Sixty years ago ground was broken on a government project that for twenty-five years numerous individuals and families from across Canada called home. Construction on RCAF Dana, also known as Sagehill, began in September 1961. In October 1962 the Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader D.G. Bell-Irving, along with an advance party arrived on the base. The Civil Defence Museum of Canada reports that the “station was declared operational on 3 February 1964 and was SAGE-capable prior to 45 AC&W (Aircraft Control and Warning) Squadron becoming operational on 3 February 1964.” (https://civildefencemuseum.ca/dana-sk-1997-general-history-the-nbc-group) 45 AC&W Squadron, were known later as 45 Radar Squadron.
Being SAGE-capable meant the Dana station had the most up-to-date technology of the time. SAGE, an acronym for Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, consisted of a network of radars and other data sources and digital computers that receive the radar and other information to detect and track aircraft, process the track data and form a complete image of the air situation. The system could also then guide weapons to destroy enemy aircraft. RCAF Dana, as it was known at that time, was part of the Pinetree Line, a series of radar stations located across the northern United States and southern Canada. The Pinetree Line was the first of three early warning radar lines that were developed in conjunction with the United States Air Force. As early as 1946, the Canadian-U.S. organization, the Permanent Joint Board of Defence, was planning the Pinetree Line. The second line, the Mid-Canada Line, was built slightly further north of the Pinetree, but these stations were used only briefly from the late 1950’s to early 1960’s, before being closed as the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line in the extreme north proved to be better able to detect and give advanced warning of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The early Pinetree stations underwent modifications as the SAGE computer systems were developed and by the time the Dana station was built it was equipped with AN/FPS-26, AN/FPS-27 and AN/FPS-507 radars, an FTS-2 Digital Data Processor and a GATR (Ground to Air Transmit and Receive) site. Both the AN/FPS-26 and the AN/FPS-507 were height finding radar, while the AN/FPS-27 was a long-range search radar designed to have a maximum range of 220 nautical miles and search to an altitude of 150,000 feet or 46 km.
In the post-World War II era, tensions between the United States and the USSR escalated. The Communist policies and ideologies did not sit well with the Americans who felt the doctrines of Communism would destroy the free world. When the United States learned that the USSR had developed and tested a nuclear bomb the perceived threat of attack over the North Pole increased exponentially and the race to develop and man early detection sites accelerated. The so-called Cold War was underway. The “War” lasted roughly 45 years as the two ‘super-powers’, the United States and the Soviet Union, struggled for supremacy in technology, space exploration, and arms development. While never openly engaging in warfare against each other both supported opposing sides in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War and other conflicts around the world. An American diplomat explained the thinking behind its motivated effort to contain “the Soviet threat” stating in 1947 the Soviet Union was a political force “committed fanatically” to the belief that the two governments could never agree and therefore the only choice was “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies” and “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation…by outside pressures.” For the next forty years, the ‘cold’ hostile relationship between these two powers would ebb and crest depending on who was at the helm in either government. During the early 80’s under the presidency of Ronald Reagan and after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan tensions reached an all-time high and the hands of the Doomsday Clock hovered at 11:57, while people around the globe held their breath waiting to see if either power was going to push the button and plunge the world into a nuclear war that none would survive.
This was the era during which the early warning systems were developed and deployed but although the mission of each radar station was a dire one, the families that lived on those bases were a community and, in the case of the bases in Saskatchewan at least, they formed bonds with the communities that surrounded them. Personnel and their families on base enjoyed an impressive list of facilities including a curling and skating rink, tennis courts, a swimming pool, bowling alley, gymnasium, chapel, community hall, school, manufacturing hall, apartment complex, football field, baseball diamond, cross country ski trails, playground, community garden plots and 78 single family dwellings. Dances and movie nights were a regular occurrence. Army life involved frequent moves as members were deployed to different bases and the time spent at any one sight seemed to average roughly three years. If a family was ‘lucky’ they might be moved back to a base they had served at before. The bonds therefore between those who lived on the bases formed quickly because they all knew the next move was only a matter of time.
By the mid 1980’s the political climate of the Soviet Union was changing as Mikael Gorbachev was elected the secretary-general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He worked towards ending the Cold War by engaging in talks with President Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the UK. Technology had also advanced to the point where it was decided that only the DEW line needed to be maintained as it could perform all the functions previously carried out by the remaining Pinetree Line. Thus, on March 31st, 1987 at 6 pm the AN/FSP-27 search radar of the Pinetree Line at CFS Sagehill Dana was turned off and its operations ceased. At the closing ceremonies held that day as reported in the April 9, 1987 edition of the Wakaw Recorder, C.O. Major Mykytshyn said, “CFS Dana and the surrounding communities have grown and matured together. Most radar sites are located near only one community, we were fortunate to have been located so near to so many communities. We have come a long way together and established a bond. A bond that is formed, pressed and cemented at work, in school, in chuch cannot be easily broken or dissolved. You have been good neighbours and have enriched our lives, we hope that we in some small way have enriched yours.”
In the immediate days that followed, moving vans were a common site as members were deployed to serve at other bases. The average number of regular military personnel stationed at Sagehill was approximately 120, with 60 public service employees, six commissioners and six teachers. By the end of July 1987 all were gone, with most being reposted within Canada. Major Mykytshyn was posted overseas in Holland, Warrant Officer Walker was posted to Germany and Sargent Dionne was posted to the Canadian Forces Base in Cyprus. In a simple ceremony held Friday July 31st, 1987 the flag representing CFS Dana was lowered and a new flag representing the Sage Hill Rural Development Corporation and the keys to the base were presented to Mr. Francis Yungwirth, Chairman of the Board SHRDC.
Specific pieces of the radar system were either retained by Canadian Forces or were shipped to the United States and the rest were scrapped out. From the GATR site the FYQ-47 that was comprised of a Data Analysis Programming Group, and Indicator Group and 4 height finder message consoles was sent to CFS Beaver Lodge Alberta. The Faraday Cage, the electromagnetic shield, was sent toe CFB Portage Manitoba.
Many families called CFS Dana home over the years and to read through some of the memories shared on the CFS Dana Facebook page reveals a true community in every sense of the word. I’m sure there were those who were not content during their time there, but they weren’t reflected in the posts on the page. It is sad that the physical “community” couldn’t survive, but the time was not right for its progression into something else. There are any number of things that could have been done with the property if the closure had happened in this day and age, for instance a gated senior’s community, but thirty-four years ago those were only found in warmer ‘climes’ and why would somebody be interested in something like that in Saskatchewan. However, although the physical community of CFS Dana is being reclaimed by nature, those who lived there and want to find others who share fond memories can find each other on the Facebook page, or listen to podcasts of other former residents who share their memories with the interviewer Tanya, who herself is a former resident. To find the podcasts go to https://blubrry.com/cfs_dana/ and perhaps share some memories.
Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Wakaw Recorder