© Nancy MacPhee/Journal Pioneer
Larry Gray flips through microfilm of the Journal Pioneer to find out information about CFB Summerside. He said old issues of the paper are a valuable resource when it comes to researching the history of the base.
SUMMERSIDE - In a small back room at MacNaught History Centre and Archives, Larry Gray quietly searches through old newspapers on microfilm.
It's a tiring, often tedious task, but one the 74-year-old former Air Force navigator thoroughly enjoys.
Gray's looking for any information related to Summerside's former base, research that will become the basis of a book chronicling the history of CFB Summerside.
The base opened in 1940; Gray's just reached the 1976 editions of the paper.
"I am very much a believer that history is very important," said Gray, who has authored four previous historical non-fiction works. "It's very important to know where we've been and how did we get where we are now."
The subject of Gray's latest book is one near and dear to his heart.
He first came to the Summerside base for six months in 1959 for operational training. Then, in 1970, with his young wife and two of his three sons in tow - the third would be born on P.E.I. - the Air Force navigator returned to CFB Summerside to serve two tours over seven years with 415 and 413 squadrons.
Gray, now retired, and his wife live half the year in Carleton Place, just outside of Ottawa, but their hearts are here, on P.E.I.
"I guess we're IBCs - Islanders By Choice," he said with a chuckle. "We now have a home on New London Bay in Stanley Bridge and we spend six to seven months every year here, from May to October."
It was during their stay on the Island last year that the idea of compiling a book on the former CFB Summerside first came about.
The couple had gone to the Air Force Association one Friday night. Gray brought with him his latest book, which prompted a friend and association member to suggest that he write the history of the Island base.
"I would have thought it had been written years and years ago," said the retired air force captain.
Upon his return to Carleton Place, Gray began his research, visiting the national archives and the Directorate of History and Heritage in Ottawa.
When he returned to P.E.I. this spring his first visit was with archivist Fred Horne, who showed him a commemorative booklet with a brief history of the base.
Gray plans to use that booklet as a basis of his book, which he hopes to complete sometime next year.
But the book won't be just the "boring" facts, assured Gray.
"I'm trying to do a social history. I'm very interested in the people, their experiences, how the Air Force and the base impacted on the lives and on the Town of Summerside and the people."
To do that Gray needs the help of former base employees and those who served or trained at CFB Summerside. He also needs photos and artifacts.
So far, he hasn't conducted interviews, although he's put up notices at the Air Force Association, Legion and in the Canadian Aviation Historical Society's bulletin.
He said there should be thousands of people out there, scattered across Canada and beyond, with interesting stories to tell.
"The base, at its peak, had over 1,800 people at it and then there were another 300 civilians. Just to keep the base operational required about 1,000 service men and 300 to 400 civilian workers in various capacities," added Gray. "A lot of people from the area came very much part of the base."
He admitted the task of compiling the history of the base, particularly the social history, into one book is a daunting, often overwhelming task.
"It's supposed to be THE definitive history."
Gray is working closely with MacNaught History Centre and Archives and the Summerside and Area Historical Society on the project.
"The historical society has to decide what they're doing to do with it. I'm writing what I call a draft," added Gray. "To me, what I enjoy doing is the research. I don't enjoy the writing. It's drudgery."
For his remaining weeks on the Island, which are quickly ticking by, he'll be holed up in the archives and, hopefully, conducting interviews.
"Have car, will travel. I have no problem getting around seeing people."
Share your story
Anyone with a story to tell can contact Larry Gray by telephone until mid September at 902-886-2523 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information can also be left with Fred Horne at the MacNaught History Centre and Archives at 75 Spring St., Summerside, or by calling 432-1296 or emailing the archives at email@example.com.