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.

As I was hurled up on 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 pipeline for tanker unloading and all other requirements for a complete base facility.

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

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 [at first] 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 communication with the outside world.

With the help of 75 tons of dynamite we blasted the hard rock into shape, and the first plane landed about June 15 on the partially completed runway.  It was a British Fairey Swordfish biplane from the British carrier H.M.S. Archer cruising over the horizon nearby. When the Swordfish buzzed the settlement the American anti-aircraft battery, part of our Task Force 4612 equipped with 37 mm and .50 cal. AA guns, failed to identify the intruder and opened fire. As it came around the second time the markings were seen to be British, and the plane landed.

Out of it a very angry pilot emerged waving a pistol.  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 Colonel R.E. Coughlin, TF 4612 commander.

Wideawake Field, as it was named, became a refueling stop for planes bound for the African Campaign [and the China, Burma, India Theater) and later served other theaters of war.  It also was important as an anti-submarine base.

I remained on Ascension for nearly two years as a Platoon leader of the 898th Engineer Aviation Company.  After returning to the States, I was reassigned as Company Commander of "C" Company of the 1902 Engineer Aviation Battalion, with an assignment to participate in the construction of an airfield in the Pacific Theater.

My unit landed on Ie Shima (near Okinawa) on April 19, 1945, the day after Ernie Pyle was killed there.  Along with the other EABs we built runways and all necessary facilities, again on time.  We were on Ie Shima about six months and were bombed every day, sometimes more than once, until the time of surrender.  We saw kamakazi planes being shot down while others were seen striking ships.  An LST was hit by a kamikazi, was beached and abandoned.  The hulk was later hit by several more suicide planes.  My friend, Captain Ray Kidd, our Company Commander on Ascension, was killed by a bomb during June of 1945, just six weeks or so before the surrender.  He never saw his son who was born while we were on Ie Shima.

Our island was the stop-over for the planes carrying the Japanese surrender delegation flying in "Betty" bombers enroute to meet General Douglas MacArthur on Bataan, Philippines.  Those planes were the same type of bombers they had used against us on Ie Shima. As you can imagine, we were all at the runway to see the two white-painted bombers carrying green crosses [those had been MacArthur's instructions] and watch the delegation change to a  U.S. Army Air Corps C-54 plane.  They were greeted with silence from the spectators.

In September of 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.  Japan has [also] been very badly damaged by high explosive and fire bombs.  The Japanese people were polite to us and exhibited no fear.  The dear little children followed us around asking for "chewding" gun and candy.

The airbase at Ascension Island is now an active U.S. Air Force facility used for missile and satellite tracking.  It was a staging base for the British during the Falkland Island War of 1982.  The base has been in operation, with only a brief hiatus, since that first landing July 10, 1942.  My wife and I were privileged to visit Ascension in 1988 as guests of the USAF to participate in the dedication of a remodeled building my platoon had constructed in 1943.   Much has changed, for they now have ample water, air conditioning, paved roads and other amenities.  The dust and everlasting wind remain."

William Ashley Chapman

Dad returned--with caution--to Long Beach, Ascension Island, where "rollers" can come in without warning and where he once almost lost his life.  Ascension Island 1988

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a great story and historical account. My grandad was also a graduate of Auburn, in the us air force. May they knew each other, Beckham. If he is still alive, I would love to talk to him, as it is closest to being able to talk to my departed love one. Xoxox.