J.K. Johnson lives with his wife Irene in a bungalow on Stones Bay Drive overlooking the scenic Stuart Lake. At 92 years old Johnson has lived in Fort St. James for 70 years. Not many people can beat that record.
Johnson is also one of the last living veterans of WWII in the province, if not the country. Born in 1925 in Calgary, Johnson enlisted in the Canadian military in September 1943, towards the end of the conflict, after returning to Alberta from California where he had been living and studying aircraft mechanics. “I guess I shoudn’t have [joined] really, because I had a job in Minneapolis, Minnesota.”
Enlisting in the
Johnson’s patriotism got the better of him and he made his way back up to Canada to enlist. “It was take the job in [the U.S.] or go home and join the armed forces.” Johnson originally tried to join the navy. I went into the navy recruiting office and they weren’t recruiting at that time,” Johnson said. “Right next door was the air force, I went in and joined.”
to Flight Officer
Johnson initially trained as a radio operator for an aircraft gunnery before training as a navigator and finally, upon discharge in September 1945, a Flight Officer. During his military career Johnson was stationed throughout western Canada in cities such as Edmonton, Saskatoon and Calgary, he was never deployed overseas.
Young people: enlist!
Johnson remembers his service years with fondness, urging young men and women to continue to enlist, saying, I enjoyed every minute that I was there. I would strongly suggest that any young man [or woman] who is more or less at loose ends should join the services. The navy, army, air force, whatever. It’s a great experience. Johnson served until the end of the war when he was discharged.
Settling in Fort St. James
After the war he studied in Calgary for a few years before deciding that he was too much of an outdoors man to be stuck behind a desk. It was then that he made the trip to Fort St. James in 1947. Married on his birthday to his wife Irene, from Smithers, in 1953, Johnson and Irene have five children: Kevin, Brett, Royce, Janine and Marilyn who they raised in Fort St. James.
Ever the patriot, Johnson set about organising and building the town’s first Legion building. “I was involved with the Legion right from the beginning,” Johnson says.
In an account he wrote down Johnson details the stages of the building’s creation with the help of volunteer labour well as the Legion’s first celebration in 1970. Johnson played a critical role in the Legion’s operations over the years, but in his old age he had to step back from the veterans organisation. “My conscience bothers me a bit because at one time I was very active in the Legion and now I’m taking a back seat.”
He says the Fort St. James Legion gradually begun to go downhill because of low membership, financial woes and “a sign of the times.”
Johnson recounted his first experiences in Fort St. James in the late 40’s in a memoire he wrote.
town in 1947
“I first arrived on May 20, 1947 from Calgary in a civilian Jeep with partner Percy Start. My first stop was Illerbruns Home Oil Garage, formerly Hi Lopers Blacksmith and later Armunds Garage and now Kal Tire. Second stop was Wise Mikes Social Hall bunkhouse run by Louie Vasse and Florence McGiveney – at the present site of Mr. G and the old Credit Union. Stayed two weeks. Then rented a small cabin from Illerbrun. Bought 3 lots from Hudson Bay Co. across from the garage and contracted Thomas Murdoch to build four small log cabins for an auto court to be called Evergreen Villa. First visitors while doing this were Earl Buck on horseback and Bob Ubiles delivering milk. In 1948 I built a small cabin for the office and residence.
The population of Fort St. James in 1947 was about 185 in 64 residences and in the Pinchi area about 22 people. There was an open air hockey rink and a community hall. The new year’s eve dance of 1949 was – 63F (-17’C) and prime for hot rums. The school had 40 to 50 pupils and 3 teachers. The 1947 businesses were: Illerbrun’s Garage, LR Dickenson General Store, Bill Faith caterpillar owner operator, Hudson Bay Co. with Bob Walker as manager, Lauren Usher in the store, later Walter Wraight and present Kings Restaurant, Stuart Lake Hotel – Dan Fraser, Harold Perison trucking, Blackburn Bros, Northern Freighters, Howard Blackburn caterpillar owner operator and Magistrate, Wise Mikes Social hall, Joe Seyforth fishing guide, Russell’s store formerly Bill Fraser store, Joe Huffman generak mail and passenger service, Carnell’s cafe – Charlie Carnell, Carnell Bakery – Ray Carnell, Dave Jones Taxi, Hoy’s Water transport, Central BC Air – Russ Baker, George Hamilton – part time fishing guide, Fort Machine Works – Russ Hallock, Douglas Lodge – Harry McCoachie in the summer only, Government outlets, Post Office – Norman Henry also was Mining Recorder, Lee Cochrane was Indian Agent, Roy Spencer – Dept. of highways 3 ton gravel truck, long handle shovels and small pull grader and snow plow for truck, Department of Fisheries – John Tuetons and Roger Goodlad, BC Forest Service – Alf Omera, Jack Bailey, Fred Smith, BC Police – Gib Perry. Local farms were: Earl Buck, Fred Smith, Ruby Ublies, Hagberg Chickens and in Pinchi area Harold Hill and Philip Robinson. Churches – Catholic church – Father Heterick, Anglican church. On the highway to Vanderhoof Cliff Harding was at Dog Creek and Charlie Nicols was at 14 Mile.”
– with files from J.K Johnson’s memoire and an interview with Jesse Cole, Caledonia Courier editor/reporter in 2014