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.

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.