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, May 25, 2011

Christmas on Ascension: December 1944

Air Corps wings atop the Corps of Engineers castle insignia. This is a Christmas card sent home by my father from Ascension Island in (as indicated) December 1943.

Birmingham News
January 15, 1944
(page 12)
"Scribblers Take Note"

"CHRISTMAS AT ASCENSION ISLAND ... No doubt you've all read the story by John Gunther published in a recent monthly magazine describing the grand work done by the Army engineers and the air force on Ascension Island, one of our allies' most important possessions in the Atlantic, situated about halfway between Africa and Brazil.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

John Gunther on Ascension: January 1944

Continued from yesterday's blog post ...
Reader's Digest
January 1944
Internationally known reporter John Gunther (1901-1970) has just arrived on Ascension from a reporting tour in Europe and Africa. The half-hour re-fueling stop has become a longer break since the captain of his transport plane has asked for servicing on one of its engines. Gunther has a chance to tour Ascension.

by John Gunther

"'Deadline is 3:30,' Captain Gibbs said. 'If we don't get off by then, we stay the night.'  He didn't want to take off and risk having to return to Ascension in the dark.  That's a runway you want to see clearly before you try to land on it.

Pilots sometimes overshoot Ascension.  Finding it is, in Max Beerbohm's famous phrase, a little like threading a needle from afar.  So there are always two or three fast pursuit ships on Ascension, ready to lead big transports in if the weather is bad, or go after them if a pilot overshoots.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Ascension Island--The Mighty Midget" by John Gunther

Thanks to my grandmother Mrs. Roy Chapman--articles like this one were saved in a scrapbook.

From the Reader's Digest
January 1944
by John Gunther

"'Why if a crow tried to land here, he'd break a leg.'  That was an early military report on Ascension.

One of the most remarkable bits of evidence I have ever seen of American enterprise, guts, imagination and tenacity is the airport we have gouged out of volcanic rock on this unknown island, a naked dot of lava in the middle wastes of the South Atlantic.  Everyday from here, flights take place that help us win the war.  It is an essential pivot in the great route from New York and Miami to Africa, the Middle East, Russia, India and China."

Friday, May 20, 2011

"They Took Dive To Fix Line"

Laying the gas pipeline on Ascension Island, 1942. The British had a representative on this British Overseas Territory and that's the only explanation I can find for the group of civilians sitting above left, watching the men work.

Ascension Island had no safe harbor, so the 38th Engineers had to lay a pipeline out to sea, so Allied ships could offload fuel for the aircraft coming into the field.  My father did tell us that since he was an expert marksman, he was on "shark duty" when the pipeline was laid, to prevent any danger to men in the water. What he did not tell us, is that he himself donned a diving helmet at one point and dove down among the sharks to help repair a leak in the line.  I found the story in a Richmond newspaper.

The Reflector
Richmond, Virginia
May 12, 1944

"They Took Dive to Fix Gas Line"

"Lt. William Chapman and Lt. Gaston Hollimon, along with their first C.O., Capt. [Harry] Tufts, got an introduction to seadiving in 55 feet of water off Ascension on one occasion ...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hey Honey! How'd Ya Like a Pair of Real Silk Stockings?

I'll bet silk stockings weren't rationed for Betty Grable, one of the most popular pinups in World War II.  That would have been bad for morale!

This next story also comes as a sidebar to the report in the Richmond paper that tells of the return of the men of the 898th Engineers.  To understand it, you have to take your mind back to a time when a woman didn't leave the house unless she was wearing a nice dress or a skirt with a matching jacket, and stockings on her legs.  In World War II, material of all kinds was rationed so the government could use the mills to make all those millions and millions of G.I. uniforms.  Women's skirts went up to the knee in order to save precious fabric--much to the delight of those same G.I.s.  Unfortunately; silk was also rationed (parachutes you know) and women found even the newly invented nylon stockings almost impossible to find.  Add that to the fact that on Ascension Island, the planes flying through were coming to and from the China-Burma-India theater--where silk was still available--and you have the following report.

The Reflector
Richmond, Virginia
Friday, May 12, 1944

"898th Silks Now Adorn Fine Area of U.S. Longitude"

"WACS and civilian girls working on the base [the Richmond Army Air Base]  can stop hiding their wealth [ed note: meaning their gams!] now those silk stockings which the men of the 898th Engineers could buy at the PX on Ascension are disposed of. Twenty-day furloughs after their arrival at RAAB [Richmond Army Air Base] took care of those.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Situation Normal (With Mail)

From The Reflector

Richmond, Virginia
Friday May 12, 1944
Page six
Boxed Sidebar story on the 898th Engineer Aviation Company's return to the States from Ascension Island.

"First Mail Call Hit Island Like a Tide"

"For 70 days, the Engineers sweated out their first mail call on "The Rock," and then a hot rumor sped around:  'There's a Navy destroyer offshore with our mail.'

When the destroyer put ashore its cargo, though, it was found that there was only second and third class mail for the Castlemen [the Corps of Engineers insignia is a castle]--newspapers, advertising circulars, etc. no letters or postcards.

Monday, May 16, 2011

"898th Engineers Come Here from Ascension Island"

"Noncoms and Officers alike in the 898th Engineers put their heads, hands, and hearts into their assignment of making Ascension a powerful stepping stone to victory over the Axis in Africa.  Here are the officers and some of the noncoms of the Company, shown at their headquarters in the Engineer area of the Base.  Front row, l. to r.: S-Sgt. Andrew G. Betz, S-Sgt. Emil L. Benko, 1st. Sgt. Carroll J. Powers, M-Sgt. John Minor, T-4 John A. Prescott and T-5 Robert Shute.  Back row, l. to r.: 2nd Lt. Robert S. McKesson, 1st Lt. Herbert G. Schiff, Capt. Raymond O. Kidd (C.O. of the 898th), 1st Lt. Gaston L. Hollimon and 1st Lt. Ashley Chapman."  
From the The Reflector
Richmond, Virginia
May 12, 1944

"Formed from the original Engineer Combat regiment which constructed the vitally strategic air field and fuel storage installations on Ascension island, the 898th Engineer Aviation Company has returned to the U.S. after two years at that isolated South Atlantic outpost and has taken up its station at Richmond Army Air Base.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Officer Magazine's 1992 Salute to the Wideawake Work of 1942

Robin Chapman writes: I keep finding material my father wrote about Ascension.  This is something my father wrote when he was a young 73 and has the best detail of any of the other's I've seen.  Published in The Officer, the magazine of the Reserve Officers Association of the United States, March 1992, it was one of a series of fiftieth anniversary World War II memories collected by the magazine.

Wind, sand, lava and sky.  The men of the 38th Engineer Regiment (Combat) lay a fuel pipeline to an anchorage in the Atlantic.

WW II: Winter '42
30 March-10 July 1942
Wideawake Field, Ascension Island
The Officer/March 1992 (page 63)

Col. W.A. Chapman, AUS (Ret.), of Los Altos, Calif, was platoon commander of F Company when the 38th Combat Engineer Regiment of Ft. Jackson, S.C., departed Charleston, S.C., 14 March, 1942 aboard the USAT Coamo as part of Task Force Agate.  The group comprised 64 officers and 1,460 enlisted men, slightly above the 38th regiment strength.

After refueling at Recife, Brazil, and departing easterly on 27 March, the task force was finally advised of its secret mission and destination:  to construct a 6,000-foot paved runway, complete airport, and fueling facilities on Ascension Island in 90 days, as a base "urgently needed to provide a mid-Atlantic fuel and rest stop for US military aircraft en route to the Africa Campaign," Colonel Chapman points out.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Army Tradition: Don't Change A Thing

The San Jose Mercury News
Thursday, August 22, 1996
William Ashley Chapman

"My Dad was a great guy, and a veteran of World War I.  He didn't like the Army much because of the ever present confusion and told me I would do well to keep out of it.

Roy Chapman of Goodwater Alabama was a sergeant in World War I.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Ernie Pyle on Ascension Island

(I don't have a date for this column, which I found in my grandmother's scrapbook.  I'll quote it here and hope somebody can help me find the date.  I suspect it is collected in one of Pyle's books of wartime columns.)

SOMEWHERE IN AFRICA---(By wireless)---One of the sagas of this war--and one that can't be fully written until after the war--is the career of the - - - - - Combat Engineers. [At this point in the war, censorship didn't allow Pyle to use the name of my father's outfit--the 38th Engineer Regiment, Combat.)