Top News

Woman researches uncle’s experience as an American G.I. stationed in Labrador

Author Rozanne Enerson Junker will be the guest speaker tonight at the annual Gilbert Higgins Lecture hosted by the Newfoundland and Labrador Historical Society at the Marine Institute.
Author Rozanne Enerson Junker will be the guest speaker tonight at the annual Gilbert Higgins Lecture hosted by the Newfoundland and Labrador Historical Society at the Marine Institute. - Sam McNeish

Young U.S. soldier was befriended by an Inuk family

Her eyes glowed like two stars in the clear night sky when she started to recount the story she will reveal to the world on Thursday night.

Rozanne Enerson Junker will debut her book, “Renatus’ Kayak: A Labrador Inuk, An American G.I. and a Secret World War II Weather Station,” at the annual Gilbert Higgins Lecture hosted by the Newfoundland and Labrador Historical Society at the Marine Institute’s Hampton Hall on Ridge Road in St. John’s. The lecture commences at 7:30 p.m.

Those who attend will feel her passion about the story and her attention to detail in finding and telling the story of her uncle and the time he spent in Hebron, Labrador, while serving at a secret U.S. Army weather station during the Second World War.

That passion and conviction was fully on display during an interview at Oliver’s in downtown St. John’s on Tuesday afternoon.

She thumbed the pages to accentuate her points while discussing crucial parts of the book and recounting stories of individuals who appear in it.

The book is the result of Junker’s multi-year research to find an Inuit hunter, Renatus Tuglavina, and his daughter Harriot, the two individuals who befriended her uncle Elmwood (Woody) Belsheim in 1944.

“Woody told me the story when he was 87, when he gave me the sealskin kayak made for him by Renatus,” Junker said.

“I connected with the story and the kayak and felt it was almost my destiny to tell the story … or at least find out what happened to Renatus and to Harriet,” she added, explaining that she wanted to fulfil her aging uncle’s request.

Woody Belshiem was one of six American G.I.s stationed in Hebron, Labrador, to man a weather station used to track weather patterns that allowed for safe transport of planes back and forth to Scotland and England to be used in Second World War battles.

He was befriended, and some would say adopted, by Renatus and his family and it was that bond that saw Renatus make the sealskin canoe and give it to Woody in 1944.

The book melds Second World War military history, Labrador Inuit culture, religion, politics and love through the true stories of Woody, Renatus and Harriot.

The link between the three individuals, as well as between the Second World War era and today, is the three-foot long sealskin model kayak that Renatus made for Woody, and which Woody, in turn, gave to Junker.
In giving her the miniature sealskin kayak, he asked her if it would be possible for her to find out what happened to Renatus and his daughter Harriot.

“I am grateful Woody trusted me with this story. There was nobody in Renatus’s family to tell this story. Both families trusted me with it,” she said.

“I love to make puzzles, and here was a puzzle in front of me that I wanted to piece together. I wanted to make sure all the pieces fit in.”

Junker said her uncle had seldom spoken about his Second World War service when he and the other G.I.s manned the secret American weather station in Hebron.

But 65 years later, and nearing the end of his life, he hoped to find out what had become of the Inuit family who had transformed what could have been a year of painful isolation into a year of unimaginable adventures.

So in 2010, using the kayak as a spirit guide, Junker travelled thousands of miles across Canada, the United States and England, even relocating from her home in the U.S. to a new home in Blue Sea, Quebec, to try to piece the puzzle together.

Along the way, she made stunning discoveries, including the existence of a weather station lost to time, Renatus’s larger-than-life footprint on Labrador history, and his and Harriot’s tragic destinies.

“There was never a question as to why am I doing this,” Junker said.

“It was never a job and, quite honestly, it cost a lot of money to research. I wasn’t getting paid.”

During her discussions with Woody, she learned that Harriet was special to him, as she was the first woman he had ever made love to — an awkward subject and conversation to have with her uncle — but relevant to telling the story and Woody’s connection to the Tuglavinas.

The book also outlines the Renatus-led rebellion against the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1933, and his trial presided over by Abram Kean. (A controversial sealing captain and politician from Flowers Island, Kean was famous for his success in sealing and for capturing more than a million pelts, and infamous for his role in sending 78 men to their deaths in the 1914 Newfoundland Sealing Disaster.)

The book also describes the work by British naval Lt-Cmdr. Buck Baker to free Renatus, the Ferry Command and the transfer of more than 10,000 military aircraft to Europe during the Second World War, and what happened to Renatus’s family after relocation from Hebron.

In addition, Moravian missionaries, Hudson’s Bay Company employees and Newfoundland Rangers all have supporting roles in this history.

Recent Stories