Handy Island

Handy Island
"The Air War Finds A Handy South Atlantic Island" was the caption on this Peter Hurd painting of Ascension Island, from Life Magazine, April 1945. It was the only place for pilots to refuel between Natal and West Africa.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Ah, The Feel of Castile With Salt

(From my father's papers about his work as an Army engineer in the first half of World War II, now in the archives of the Ascension Island Heritage Society. )

Air crews flying through Ascension Island during World War II got special treatment: they got to use a little distilled water for washing up. Photo courtesy US Army Air Corps. 1943

by William Ashley Chapman

Living conditions for the base personnel and the air crews passing through were primitive. For the base personnel--two years in a flapping tent was a memorable experience.

Our desalination plant produced a limited supply of fresh water; enough for drinking, cooking, laundry, and vehicle radiators, but never enough for bathing.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ascension Archives

A very kind volunteer at the Ascension Island Heritage Society has now catalogued the two boxes of papers I sent her after my father's death. The boxes contained my father's letters, papers, lists of military men he served with, and drafts of articles about this strange island where he was stationed for two years during World War II.

I was thrilled to see that this part of the work was completed.  It means researchers in the years ahead will have a new resource about the part America played in the history of this British Overseas Territory.  And there is a bonus.

Friday, October 21, 2011

"The Snake is Smoking": Unique World War II Slang

When I found paintings of Recife, Brazil, where my father went on leave from Ascension in 1942, in the  April 30, 1945 "Life's War Artists" edition of Life Magazine, I also learned a bit of historic Brazilian World War II slang.

Brazil was neutral until 1942. Up to that point, Brazil's president, Getulio Vargas, said "snakes would smoke" before Brazil got into the war.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Brazil and Ascension Island

A satirical painting of wartime Recife, Brazil through the eyes of American artist Reginald Marsh. Marsh was part of the  World War II artists program. This is from the April 30, 1945 issue of Life Magazine.

I've discovered a writer in Brazil who is working on a book about the part his country and his native state Natal played in the Allied victory in World War II.  There is a real connection between Ascension Island and Brazil. That's why he contacted me.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Letter From Herb

One of my father's fellow officers--just as newly minted as he from an ROTC class of '41--was Herb Schiff, who became one of his best friends.  It was a friendship that lasted until my father's death in 2010.  Herb is, I believe, the last surviving officer of the 898th Engineers who remained on Ascension 1942-1944.  He isn't well and is in skilled nursing in Sarasota but he's on his way to age 92. I recently found this letter he wrote my father about their experiences. No date on the letter but it appears to have been sent before one of my father's trips back to Ascension. 1986? 1992? Something like that.

Lieutenants Schiff and Chapman on Ascension. The relentless sun of the equator turned them both brown.  My father said his lips grew swollen and cracked and you can see that in this photo.

"Dear Ash,
For stories about Ascension Island, you undoubtedly have the following--
Pilot to Tower: I'm coming in.
Tower: Where are you?!
Tower, in surprise: You've landed in the wrong direction!
Pilot: Sun was in my eyes.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Lid is Off! Letter From Ashley on Ascension

The 38th Engineers play baseball on Ascension Island, 1943.  That's my father, swinging for the "fence" on that desolate ball field.  American soldiers played baseball all over the world during WW II.  The Red Cross often supplied the gear.

Ascension Island
November 28, 1943

"Dear Mother & Dad,

The lid is off!  I can say where I am now and also I can describe the place.

We are in the heart of the "trade winds" which makes the climate so perfect.  If it weren't for the wind we would really swelter.  The eternal unvarying strong wind sometimes gets on our nerves but it is a boon anyhow.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

This Just In: "We Discover New American Air Base"

"Use of Ascension Island is Badly Kept Secret"
Peter Edson
Newspaper Enterprise Association
Washington Correspondent

December 30 1943

"Use of 34-square-mile Ascension Island as a U.S. air base at last can be talked about.  For more than a year, this tiny British island, 300 miles south of the equator in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, has been a stopping point for short-range fighter planes being ferried to Southern Europe and African fronts, and even to the Middle and Far East.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Story Behind the Story of A U.S. Base on British Ascension

For some time I've wondered about the treaty and/or legislative details that led to the construction of an American air base on Ascension Island, which is a British Overseas Territory.

From my reading of Winston Churchill's fascinating history of World War II--six volumes, but who knew the history better than he?--I've long suspected that the U.S. right to that stretch of clinker on that desert island must have come from one of the Lend/Lease or Destroyers for Bases deals cooked up between FDR and WSC in the lead-up to America's entry into the war.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Birds on Ascension Island Were Comical, But Not to The Army

Air Force bomber takes off from Wideawake Field, 1943. Air Force photo.
The Birmingham News
"Birds on Ascension Island Were Comical, But Not to the Army"
Tuesday, February 4, 1947 (Page 11)

"Professor of physics at the University of Pennsylvania, Louis N. Ridenour served during the war on the staff of the radiation laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."

by Louis N. Ridenour
NEW YORK, Feb. 4--(NANA)--"I have this story from a friend of mine who is a practicing ornithologist.  He was called in as a bird expert, at a time when the Army Air Forces found themselves at their wits' end--all on account of the habits of birds, and the love of a mother bird for her egg.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"Soldier's Ode to Ascension"

I found this among my father's papers.  It is signed by Linn Garibaldi and notes that it is limited to 100 copies. (My father's is numbered 13.)

Soldier's Ode to Ascension©

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Can You Identify These Men?

I've had several requests from readers, asking if I have photos of any of their family members who served on Ascension during World War II.  I do have some photos of people I can't identify:  so here is a group to look through, and see if you can spot anyone you know.  (To enlarge the photos, just double click on them.)

   Above is a group from Ascension, the only one of which I can identify is my father, standing at photo left.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Letter From the Chaplain

Roy and Mary Chapman of Homewood, Alabama: my father's parents.  They appear to have some kind of a World War II booster sign on the front door and are posing with it.  "We have a son overseas" or "We support War Bonds."  It must have been something like that.

By August 1942, my grandparents in Alabama were concerned that they had not seen their son for seven months, mail service had only just begun to work with some regularity, and they still didn't know where he was.  When Lt. Chapman was asked to stay on at his secret location--Ascension Island--it appears that he asked the unit's chaplain to write his parents and assure them they shouldn't worry.

Office of the Chaplain
38th Engineers
APO #1257, C/O Postmaster
Miami, Florida

August 3, 1942

"Dear Mr. and Mrs. Chapman,
I am the Chaplain of the organization to which your son, Lt. Chapman, is assigned, and take pleasure in writing this letter.  He seems to be in the best of health and is quite cheerful in the performance of his duties.  He is one of Uncle Sam's reliable officers and is to be commended for his worthy service.  It has been a pleasure to know your son during the past few months.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Time Magazine and Wideawake Field: January 1944

General George Marshall, Time's 
Man of the Year, January 3, 1944

Boobies on the Runway
Time Magazine
January 3, 1944

"If we don't hit Ascension
My wife gets a pension."

"So, sing U.S. flyers of the South Atlantic.

"This week the Army officially revealed why. Tiny (34 square miles) Ascension Island, 1,400 miles from the bulge of Brazil, is one of the vital links in the Air Transport Command's world-girldling chain of airfields. Ascension is the dot in the ocean that made it possible to fly Lightning (P-38) single-seated fighters across the South Atlantic to combat fields in North Africa and England.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Christmas on Ascension: December 1944

Air Corps wings atop the Corps of Engineers castle insignia. This is a Christmas card sent home by my father from Ascension Island in (as indicated) December 1943.

Birmingham News
January 15, 1944
(page 12)
"Scribblers Take Note"

"CHRISTMAS AT ASCENSION ISLAND ... No doubt you've all read the story by John Gunther published in a recent monthly magazine describing the grand work done by the Army engineers and the air force on Ascension Island, one of our allies' most important possessions in the Atlantic, situated about halfway between Africa and Brazil.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

John Gunther on Ascension: January 1944

Continued from yesterday's blog post ...
Reader's Digest
January 1944
Internationally known reporter John Gunther (1901-1970) has just arrived on Ascension from a reporting tour in Europe and Africa. The half-hour re-fueling stop has become a longer break since the captain of his transport plane has asked for servicing on one of its engines. Gunther has a chance to tour Ascension.

by John Gunther

"'Deadline is 3:30,' Captain Gibbs said. 'If we don't get off by then, we stay the night.'  He didn't want to take off and risk having to return to Ascension in the dark.  That's a runway you want to see clearly before you try to land on it.

Pilots sometimes overshoot Ascension.  Finding it is, in Max Beerbohm's famous phrase, a little like threading a needle from afar.  So there are always two or three fast pursuit ships on Ascension, ready to lead big transports in if the weather is bad, or go after them if a pilot overshoots.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Ascension Island--The Mighty Midget" by John Gunther

Thanks to my grandmother Mrs. Roy Chapman--articles like this one were saved in a scrapbook.

From the Reader's Digest
January 1944
by John Gunther

"'Why if a crow tried to land here, he'd break a leg.'  That was an early military report on Ascension.

One of the most remarkable bits of evidence I have ever seen of American enterprise, guts, imagination and tenacity is the airport we have gouged out of volcanic rock on this unknown island, a naked dot of lava in the middle wastes of the South Atlantic.  Everyday from here, flights take place that help us win the war.  It is an essential pivot in the great route from New York and Miami to Africa, the Middle East, Russia, India and China."

Friday, May 20, 2011

"They Took Dive To Fix Line"

Laying the gas pipeline on Ascension Island, 1942. The British had a representative on this British Overseas Territory and that's the only explanation I can find for the group of civilians sitting above left, watching the men work.

Ascension Island had no safe harbor, so the 38th Engineers had to lay a pipeline out to sea, so Allied ships could offload fuel for the aircraft coming into the field.  My father did tell us that since he was an expert marksman, he was on "shark duty" when the pipeline was laid, to prevent any danger to men in the water. What he did not tell us, is that he himself donned a diving helmet at one point and dove down among the sharks to help repair a leak in the line.  I found the story in a Richmond newspaper.

The Reflector
Richmond, Virginia
May 12, 1944

"They Took Dive to Fix Gas Line"

"Lt. William Chapman and Lt. Gaston Hollimon, along with their first C.O., Capt. [Harry] Tufts, got an introduction to seadiving in 55 feet of water off Ascension on one occasion ...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hey Honey! How'd Ya Like a Pair of Real Silk Stockings?

I'll bet silk stockings weren't rationed for Betty Grable, one of the most popular pinups in World War II.  That would have been bad for morale!

This next story also comes as a sidebar to the report in the Richmond paper that tells of the return of the men of the 898th Engineers.  To understand it, you have to take your mind back to a time when a woman didn't leave the house unless she was wearing a nice dress or a skirt with a matching jacket, and stockings on her legs.  In World War II, material of all kinds was rationed so the government could use the mills to make all those millions and millions of G.I. uniforms.  Women's skirts went up to the knee in order to save precious fabric--much to the delight of those same G.I.s.  Unfortunately; silk was also rationed (parachutes you know) and women found even the newly invented nylon stockings almost impossible to find.  Add that to the fact that on Ascension Island, the planes flying through were coming to and from the China-Burma-India theater--where silk was still available--and you have the following report.

The Reflector
Richmond, Virginia
Friday, May 12, 1944

"898th Silks Now Adorn Fine Area of U.S. Longitude"

"WACS and civilian girls working on the base [the Richmond Army Air Base]  can stop hiding their wealth [ed note: meaning their gams!] now those silk stockings which the men of the 898th Engineers could buy at the PX on Ascension are disposed of. Twenty-day furloughs after their arrival at RAAB [Richmond Army Air Base] took care of those.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Situation Normal (With Mail)

From The Reflector

Richmond, Virginia
Friday May 12, 1944
Page six
Boxed Sidebar story on the 898th Engineer Aviation Company's return to the States from Ascension Island.

"First Mail Call Hit Island Like a Tide"

"For 70 days, the Engineers sweated out their first mail call on "The Rock," and then a hot rumor sped around:  'There's a Navy destroyer offshore with our mail.'

When the destroyer put ashore its cargo, though, it was found that there was only second and third class mail for the Castlemen [the Corps of Engineers insignia is a castle]--newspapers, advertising circulars, etc. no letters or postcards.

Monday, May 16, 2011

"898th Engineers Come Here from Ascension Island"

"Noncoms and Officers alike in the 898th Engineers put their heads, hands, and hearts into their assignment of making Ascension a powerful stepping stone to victory over the Axis in Africa.  Here are the officers and some of the noncoms of the Company, shown at their headquarters in the Engineer area of the Base.  Front row, l. to r.: S-Sgt. Andrew G. Betz, S-Sgt. Emil L. Benko, 1st. Sgt. Carroll J. Powers, M-Sgt. John Minor, T-4 John A. Prescott and T-5 Robert Shute.  Back row, l. to r.: 2nd Lt. Robert S. McKesson, 1st Lt. Herbert G. Schiff, Capt. Raymond O. Kidd (C.O. of the 898th), 1st Lt. Gaston L. Hollimon and 1st Lt. Ashley Chapman."  
From the The Reflector
Richmond, Virginia
May 12, 1944

"Formed from the original Engineer Combat regiment which constructed the vitally strategic air field and fuel storage installations on Ascension island, the 898th Engineer Aviation Company has returned to the U.S. after two years at that isolated South Atlantic outpost and has taken up its station at Richmond Army Air Base.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Officer Magazine's 1992 Salute to the Wideawake Work of 1942

Robin Chapman writes: I keep finding material my father wrote about Ascension.  This is something my father wrote when he was a young 73 and has the best detail of any of the other's I've seen.  Published in The Officer, the magazine of the Reserve Officers Association of the United States, March 1992, it was one of a series of fiftieth anniversary World War II memories collected by the magazine.

Wind, sand, lava and sky.  The men of the 38th Engineer Regiment (Combat) lay a fuel pipeline to an anchorage in the Atlantic.

WW II: Winter '42
30 March-10 July 1942
Wideawake Field, Ascension Island
The Officer/March 1992 (page 63)

Col. W.A. Chapman, AUS (Ret.), of Los Altos, Calif, was platoon commander of F Company when the 38th Combat Engineer Regiment of Ft. Jackson, S.C., departed Charleston, S.C., 14 March, 1942 aboard the USAT Coamo as part of Task Force Agate.  The group comprised 64 officers and 1,460 enlisted men, slightly above the 38th regiment strength.

After refueling at Recife, Brazil, and departing easterly on 27 March, the task force was finally advised of its secret mission and destination:  to construct a 6,000-foot paved runway, complete airport, and fueling facilities on Ascension Island in 90 days, as a base "urgently needed to provide a mid-Atlantic fuel and rest stop for US military aircraft en route to the Africa Campaign," Colonel Chapman points out.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Army Tradition: Don't Change A Thing

The San Jose Mercury News
Thursday, August 22, 1996
William Ashley Chapman

"My Dad was a great guy, and a veteran of World War I.  He didn't like the Army much because of the ever present confusion and told me I would do well to keep out of it.

Roy Chapman of Goodwater Alabama was a sergeant in World War I.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Ernie Pyle on Ascension Island

(I don't have a date for this column, which I found in my grandmother's scrapbook.  I'll quote it here and hope somebody can help me find the date.  I suspect it is collected in one of Pyle's books of wartime columns.)

SOMEWHERE IN AFRICA---(By wireless)---One of the sagas of this war--and one that can't be fully written until after the war--is the career of the - - - - - Combat Engineers. [At this point in the war, censorship didn't allow Pyle to use the name of my father's outfit--the 38th Engineer Regiment, Combat.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

World War II Reminiscences (All in One ..)

I had a request from a reader to put this piece--that I had divided into four posts--together into one for easier reading.  Here 'tis. Excerpted from World War II Reminiscences, edited by John H. Roush, Jr. (1996).

     Lt. Chapman in the brilliant sunlight of Ascension.                                                

Engineer's Top Secret Mission
Colonel William Ashley Chapman

"While tossed madly about by the violent sea I sensed that I was in the curl of another huge wave about to break on the steep beach.  I gulped air which I knew I had to do to live.  In a deadly sequence I was dashed up on the beach only to be helplessly swept back again into the next crashing breaker by the racing backwash.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Capt. Chapman Served On World's Remotest Islands"

During a recent trip to Birmingham, Alabama, I was able to find this article in the microfilm, and thus date it correctly and get the page number of it (something my grandmother didn't include when she pasted the article in her scrapbook, though I bless her for saving it.)  It was in the Shades Valley Sun,  Friday, September 28, 1945, page 10.
Homewood, Alabama--September 1945--"The war has taken Capt. Wm. Ashley Chapman, son of Mr. and Mrs. Roy Chapman, of Palmetto St., into the "darndest" places.  Back in Sept. 1941, with a unit of aviation engineers he landed on Ascension Island, located midway out in the ocean between South America and Africa. He arrived there with the first unit of American troops and for two whole years remained there.

"Although a 'God forgotten' spot with only about 25 square miles of territory and a soil that can only be cut with a rock drill, this island proved an invaluable stop over point in the great movement of men and materials by plan to Africa during the early stages of the war.  Capt. Chapman and his men built and kept up the air field on this "unsinkable aircraft carrier."

Saturday, April 23, 2011

How They Lived and What They Lived On

Ascension Island water rationing, about 1942.  US Air Force photo.

"An army marches on its stomach," said Napoleon Bonaparte and his maxim has proved true throughout the history of wars.

During World War II, Americans at home faced food rationing, especially of coffee, butter, meat, and sugar, so the millions of Allied soldiers fighting all over the world could get nutritious meals.

Nutritous? Yes.  Home cooked and tasty?  Not always.  Click below for the story of the best (and worst) about K and C-rations.

"How They Lived and Ate in WW II"

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sea Turtles and Ascension

Atlantic sea turtles were one of the surprises the American engineers found on Ascension Island during World War II.

When the the 1st Battalion, 38th Engineer Combat Regiment, landed on Ascension Island in April 1942, there were no buildings of any kind the unit could use for its living arrangements.  Nor were they sure, until they surveyed the island, where they would build the airfield, so they didn't want to set up a permanent camp.

Instead, they set up mess halls, kitchens, and tents by the ocean.  The only fresh water they had was the water they had brought with them, and salt water could at least be used for washing.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why Call It Wideawake Field?

 U.S. GI policing the runway at Wideawake Field, Ascension Island.  US Air Force photo, May 1944.  

Pilots did have to remain wide awake to find Wideawake Field on Ascension Island during World War II.  It is a dot six miles wide and nine miles long in the middle of the vast Atlantic about half way between Africa and South America.

General Frederick J. Clarke, Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion, 38th Engineer Combat Regiment said the field was named Wideawake at the first regimental formation on April 28, 1942. It was named after the proliferation of sooty terns--called wideawakes--that nest on the island.  

The birds had been nesting on Ascension for centuries.  Now they would have to share their home with the birds of the Allies.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Wideawake to Ie Shima

(Robin writes: This is the last segment of the chapter my father wrote for the book World War II Reminiscences edited by his friend Col. John H. Roush.)

Captain William Ashley Chapman on Ie Shima during the Battle of Okinawa, May 1945.  Though he was in the Army Corps of Engineers, this unit , the 1902 Aviation Engineer Battalion was attached to the Army Air Corps, now the Air Force. I know this because I found his unit's history in the Air Force archives. This is something my father obviously knew,  but never mentioned, or just forgot about.)

Col Chapman wrote:

"In September 1945 we were sent to Japan as a part of the occupation force.  I visited Nagasaki and was awed by the sight of the destruction created by one A-bomb.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Building a Runway ... (Continued)

Artist Peter Hurd made this painting of Wideawake Field on Ascension Island for Life Magazine, April 30, 1945.  By the time this was published, my father, then Captain Chapman was in the middle of the thick of it during the Battle of Okinawa.

(Editor's note: this is a continuation of a piece my father, Col. William Ashley Chapman, wrote about his experiences in World War II, for the book World War II Reminiscences, edited by John H. Roush, Jr.)

Col. William Ashley Chapman

"My unit landed on Ie Shima (near Okinawa) on April 19, 1945, the day after Ernie Pyle was killed there.  Along with the other EAB's (ed: Engineer Aviation Battalions) we built runways and all necessary facilities again on time.

We were on Ie Shima about four months and were bombed every day, sometimes more than once, until the time of surrender.  We saw kamikazi planes being shot down while others were seen striking ships.  An LST (ed: Landing Ship Tank) was hit by a kamikazi, was beached and abandoned.  The hulk was later hit by several more suicide planes.  

Thursday, April 7, 2011

More on That Secret Mission ...

(Editor's note:  in the box of papers I donated to the Ascension Island Heritage Society after my father's death, is a letter to my father from that RAF Swordfish pilot.  He retired to a ranch in Australia.  And he's still really mad! The story continues today ....)

Engineer's Top Secret Mission
Col. William Ashley Chapman

"... One of the .50 caliber rounds had clipped the buckle of his parachute harness.  We had to apologize for the hostile treatment, yet we had not expected a visit and were apprehensive of activity from a German raider thought to be in the area.

The first American plane, U.S. Army Air Corps B-24 "Kissin' Cousin", landed on the completed runway 10 July 1942, just 101 days after our arrival.  We had achieved our goal, a significant accomplishment and an engineering triumph for Col. R.E. Coughlin, TF 4612 Commander.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Engineers Secret Mission ...

  Building Wideawake Field out of solid volcanic rock on Ascension Island was quite a job.

(Continued from the previous post: excerpted from "Engineer's Top Secret Mission" by my father, Colonel William Ashley Chapman, from the book World War II Reminiscences by Colonel John H. Roush)

"We were tasked to complete the mission in 90 days, which required a maximum effort from all personnel.  The work went on day and night, with men working twelve hours a day, seven days a week, until the job was completed.  Living conditions were harsh physically and psychologically.  Our water supply was extremely limited, with none for hygiene and barely enough to drink.  There was no recreation, nothing but a routine of work, and time for eating and sleep.  We were completely isolated with no personal communications with the outside world.

With the help of 75 tons of dynamite we blasted the hard rock into shape, and the the first plane landed about June 15 on the partially completed runway.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Top Secret Mission in World War II

Lt. Ashley Chapman in the hot sun of Ascension Island, July 1943.

Robin notes: The following is excepted from a book about the work of reserve officers in World War II. Written in 1996, I thought it might be of interest as we approach the 70th Anniversary of the construction of Wideawake Field on Ascension Island.

Engineer's Top Secret Mission

William Ashley Chapman
excerpted from
World War II Reminiscences
edited by Colonel John H. Roush, Reserve Officers Association, 1996

Ascension Island, 1942 While tossed madly about by the violent sea I sense that I was in the curl of another huge wave about to break on the steep beach. I gulped air which I knew I had to do to live. In a deadly sequence I was dashed up on the beach only to be helplessly swept back again into the next crashing breaker by the racing backwash.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Ascension Island's Wideawake Airfield To Celebrate 70th Anniversary

Wideawake Field, Ascension Island, under construction, 1942. It is now operated under a command out of Patrick AFB in Florida. It is very likely one of the "leased" bases Churchill and FDR agreed to in exchange for all those ships we arranged to "lend" to England just before we joined the war in 1941. The leases were, I believe, to be for 99 years. Wonder if we have to give this one back?

In emailing the American Air Force staff, small as it is, on the British Overseas Territory of Ascension Island, I just became aware we are headed for the 70th Anniversary of Wideawake Field, built by the American 38th Engineer Aviation Battalion from March to June, 1942. The engineers were given 90 days to blast that thing out of volcanic rock and, as you might expect, they met their deadline. But of course.