1946 and too young to enlist

Hazel Simmell’s haunted memory of a
close brush with death in Ucluelet Inlet.

Claudia Cole displays this evocative west coast painting donated to the UAHS by Debbie and Roy Leuenberger. The painting was done by Debbie’s mother Hazel Simmell, and therein lays a compelling tale.

During World War II many Canadians too young to enlist wanted to do their part in the war effort, including many girls. Ontario girl Hazel Simmell’s parents would not hear of her joining up, even though she had turned 18. Finally her parents decided she should join her older sister Florence on the West Coast; she took the train to Vancouver, and sailed to the West Coast of Vancouver Island where she would join her sister.

In 1946, the two sisters were both working at Norm Salisbury’s tea room located near the entrance to the Spring Cove military base. According to Marion Hardy, a resident of Ucluelet’s senior’s facility in 2020, that tea room was the one place for locals and military men to get a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. Even 14 year old Marion, in town to work in a Port Albion cannery across the harbour, could catch a ride with her friends from a fisherman in his trolling vessel to get across the harbour for the treat of a visit to the Salisbury tea room. Getting off on the Ucluelet side, Marion said they had to follow a boardwalk through forest, then take a long steep stairway down to the tea room just above harbour level.

Norm had been in the area for years, listed as an employee of the government fish hatchery, perhaps cooking, while becoming known for successfully catering social events in Tofino and Ucluelet. It makes sense that he’d be the man to open a tearoom, with two military bases established. It may have been the first time Ucluelet could support a little café, and with all those servicemen and the general increase of population brought on by war, his business would be thriving.

Travel around town was surprisingly dependent on boardwalks and boats. In fact it was only when the military came to town that a gravel road was opened up all the way to Tofino. There hadn’t been much use for cars on the short stretches of roads. All transport from outside was by CPR steamer. Within town, it might even have been easier to get from one end of Ucluelet to the other by hopping on a boat someone was running down the harbour.

This must have been the case the evening of February 20th, 1946, when Hazel wanted to attend a social gathering somewhere along the harbour. Gilbert “Gib” Wesnedge, a young local fellow with his first fishing vessel, agreed to take 62 year old Jack Lipp, a kindly Scotsman who was the Esso Oil station agent, and 18 year old waitress Hazel to the party. It was nothing unusual, just the common method of getting around.

But that night, February winds worsened quickly and grew into a gale with waves reportedly 15 feet high. Control of the boat was lost. As the wind forced the little troller closer and closer to the rocks on Maitland (Hyphocus) Island, “Captain Gib” told Hazel and Mr. Lipp it was no use, they would all have to swim for it, as the boat would be pounded on the rocks and go down. Gib dove in. Hazel could swim but froze in terror. Jack Lipp had never learned to swim and knew he was doomed. He focused on Hazel, urging her over and over — she must go – now! A lifetime later, Hazel said she could still hear his voice, “Ye must jump in lassie!” but she hadn’t the courage. In her 80s, Hazel stated she believed Mr. Lipp finally pushed her overboard as he knew she would have no chance of escaping when the boat went down. Finding herself in the water, she struggled towards the shore in the blackness, until thrown up on barnacle-encrusted rocks. “I must hold on” was the only thought left in her mind, though barnacles tore through her skin as huge waves smashed down, attempting to wrench her away.

The Pacific Belle, a much larger fishing vessel from Vancouver was entering the harbour to escape the sudden rough weather; the captain ordered the searchlight turned on to help avoid the rocks. To their shock the light outlined a wreck, and then a man clinging to rocks. They risked their own lives getting as close as was safe, then launched a dory with three crewmen. They managed to get Gib Wesnedge aboard, only to hear two others had been on his boat. The crew of the Pacific Belle kept searching, and eventually their light picked out Hazel. Again crewmen got in close by dory, but after two hours in pounding winter-cold waves, Hazel was barely conscious, knowing only that she must not let go, no matter what. One of the crew got onto the rock and tried to pry the girl loose. She put all her remaining strength into pushing him violently away – and into the water. Another crewman went in and managed to save the first, then went after Hazel again. This time she was rescued. Hazel remembered vaguely that some First Nations men in a smaller boat had appeared, and moved her right up to shore. She briefly came back to consciousness, lying on a floor, looking up at light. She couldn’t see the slashed mess her legs had become. She was strapped to a chair and carried via the long boardwalk to a vehicle. The new road the military had built to Tofino made it possible to get her to the hospital, though Hazel, bleeding and unconscious knew nothing of the trip.

Her next memory is from a bed in the Tofino hospital. An old man with white hair was praying over her. A clergyman? Somehow, she survived.

If the military had not pushed that road through to Tofino, there would have been no hospital for Hazel. Her body, legs in particular, was sliced up so badly that massive infection developed which took long treatment; she was told she probably would not walk again because of scarring.

Once healing had started, she was taken to stay with an elderly Scandinavian couple who were “church people.” Because she was in pain and couldn’t even move freely, she was unable to care for herself let alone work, and spent several months in their home, focussed on recovery. Fortunately, being young, healthy, and very determined, Hazel did recover her abilities. For three months, Constable Redhead questioned her repeatedly about how the accident happened; late in life, Hazel still wondered why. She recalled with some bemusement that at the train station for the return trip to Ontario, she was questioned again by an RCMP officer.

Jack Lipp’s body was found and his estate settled properly, his estate passing to his widow and only son back in Scotland. Perhaps we will eventually find the record of an inquest into the death of Jack Lipp, and learn more about the police interest.

Back in Ontario, Hazel’s mother insisted she must never speak of her experience out west. And she followed that instruction well, for most of her lifetime.

Hazel’s sister Flo stayed on here for several years, becoming Mrs. Norm Salisbury. The couple eventually moved to Port Alberni, where Florence and her friend Ann Lovdal from Port Albion opened a restaurant named the Florann (a combination of their two first names), located downtown on First Avenue. A yellowed Port Alberni newspaper clipping in the possession of the family says the new renovations at the facility were beautifully done, and the “up-to-date” Florann had all the latest modern equipment.

Later Norm and Florence also returned to Ontario where she and her husband spent the rest of their lives, raising daughters Florin and Elsie, but no one told the younger generation about the near fatal accident and injuries Hazel endured. Painting pictures in oils became Hazel’s hobby, and the family sometimes wondered why stormy waves crashing on dark rocks would be a frequent subject of her work.

That is, until Hazel was an elderly woman, nearing the end of her life.

One day, she casually mentioned to her daughter Debbie Leuenberger that she had come very close to death by drowning when out on the West Coast. Debbie’s first thought was “Oh no, Mom’s imagining things!” The condition of her mother’s mind worried her, so she questioned her, and was amazed at the detailed story gradually recounted. Debbie scrawled quick notes, trying to get it all down each time her mother told more of the story. Where on earth was this U-cu-let place? Snippets came up from Hazel’s memory: Captain Gibb? Barnacles and rocks? A kind old Scotsman who called her lassie and urged her to save herself? Hazel talked of repeated questioning by an RCMP officer named Redhead who kept coming around to ask the same questions…where were they going…had they gone to a party…what happened to Mr. Lipp?” The repeated questioning had made no sense to young Hazel who was still struggling to heal and learn to walk.

Hazel passed away not long after revealing the story, and Debbie had no one to verify it. Her cousins, the daughters of Uncle Norm and Aunt Flo, had never been told such a story either. Debbie held onto her notes for years, wondering…had her mother’s mind been failing? Was she having episodes of taking dreams for reality? Or was it all true – and would Debbie ever know?

In 2019, Debbie and her husband Roy were on a business trip to Vancouver Island. With one day to spare before returning to Ontario, her husband decided they were so close to this “Ucluelet” place they really ought to make the trip over the mountains and see if someone could finally end Debbie’s concern about her mother. Arriving at the District Office in Ucluelet, they were told to wait while an historical society volunteer was called in. Their questions were asked, and emails exchanged; the Leuenbergers went to their motel, and the intrigued volunteer lost no time in checking online archived newspapers – a story like that must have appeared in the city newspapers! With Debbie’s notes from Hazel’s recollections, plenty of evidence came to light. A phone call was made to local harbour-side resident Neil Wesnedge who explained “Captain Gibb” was indeed his Uncle “Gib,” the nickname for Gilbert. Neil remembered the sad story passed down to him about the sinking of Gib’s first boat that nearly caused the death of a girl, and did take the life of one man.

Debbie got her answers the very day she asked the question. Roy Leuenberger said Debbie felt so deeply relieved to hear it was all true, she had been brought to tears: her Mom was correct, it was all true. The couple insisted on making a donation to the Ucluelet & Area Historical Society. Further research brought a variety of documents, records, and Port Alberni newspaper clippings to the family, and additional generous donations to the historical society.

In 2022, Debbie and Roy donated one of Hazel’s oil paintings of waves on a dark rocky shore to the Ucluelet and Area Historical Society. It will remain permanently in the collection as a symbol of a woman’s haunted memory of a close brush with death in Ucluelet Inlet, and a reminder to all of us that many such sad mishaps have struck communities like ours, where the people live and work on the ocean.