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, 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.

As I was hurled up the beach again a hand stuck out to grasp mine. With all my remaining strength I grabbed it! That hand was attached to a human lifeline of brave soldiers of the United States Army 38th Engineers who had come to my rescue. A bath in the surf at Long Beach, Ascension Island, had nearly cost me my life. That incident occurred a few days after we had landed on ascension island, the site of our mission.

Ascension is a 34 square mile remote island at 8 degrees South latitude in the South Atlantic. Our top-secret mission was to build an airfield complete with a 6,000 foot paved runway, taxiways, aviation fuel storage and handling facilities, a sea pipleline for tanker unloading and all other requirements for a complete air base facility.

Graduating in 1941 from Auburn University with a commission of 2d. Lt., Corps of Engineers, I was ordered to active duty 1 September 1941 with the 38th Engineer REgiment, Combat, at Fort Jackson. South Carolina. We departed Charleston, South Carolina 22 March 1942, for the mission. I was Platoon Leader of "F" Company and was a supervisor of runway construction.

(To be continued ... )


  1. Robin,
    my father was there and i am in search of information about him Ernie(Ernest)Harrison


  2. I'm so glad to hear from you about your father. I donated a lot of my father's files to the historical society on Ascension, but they didn't understand that I did so in hopes they would get them up on their web site for researchers. Since that doesn't seem to be likely in the near future, I discovered I still had quite a bit of information here at the house, so I'm posting it. I don't want my father memorialized. But I do want this information to be out there for people who want to know more about the great work of our fathers and grandfathers and greatgrandfathers when they rolled up their sleeves and help save the world from a couple of the worst dictators the world has ever seen. Let me know if you find out more about your father's role on Wideawake and send any photos. I'd be honored to post them.

  3. My dad was a cook, stationed on Ascension. He said that there was food stores not being used. Eg. bags of flour. He said they started a garden, but had no produce from it. He had them import bees to spread the pollen from flower to flower. Then they had tomatoes, etc. My son posted some of my dad's photos at this website http://picasaweb.google.com/107094050617039416616/SSgtGeorgePDernOnAscensionIsland19421945#
    I'm enjoying reading your page and remembering my dad.
    Judy Forman

  4. My father was there an would like to hear more about where he served. He has since passed. But i do have pictures of him in his uniform. And remember the story's he told an how he ended up on the island. Would like to hear from anyone who might have known him. His name was Charles Garfield.


  5. We were just talking about Ascension Island with Bill Moore who was there back in WW II. Bill is now 95 years old and loves to tell us about WW II history at our monthly men's breakfast at church.

    1. My uncle passed away in april of 1943 while on the Ascension island. Looking for anyone that was there that would remember him. sharon

  6. Well give him a shout out from (then) Lt. Ashley Chapman's daughter (USAR-Corps of Engineers.). My father later served in the Battle of Okinawa, but his happy memories of the War always went back to Ascension. Hard work, but nobody was shooting at anybody. Here's to those who served. My beloved father had a hero's funeral when he died two years ago this month. I love you Pa.

  7. Just visiting with my Dad, William J. Moore, and he was sharing more about his experiences on Ascension Island during WWII. He is very proud to have been part of this important mission and would love to hear from people about it. Contact lfreeman1@epix.net