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.

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.  

Their commander, General Frederick J. Clarke, reported later in National Geographic Magazine (May 1944):  "[The] shower baths installed later were salt-water showers.  Soldiers washed their mess kits and kitchen pots in the ocean--a quick but wet expedient since the waves 50 feet away at one moment were waist deep the next."

My father, then 2d. Lt. William Ashley Chapman, says they pitched their tents right on the sand.  The entire island was volcanic pumice and ash, so none of it looked very inviting.

He reports that the first week went well as they surveyed, got a generator going, and strung up electric lights.

But during the second week, in the middle of the night, something strange happened.  The men in their tents on the sand started to hear noises, like scratching.

A few of them got up and looked around and tried to go back to sleep.  But the scratching continued.

Then more got up and began to search for the source of the noise.  It was after "lights out" so they poked around with flashlights and carbide lanterns.

They began to see something that looked like it came directly out of science fiction.  Small turtles were emerging, as if by magic, from the sand under their tent floors and scrambling out to sea.

The wideawake terns, alerted by the noise, began dive bombing the baby turtles.  It was hatching season for the Atlantic sea turtles, whose mothers had migrated to the places of their birth on Ascension Island, laid their eggs, and headed back out to sea.

The camp that night was a scene of some confusion, as soldiers moved their sleeping bags, tents, mess kits, helmets, and other gear to higher ground.

The 38th Engineers had met a second long-term resident of Ascension Island (after the ubiquitous wideawake) and it was clear that it was the engineers who were the interlopers.

If you want to read the entire article on Ascension written by then Lt. Col. Frederick J. Clarke, it can be found in Volume LXXXV, Number Five, May 1944 of the National Geographic Magazine.

No comments:

Post a Comment