February 1941. The world is at war in Europe and North Africa but there is no war in the Pacific.
Yes, the Japanese had invaded China and, yes, relations between the two Pacific super powers were growing increasingly tense, but few would have credibly predicted war between Japan and the United States.
That said, however, some Cowichan Valley businessmen were concerned that Japanese ships were loading American scrap metals (some of which had originated in Canada) and Island lumber, the former, they believed, for making weapons, the latter for making pulp and explosives. At lumberman G.E. Wellburn’s urging, Chamber president Capt. J.D. Groves had investigated and concluded that these materials were in fact being used in the manufacture of munitions.
"It simply amounts to this," explained the prescient First World War veteran: "We in B.C. are exporting munitions to Japan for the Japanese to fire back at us when the time comes, and from my visit to the Orient last year I am convinced that Japan is just waiting for the German spring offensive to jump into the war with both feet."
After Wellburn explained to the Duncan Chamber of Commerce that he’d learned of the Japanese shipping program from Chemainus and Nanaimo longshoremen, members expressed shock at his revelation. He couldn’t give names and he couldn’t quote anyone directly, he said, but they all told the same story, and Capt. Groves assured members that he had the facts: "I only wish I could tell you more without getting anybody in wrong."
Longshoremen had informed him that, without exception, the holds of Japanese ships loading Island logs (Note logs, not lumber, as far back as 1941 -TW) were already well-laden with ingots of steel and copper and brass scrap. In some cases attempts had been made to conceal this cargo inside oil drums.
"In other words," said Capt. Groves, "these ships are filled with materials for munitions. In going to Japan they are as good as going to an enemy country. And what Japan doesn’t want for herself will go on through Vladivostok and Russia to Germany." (The Germans hadn’t yet invaded the Soviet Union.) His concern was, the U.S. government had banned such exports. Why, then, were they being shipped? At the very least, the Canadian government should be informed.
And, speaking of bans, hadn’t Ottawa forbidden the export of fir logs to Japan? Yes, said Groves, but the logs being shipped out of Chemainus weren’t fir. They were "junk logs" from a company in the Port McNeill area that was believed to be subsidized by the Japanese government.
Junk logs? he was asked. "Scraggly logs, inferior hemlock, balsam and so on. Pulp logs, in other words." For those not scientifically inclined, he explained that cellulose was the basis of nitro-cellulose, and nitro-cellulose was the basis of explosives. "More munitions. That’s as plain as day," he concluded.
Millions of feet had already been exported, five loaded Japanese ships having sailed from Ladysmith alone. "And if you want to investigate for yourself another ship is coming in tonight or tomorrow morning."
The answer, he said, was obvious: Get Ottawa to extend the ban on the export of fir to all logs. "The Government can easily verify the facts I have given you. Probably it knows of them already. The things we’ve got to do is get our case before some dependable man of action in the Government [he suggested H.R. Macmillan], a man who’ll do something quickly and not pass the buck."
The Chamber resolved to draw up a resolution asking that (1) Ottawa "investigate the allegations with a view to stopping the traffic in war materials from our shores, which constitutes a serious menace to Canada and the Empire; (2) Enlist the cooperation of the U.S. Government in stopping the export of metals, thereby fulfilling its undertaking to the British Government to place an embargo on war materials; (3) To prohibit the export of all un-manufactured logs from Canada to Japan."
Copies were mailed to Prime Minister Mackenzie King and the Minister of National Defence, the provincial government and various boards of trades with the request that they distribute them even further.
To emphasize their point, they sought the support of other chambers. Picked up by the Canadian Press, the story "created a furore" in eastern Canada. Even Time weighed in: "It occurs to many a simple citizen of America that in selling anything as lethal as pop bottles [sic] to the Japanese their governments are simply fattening up a snake. And yet the sales of armament materials goes on."
The magazine quoted a Canadian doctor serving with the Red Cross in China: "For three years I have been digging Canadian scrap iron out of Chinese bodies, and I expect someone will soon be digging it out of British bodies, for Japan is now ready to attack Singapore." This statement was condemned as irresponsible by Prime Minister King.
The American embargo on war materials for Japan, Time sneered, "is even leakier than the Canadian. Only U.S. bans are on iron and steel scrap, allowing other scrap metals to go through unchecked…"
A somewhat bemused Ladysmith Chronicle noted, "It is a peculiar truth that the centre of a tornado is the quietest spot, and the sensational disclosures… about the activities of Japanese ships in local waters found Ladysmith surprised and mildly annoyed. For years ships have called at this harbour to load logs for Japan. For years this newspaper has recorded an opinion that B.C. logs should be milled in Canada… With the advent of war…the objection was reiterated… Now, with political conditions the same, with the pace of the export greatly diminished and the quality of the logs much inferior to those formerly shipped, the effort that sought to make the practice a sensational revelation seems slightly unconvincing.
"There is possibly a great deal in the insistence that hemlock logs will eventually become the base…of war materials… but when we think that anything can be converted into war materials…there is no except by a complete embargo of exports of any kind."
In Victoria, government foresters explained that B.C. had control over log exports only "to a point," but "none over old Crown grants, such as the Port McNeill limits from which these logs…are believed to [come]." The B.C. Minister of Lands A. Wells Gray said that the exports were entirely "under the administration of the Dominion Government," but he promised his whole-hearted cooperation.
In Ottawa, Victoria MP R.W. Mayhew urged the prime minister to make a statement
in the House. The government heeded the call by imposing a special export licence on countries "outside the western hemisphere". In April it was reported that the Japanese freighter Cuba Maru had sailed from Vancouver without her intended cargo of three million feet of hemlock logs. Not, as it turned out, because of the ban, but because hemlock "might be required in Canada in the season just ahead".
The Duncan C.-of-C. meeting that sparked all this was in February 1941. Ten months later, the Japanese attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbour.