beer, but because of two young ladies who worked there. They were sisters (last name Oats, I believe) from Deer Lake. They were lovely, good-looking girls, and every time I ventured inside, the older of the two would play “Yours” on the jukebox and dance with me. She was a marvellous dancer and such a nice person. 

Kitchen parties were numerous in those days, and I was privileged to be invited to quite a number in homes such as the Abbotts, the Joys and the Gillises.

Base TV
In 1957, I found myself back in Stephenville once again, but this time as the CBC Management Representative at the base’s television station. Since Canadian law prohibits foreign nationals from holding a broadcast licence in Canada, the station had American Air Force personnel as operators but was managed by the CBC. I felt I had joined the Diplomatic Corps!

We rented a lovely home on West Street, situated between St. Stephen’s cemetery and the RCMP Headquarters - a real quiet neighbourhood!

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Left to right: M. Sgt. Adolph Bryson; the author, Arthur Barrett; and 1st Lt. Eugene Hungerford

My office was located in the Base Command Headquarters - just down the hall from the office of the Base Commander. On Friday, November 22, 1963, I was sitting in my office when the teletype machine that was used for receiving news items from CBC St. John’s (and personal messages to me), started up. I crossed the room to see what was being received. It was news of the assassination of President Kennedy. 

I took it off the machine and proceeded to the Base Commander’s office. While he was reading, he pressed a button on the side of his desk and within seconds two CIA agents arrived and escorted me back to my office. One stood guard over my teletype and the other at my office door. Within minutes, the base was placed on full alert.

I had been issued a pass stating I was “sterile,” which meant that I could move freely around the base and was excused from all alerts. (It is just a coincidence that I never had more children after that pass was issued.)

Elvis & Entertainment
One evening, I received a phone call at home from an American colleague advising that Elvis Presley was to arrive at the MATS terminal in about an hour; he was returning to the US from his army assignment in Germany. I wasn’t overly excited, but I knew my teenage daughter would be over the moon. She had retired for the night but when I woke her with the news, she was dressed before I got downstairs. Her meeting with “the King” late that night must have impressed her because, on her 40th anniversary, she and her husband travelled to Las Vegas and were remarried in the Elvis Chapel.

There were many exciting events during my years at Harmon. The 4th of July was always fun, with lobster boils and amusements. On Canada Day 1963, the United States Air Force acrobatic team, the Thunderbirds, performed a wonderful show over Stephenville.

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Col. Bennett greets Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip at Ernest Harmon Air Force Base in 1959. (The author believes the gentleman in the black suit may be the American Ambassador to Canada.) Arthur Barrett photo

The official opening of the new Officer’s Club on May 9 (the year escapes me at the moment) was a black-tie event. The Americans spared no expense, bringing in entertainers from the US - including the Strolling Strings from Washington, DC.

A hostess was brought in from Montreal. She was very good-looking and appeared to be very efficient. However, she didn’t last long and we all wondered why. We didn’t have to wait long; her name made headlines from London and became known all around the world because of a political scandal. Who remembers Christine Keeler and the Profumo affair?

The years I spent in Stephenville were enjoyable and rewarding. I became the first president of the Rotary Club, organized and became the first commanding officer of the 708 Stephenville Sqd. Royal Canadian Air Cadets, and at one time was chairman of the Amalgamated School Board. My two children attended school in Stephenville - my son started kindergarten the same year my daughter started Grade 11, and they would go off each morning hand in hand.

I have nothing but pleasant memories of the years spent in and around the Stephenville area. When I spent time at the Crossing as a teenager, I had a friend by the name of Ron O’Keefe. He served his country with honour and distinction during the Second World War and married a war bride - Barbara. My late wife was also a war bride and also named Barbara. Both Barbaras came to Newfoundland in 1946 on the same ship, the SS Drottningholm. The two Barbaras have now gone, but they left their mark on Newfoundland.

I’m sure many people have wonderful memories of Ernest Harmon Air Force Base, and I hope they will share them with the Stephenville Town Council leading up to the anniversary. - Submitted by Arthur W.F. Barrett of St. John’s, NL

Click here for the latest on Ernest Harmon Air Force Base 50th anniversary celebrations, taking place July 26 - August 7, 2016, in Stephenville, Newfoundland.

Sheila Trask

Wow thank you for taking us down memory lane. I was six when the base closed and because we didn't have kindergarten I began with Grade One. I remember it well as my father had to move to Goose Bay after the base closed. My mother knitted many pairs of socks from the wool that we unraveled from rope that was used on the base. My father brought some home after the base closed. You could not break that wool. We called it steel belted wool.