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Exercise Muskox (Page 2)

Speech by Col. JT Wilson to the Empire Club of Canada, 18 April 1946

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Exercise Muskox

Speaker Wilson, Colonel J.T. Member, Arctic Expedition
Date: 18 Apr 1946
Introduced by: Mr Eric F.
Thompson, President, The Empire Club of Canada
Published in: The Empire Club of Canada Speeches 1945-1946
(Toronto, Canada: The Empire Club Foundation, 1946) pp. 354-369

MR. THOMPSON: Gentlemen--Prior to World War Two, we gave little thought to the defense of Canada; with our friendly neighbours to the South and bounded on the other three sides by wide expanses of ocean, we felt safe from attack but, with the advancement in Air Warfare, as exhibited in the recent world struggle and, the far reaching possibilities of atomic power, I am sure we all now realize that this country must give greater consideration to protective measures.

Canada, containing as it does, the Western Democracies chief source of Uranium, one of the principle components of atomic energy, might readily be one of the first countries attacked; should another World War come about. With these Uranium deposits located within 100 miles of the Arctic Ocean and our vast Arctic Area unprotected, our country has wisely seen the immediate necessity of determining what can be accomplished in a military way in our extensive Arctic Zone.

The Arctic fact finding expedition, known as "Operation Muskox" also "Operations Lemming" and "Polar Bear", were largely organized by our guest speaker, who is a graduate of the University of Toronto and a postgraduate of Princeton and Cambridge Universities. Among his scholastic trophies are the Governor General's Medal, Prince of Wales Prize, Coleman Gold Medal and Massey Fellowship. He holds the degrees of Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy.

During the war he served as Technical Liason Officer with the Canadian Army overseas and, subsequently as Director of Operational Research, Ottawa; a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society; Vice Chairman, Board of Governors of the Arctic Institute of North America; Chairman, Associate Committee on Geophysics, National Research Council. He is head of the recently organized Institute of Geophysics, University of Toronto.

Gentlemen, it is with extreme pleasure that I introduce to you, Colonel J. T. Wilson, who has just returned from the Arctic Expedition and who will address us on the subject "Exercise Muskox".

COLONEL J. T. WILSON: Mr. Chairman, Gentlemen and invisible Ladies if any be listening on the radio

This winter was the first time that anyone could plan ahead of time to fly up to the Arctic to arrange to meet a group of vehicles, snowmobiles, travel with them for some days in comparative comfort, and again on a fairly definite time-table be picked up by plane and flown back to Southern Canada.

As one of the few people who were fortunate enough to have this experience it is a great pleasure to come here today and to tell you something about it.

It is less than a month since I was last in Toronto, and since that time I have flown to Edmonton, Norman Wells, to Radium on Great Bear Lake, and up to Coppermine on the Arctic Ocean, flown out over the Arctic Ocean, joined the snowmobiles there, travelled back to Great Bear Lake and flown back the way I came in, and spent a week in Ottawa, and the month is still not up.

It is a great pleasure to come here and I wish to thank you very much, and to thank the Chairman for his very kind remarks.

This Exercise Muskox has had so wide a publicity that it is surprising that many people still regard it as a secret exercise, and your Chairman, in writing to me, hoped I would be able to say something about it. He, like many others, felt that there was a great deal of security and secrecy about this Exercise. Those of us who were at Churchill at the time it was beginning will remember, that for every two members of the moving force, there was at least one newspaper man, newsreel man, radio man or photographer, or something of the sort, all living with us, eating with us, travelling with, very freely, and if there was much secrecy left about the Exercise it was their fault, not ours. It was not possible to take them with us the full way but you have had releases from time to time on how the expedition has been making out.

The security was such that we had surprising accounts of our doings. One evening, in a moment of relaxation - and I would remind you the majority of these men had been some long time in the north, since November - we had a meeting of the Muskox Parasitical and Philosophical Society. At that meeting one of the meteorologists gave a very learned dissertation on the life history of the ice worm. At the conclusion we had a board of experts who passed on this scientific paper and presented him with a Ph.W.

To our surprise a few days later we got a Chicago paper and there on the front page, with a two column head, was an account of the life history of this meeting, and how we had heard about the life history of the ice worm. I have been wondering ever since whether the people of Chicago really believe there are these large worms, about ten feet long, wandering around the ice of Hudson's Bay, with 23 segments and three purple horns.

Another aspect that has been stressed on this Exercise is the international aspect, and the large strategic tactical implications, but it seems a pity to me that that side has been stressed, because obviously this Exercise which is taking place in the heart of Canada has much more meaning to Canada and the development of Canada than it does to any international affairs.

The route of the Exercise, as you see on this map or as you can visualize in your homes, lies along three sides of a square, starting on the west side of Hudson's Bay at Churchill, the route lies for a thousand miles north to the nearest of the Arctic Islands, and then for a thousand miles approximately southwest, through Great Bear Lake to the Mackenzie River at Norman, and then again for approximately a thousand miles south to Edmonton. That is the route of the Exercise and it lies right in the heart of Canada, not at the extreme northern limit of Canada, not at the extreme southern limit either, but right in the middle of it.

In describing this Exercise, I would like to deal with three aspects of the Arctic or the winter Exercises. I would like to say something about how the Exercise came about and what actually occurred or is occurring now on the Exercise, and what implications there are for the future.

This Exercise came about from the war, of course, when things were dealt with in secrecy and that is why this Exercise is still regarded as such a secret one. Really, the origin goes back to almost the beginning of the war. I am sorry that General Potts who was to be here, was held up by vehicle trouble, apparently and has not yet got here, but you will remember that early in the war he was Commander of a Canadian Expedition to Spitzbergen, a small island lying far north of Europe, at latitude 70 to 80, very near the North Pole, and for various reasons he was detached with a small Expedition to occupy that island. He went in summer time and because the matter was so diplomatically handled no fighting occurred, but I am sure he would have agreed if he were here, had the Expedition been a prolonged one and lasted into the winter he would have wished for some of the modern developments in Arctic equipment. At that time no over-snow vehicles of a very practical nature existed and clothing and food were not so good then as they are now for the Arctic, and signal sets were not made so efficient as they are now by winterizing and Arcticizing them. But that winter expedition and a trip to Alaska and the Aleutians, though as well equipped as possible at the time, had led to people realizing that a good deal of war was going on in the north and better equipment was needed.

They also planned at one time to invade Norway and they foresaw the need to fight in the Alps and the Appenines. They remembered the conditions they had encountered last winter and for all these reasons the Services were keen to develop better Arctic equipment of various types. The Americans, recognizing the advantage of having such a cold climate looked particularly to Canada to develop this equipment, so great efforts were made during the war along these lines. As equipment began to become available in the latter stages of the war, and as the plans for invading colder parts of Europe began to mature, it was obvious that Exercise of troops would be used to try out that equipment, and the first large one held in Canada was three winters ago in jasper, in the Canadian Rockies, where a battalion of British Lovett Scouts was sent out, a very specialized and highly picked battalion of mountaineers were sent out to train at jasper during the winter, and to climb mountains in the worst season of the year. Although there were no such mountain battalions in the Canadian army at that time the Canadian Army was able from its winter experience to provide a good many officers and instructors to participate in that training.

We were stimulated too by the fact that two winters ago the Canadian Army had held quite considerable winter exercises in secret in Canada. These Exercises. which your Chairman has referred to, and you have now heard about were Exercises Eskimo, Polar Bear and Lemming.

Exercise Eskimo was designed to test out equipment and men in the coldest accessible parts of Canada, north from Prince Albert and the northern part of the prairies, and two winters ago about a couple of thousands of men were distributed along the country and marched several hundred miles and rode in vehicles several hundred miles up to Lake La Loche and back again, and incidentally building as they went about 65 miles of road and testing out all kinds of equipment. That was designed to take place in the coldest part of the winter, and also in the spring and the breakup which is another problem there was another Exercise. About a thousand men was planned in the springtime to go through the Coast Range Mountains. We realized that on one side of the Coastal Range they would encounter severe cold, and on the other side they would have British Columbia's coast conditions, and rain, and in meantime find themselves in very heavy snow, and it was felt that the combination of these things with the spring thaw would provide quite a severe test for men and vehicles, which it did, but the men were able to travel about 600 miles and come back approximately on time.

These Exercises, if you think of the map occurred down in the southern part of Canada. Polar Bear and Eskimo were north of Prince Albert. It was recognized that north of the tree part lay the tremendous Arctic with no trees on it, and it would be well to look into that, so a very small Exercise, was held north from Churchill for 600 miles last spring, and it was discovered that the Canadian armoured snowmobile, developed in this country but which did not exist during the war, was a very efficient vehicle and could be counted on to travel sixty miles a day cross country over the barrens.

So immediately thought was given to staging another Exercise in the true Arctic this winter and those thoughts were already materialized or fixed before the war ended. There was a considerable hiatus, due to events of last summer, of course.

This Autumn the matter was again revived and it was decided it would be worth while to put on an Exercise in the true Arctic to give a final test to the development of this equipment which had been developed chiefly in Canada during the war. The equipment was already available.

The authority to hold the Exercise Muskox was not finally given until the autumn. There was no time to build snowmobiles, large quantities of clothing or package special foods, so what was available, what was left over from the war was taken and a great deal of that would not have been very satisfactory if it had been turned over to civilian agencies. So we took what was available and planned an Exercise in winter to traverse the Canadian Arctic. This Exercise Muskox has really been divided into four sections, four groups of men. The most important group is that commanded by Lt.-Col. Pat Baird, of the Royal Canadian Artillery, who was in the Arctic when the war broke out and like all the leaders of the Expedition he knows the Arctic fairly well and can speak some Eskimo so he new frankly what he was up against: His was the moving party to travel about 3000 miles in snowmobiles. It was decided he should take along a minimum number of officers necessary to run a unit--a Medical Officer, a Signal Officer, a Commander Quartermaster, and so on. Those things are necessary in any unit. Also a few scientists and technical officers, a few to specialize on vehicles, one to look into clothing research, one on radar, a couple of physicists and meteorologists, and the minimum number of scientists to cover those things expected to be found in Northern Canada.

In that way they arrived at a group of about twenty officers, including a very few observers from Great Britain and the United States. Then, in order to get the vehicles round when needed, they had to have some drivers for the vehicles, some signal men and a couple of other technical N. C. O.'s. So one way and another it came to a minimum party, to really cover what they wanted to cover in Northern Canada, of about forty or fifty men, and which would require ten or twelve snowmobiles.

Those vehicles it was intended should go a distance of 3,000 miles, starting from Churchill in the coldest part of the winter, and travel along north a thousand miles and southwest a thousand miles, and half way along the whole 3,000 miles the Expedition would cross from the true Arctic into the treed belt near Great Bear Lake, and come back via Norman, a thousand miles south to Edmonton, through the trees or trailed rivers, back to Edmonton, and they would come back to Edmonton at this time of year, in the springtime through the breakup

So the Expedition had to face two problems. It had to face the Arctic in February, the coldest month, and in the beginning of May they had to come back through the breakup which is quite a different type of problem.

In order to support the forty or fifty men bases were necessary and a larger group of men was found necessary to man the bases. The main bases were Churchill, on Hudson's Bay, Edmonton, and north of Edmonton, Yellowknife on Great Slave Lake, and Norman on Great Bear Lake. On those bases personnel were put in where a variety of supplies would be necessary, and to transport the supplies from the bases to the men who might be, as much as 700 miles distant and transport to the barrens where the planes rarely operate in winter, and where there are no airports, it was necessary to have a group of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and they formed a supply unit which has operated extraordinarily efficiently, and I would like to pay tribute to the wonderful cooperation we had and the great confidence all army personnel had that as soon as they radioed for anything, whether a spare engine or an extra case of food, or a parka that somebody had lost, or 'some special surgical instrument, whether large or small, they were quite confident that within a short space of time, usually within 24 hours, the Air Force would deliver it, usually by parachute.

Then the Air Force, realizing the barrens was a difficult part of the country to operate in and the planes quite largely avoided it before the war, and the distances were very great and as they were using mainly wheeled aircraft they had to drop their supplies, and fly seven hundred miles in and back and the 1,400 miles was quite a long flight. They suggested, though it was not absolutely necessary that they would welcome having some bases. So Colonel Rowley, who had also been in the Northwest Territories and could speak Eskimo and knew the north country, was selected to take an advance detachment from Churchill north to Baker Lake in the heart of the barrens early in the season, and he established an air base, a signal station and a meteorological station there which was done successfully.

Those four parts of the main moving force, the bases, the R.C.A.F. detachment, and the Rowley detachment were the four parts of the Expedition Muskox.

Rowley's trip, quite an interesting one, started the end of January and they travelled 500 miles north with tractor or snowmobiles in 20 or 25 days. The weather was extremely severe. In two weeks the thermometers did not rise about 38 below. It is no colder, I think, even at 52 below. The temperature stayed steady in the 40s, but that was not the only part of their troubles because during most of the time they had violent gales of wind, and those of you who think 40 below is cold, then 40 below with a violent gale blowing is a great deal colder.

A lot of the difficulty was that they had just two snowmobiles on one occasion and they had to lay up in a blizzard. When they dug out of the blizzard they couldn't get either snowmobile to go. It took two days work before they could get the first to start and you will realize that working at 40 or 50 below, and trying to get vehicles to start for two whole days is hard work. They arrived eventually at Baker Lake, consisting of four houses in which six people lived, or seven, including a wife and child of one of the white men, and a few Eskimos, a tiny isolated spot, 200 miles from their nearest white neighbours. It is a center at which the Eskimos come to trade and attend the mission. We were very hospitably received there and within 24 hours they were able to build an air base on which many aircraft later landed.

The following up behind Rowley a band set out from Churchill in the middle of February, on the 10th or 15th, and followed Rowley's tracks to Baker Lake and from Baker Lake pushed on across virtually unknown country. Some of it had never been seen by white man - and across the Black River to the Arctic Ocean. In the stretch from near Baker Lake to the Arctic Ocean, the only mapped feature in the 300 mile stretch is Black River. That was mapped in 1933. No corrections had been made since the original survey by Captain Black of the Royal Navy, and two stretches went across for more than a hundred miles in which the map was a complete and total blank, so they learned quite a bit about Northern Canada, operating the column of ten or twelve vehicles. They started with twelve vehicles but one of a different type was left behind very early. At Baker Lake they dropped a snowmobile in order to ease the supply situation and proceeded with ten vehicles from Baker Lake. They are still travelling with the same ten.

On striking the Arctic Ocean - I will again give an indication of how bad the maps are - they came down a river and expected to find a Hudson's Bay Post in the estuary of the river, but eventually they found it ten miles out at sea on a small island.

At Parry River, we ran into, as we had occasionally before, a group of Eskimoes, who are most friendly and intelligent people. I thought they were very fine people, what I saw of them. They met a group of these and one of the children was pretty sick. He had a ruptured appendix, peritinitis, pneumonia and a heart condition. There was no doctor, no white man within several hundred miles. The doctor was able to call for more emergency equipment which was delivered by plane and he was able to perform an operation on the child in the igloo, and to have the child sewn up, patched up and flown out to Aklavik.

They carried on from there to Victoria Island, crossing a couple of hundred miles of the Arctic Ocean to do so. They crossed one corner of Victoria Island to Denmark Bay which had only been visited by white men twice - once by Amundsen, and once by Larsen, a Police Inspector through the Northwest Passage.

Then they returned to Cambridge Bay and travelled another 300 miles down to Copper Mine. On my last trip, within the last month, I joined the party at Copper Mine. I arrived by plane in the afternoon. It was a lovely afternoon out on the barrens beyond the trees. It was a beautiful spot with lovely cliffs rising out of the sea. We were very hospitably received and we arranged with the five white homes, in which about six or eight white people lived, that they would put up the forty members of the party. The people always expect when there are four or five homes to put up forty or fifty people over night. We arranged for that and then waited and during the evening we saw the lights coming across the Arctic Ocean and for the first time the motor vehicles drove into Copper Mine that night, more or less on time. They stopped for a day or two for a rest and during that time with another officer I got a dog team and drove to an Eskimo village. It was very beautiful to see in the dark before one the little dim twinkling lights in the ice village of igloos, the seal oil lamps inside, and to be greeted with crowds of Eskimoes coming out and wanting to shake hands and to have you go into the igloo and spend a night among the very friendly people, and try out their food, which is good for them, it seems, but slightly strange to us - dried fish and things like that, washed down with tea and things like that - and to see the primitive drum dance in the igloos and return to join the snowmobiles.

During the next six days we had rather bad weather. The travelling was pretty hard, over quite high country, rising to 2500 feet from Copper Mine to Great Bear Lake, and on the last day we rather astonished the people at Radium Mines by doing 96 miles in one day. They knew the country, knew it was fairly rough and they didn't think anybody could possibly make nearly a hundred miles in one day. The previous day we had had bad luck. We had engine trouble and rather than repair on the spot we had radioed for another engine. We only had to wait 24 hours for another engine. We changed engines, flew the old engine out and connected up the new one. We just waited one day and made a hundred miles into Radium.

The party that has now crossed since I left them crossed Great Bear Lake into Fort Norman and headed up the Mackenzie toward Fort Nelson. In a few days if all goes well and there is not too much trouble from the breakup which they have now encountered - we see in the papers it is now thawing in the daytime and some of the rivers are breaking up - they should strike the Alcan Highway, or the Northwest Highway at Fort Norman, and then it is 700 miles into Edmonton, and I expect they will arrive there as scheduled on the 5th of May.

So much then for this Expedition which has taken place in winter in Northern Canada. What about the future? It perhaps should not surprise people if they reflect for a moment that the Services have taken this lead in driving vehicles through Northern Canada, over 1500 miles never traversed by vehicles before, because if you think back to the names of the great Arctic explorers, the great majority have been from the Services, many from the Navy, some of them associated with' disaster - but well known names like Scott, Franklin and Parry - those were naval officers - and also Admiral Bird and Admiral Parry.

And in the Services, Champlain - though he was hardly an Arctic Explorer - and Greely, the American Army Officer. So many of the Arctic explorations in the past have been conducted by the Services, and it was always considered a fine thing for the Services to have some men with Arctic experience, not that they expected to fight in the Arctic so much in the past, but it was a good training for them. I think our own Mounted Police find that today. They vie with one another to get to the Arctic. What the future will be in the Services, I do not know, nor to what extent they will continue this work. At present, as you know, I am leaving the Service, and cannot say.

But I do know there will be a continuing and increasing civilian interest. Here in Toronto you have always been interested in the North. There are many reasons why we should be more actively interested in Canada and our own North, and I think you will find that the mining companies will gradually continue to expand, not in Northern Ontario which is away south, but to expand beyond Yellowknife and Radium, and there is no reason why they shouldn't continue to extend even to the barrens beyond when it becomes economically possible.

In order to concentrate the interest in this Arctic work and to make available to people who are interested the information that has already been gathered there has recently been formed in Canada an Arctic Institute of North America, which has been set up in Montreal. It has its officers there and a Director, and the object of this, just like a Mining Institute or an Historical Society, it is to collect together people interested in the Arctic, in the same way as a Mining Institute collects together people interested in Mining, or an Historical Society gathers together people interested in historical matters. I think that is a worthwhile development. It is an international society, set up with people interested in the United States and some interested from Greenland and Alaska and Newfoundland.

Some people who are skeptical may well ask, what is the value of this? I don't think the people here, judging by your Chairman's remarks would think that, but some people although they knew about much of the work in the north are not clear what the value is. Certainly this year it has been possible to travel more easily in the north than ever before, to travel by airplane and snowmobile into parts that were very inaccessible. We learned this winter how to build better snowmobiles which could be used in country parts of Ontario. If you can drive across the Arctic you can also drive over drifts in a farm road in southern Ontario.

We will learn quite a lot about flying planes up there and landing on airports on the ice. We have made a special study of a lot of scientific aspects of the north. The group of scientists we have had on the Expedition and most of the Officers have had some scientific or technical training, practically all of them. They have divided between them 26 subjects which they are studying and keeping careful records. They are keeping careful records of methods of navigation. Navigation near the North Pole is not easy. They are keeping record of the studies of signals, of the health of the men. No Arctic Expedition, so the Medicals tell me, was ever so thoroughly medically examined before they started. They took eight to ten hours to medically examine each man on the Expedition, and they were checked again on their return to civilization as represented by Fort Nelson, so we have learned a lot about people's health in the North.

Clothing was a subject of special study. We had a certain amount of radar equipment along which has been tested. We studied the snow equipment, the snow conditions, and if we are going to design snow equipment that is important to know. We studied ice sicknesses, the Aurora and meteorology. All these things of scientific interest were studied on Expedition Muskox and many results will be made available in due course when collected and assembled.

It is important too, I think, that we should over-test things and the Arctic provides a good place to over-test engine equipment. If an engineer builds a bridge he always, before allowing the public to use it, puts on a heavier load than is likely to be used in operation, and if an automobile manufacturer thinks the public are going to drive a car in weather about freezing he would be well, to take steps to see that it would not break down if subjected occasionally to zero weather. Here in Canada we are quite accustomed, in many parts of civilized Canada, to driving cars to 40 below. Then if we can make a vehicle that will operate satisfactorily in the Arctic, we will have very much less trouble in starting in Toronto on a cold December night of the winter if we have had Arctic experience. Even if we don't intend to go to the Arctic it is a good thing to over-test vehicles, in the cold.

The same for clothing. It was possible in winter to keep the men warm, partly by the fact that improved clothing had been developed during the war, partly by simply putting on more clothes, but more clothes became very bulky, and to heap on more clothes means that the men can hardly move. Three pairs of mitts on the hands may be warm, but it is hard to change a spark plug. You can't take the mitts off. So we may make lighter clothing and if it is warm in the Arctic it will be very much lighter down here. So the idea of over-testing I think has a value.

I believe there will be mining developments in the North as it becomes economically possible and travel becomes cheaper and as the cost of certain projects goes up. There are certain studies that must be carried out in the Arctic, not because it is cold or because it is the Arctic, but because we need the information as it affects us down here. The weather we have here in Toronto has come down to us from James Bay and Hudson's Bay, and the Arctic, and the weather here is very similar to weather at Baker Lake 48 hours ago. Unless we know what the weather is we will never be able to make long range weather predictions for flying and steamship routes. We have got to have more information about Arctic weather in order to predict ahead the temperate weather.

Our radio signals -- if we listen to short wave radio we have no control over the powers by which they come. Some come over the North Pole and some the South Pole. We need to know something about radio conditions up there in order to get the best reception. And if there is a reason, and apparently there is for having an Observatory at Richmond Hill for studying the stars, or a Magnetic Observatory at Agincourt for studying gravity, and the other geophysic studies we happened to be interested in - it makes no difference to the stars whether they are studied in Toronto or up in the Arctic - it is just as well that we should have a world-wide coverage on many of the different studies which have quite complicated values.

The Arctic is a good training ground. That is another thing, too. If a young officer gets lost on a training scheme at Borden or Petawawa in the summer time and his men get lost they may miss breakfast, they may get wet or lose some sleep, but nothing very serious happens. But if a leader of part of an Arctic Expedition gets lost the consequences are likely to be much more severe, so it is a very excellent training ground for leaders in both peace and war.

And finally, to conclude, I would like to mention to you, if you measure from Point Pelee in the southern part of Canada up to Cape Columbia, the half way point is not in Northern Ontario, but on the southern border of Hudson's Strait. We have a vast Arctic area in the Arctic's three islands--Victoria, Ellesmere and Baffin Island, all of which are larger than the islands of Great Britain.

Another fact people don't often realize is the difference from Point Pelee to Cape Columbia in the north, the distance measured on the globe isn't as great as the distance from Vancouver to Sydney - there is a little bit of Canada that lies west of Vancouver, so it is not quite true to say that Canada is quite as big from north to south as from east to west, but it is nearly true. We have a large territory on which we live on the southern fringe.

This Exercise Muskox has been travelling through the heart of that territory. The distance that it is travelling and which it expects to complete within the course of the next couple of weeks is equivalent to driving a vehicle from Quebec to Vancouver. The 3100 mile route from Churchill to Cambridge Bay to Norman and back to Edmonton is equal to the distance, following the railway from Quebec through Montreal, following to Lethbridge, and from Lethbridge to Vancouver, which means they are driving the distance across the Arctic equivalent to the distance from Quebec to Lethbridge. They are, driving cross country all but the last 700 miles. So they have undertaken quite a formidable task and their daily contact are the Air Force on that great distance.

So I think it is true to say we have a very great North, much larger than people realize, a great deal more stretches beyond Exercise Muskox, and beyond that is a great Arctic Ocean. And though still far removed from other countries on the north we are getting closer to them and certainly as far as the north country is concerned that Canadian north country as it never was before is right at our open door today.

If anyone can add details, or point us in the direction to find a more complete account of this exercise please send information to
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