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 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.

Since birds can be a potentially fatal danger to aircraft and their crews during take off and landing, the engineers of the 38th tried many different things to keep the birds from nesting in the area around the mile-long runway.

But the wideawakes remained a hazard. General Clarke says the story that the regiment imported cats to try and control the bird population is a fanciful tale caused by the fact that Americans and the Brits on the island were divided by a common language.  Americans call tractors "cats," and, said Clarke in a 1944 article, he believes that was the source of what he calls the "yarn."

An World War II Allied plane above Wideawake Field, Ascension Island in an official U.S. Air Force photo.

One suggestion was rejected.  The Americans were told that sailors had been eating the wideawakes' eggs for eons, and that eating them would decimate the nests and help the Allied cause.

As far as the GIs were concerned, however, the eggs were inedible. They found even K-rations more palatable, so nothing more was said about that.

The engineers did write the American Museum of Natural History in New York and ask for help.  And, the Museum did send out an ornithologist, in the midst of the war, to have a look 'round.

I'll have more about what he advised in a subsequent piece, based on a contemporaneous article in the Atlantic Monthly. 

But you can be sure the wideawakes still nest on Ascension.  They got there first.


  1. Fascinating story and, as always, beautifully told. Wideawake deserves broad recognition on the 70th anniversary of the airfield. Hope the project gets the attention and support it deserves. Thanks for getting the ball rolling!

  2. Thanks Thad: though my father was in uniform for five years, the time he always talked about most were his months on Ascension. It was a truly quirky place and one of endless fascination for many who have seen or read about it.

  3. My Uncle was on this Island and died from a fall there in 1943. I am hoping to see if there are any pictures of him anywhere or stories while he was there.


  4. I think I know the story, if he was the operator of a piece of heavy equipment. But that is all I know. I hope someone contacts you.

  5. You're right about it being a fascinating place Robin. I was there in the mid 70s for three years working as an engineer at the shortwave broadcasting station which is still there.
    The Heritage Society acquired a telescope left behind after some missile tracking tests, and we used it for looking at the stars. The sky was very clear and dark over the island, and made for some exquisite viewing conditions. A never-to-be-forgotten experience! I would go back there tomorrow if it were possible...