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.

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.

"It was not until December, 1943, that military activity on Ascension was revealed by the War Department and not until the return of the 898th to this country that its story and that of its parent outfit, the 38th Engineer Regiment (Combat) have been permitted to be told.

"Until last December, the air field at Ascension and the outfit which built it were among the most tightly kept military secrets of this war. The engineers could tell their correspondents only that they were on an island, could give no clues at all to its whereabouts, what the weather or fishing or military job there was like.

"When a task force under Col. Robert E. Coughlin, the 38th C.O., sailed from an East Coast port on March 14, 1942, no one but the Colonel knew their destination.  No one else found it out until they were two days from Ascension. [RC note: presumably the captain and the navigator of the troop transport which took them there must have had some kind of a clue to this, but, ah, the imperfections of daily journalism.] 

"The force was made up of the transport chip Coamo, the freighter J.L. Luckenback, and a naval escort. Besides the 38th Engineers, there were anti-aircraft, medical and service troops.

No Time for Comedy

"The force paused only at a Brazilian port on March 26 to refuel, then drove on to Ascension, arriving March 30.  The men spent their first night in pup tents, in cots under the open sky, in slit trenches on Long Beach, [and] lost no time in unloading their ships.

"The next day, preliminary surveying of the air field site began.  Heavy equipment--bulldozers, tractors, power shovels, trucks--was taken straight out of the ships' holds to the scene of the runway construction.

Link to Battlefield

"On July 10, the first American plane landed on the runway and it was in full operation on the air route from America's aircraft factories to the North African desert battlegrounds, via Florida, Brazil, and the African Gold Coast.  The trail-blazing plane was "Our Kissing Cousin," a famous B-24 converted to a cargo-carrier.  It was en route from Accra, Gold Coast, to Natal, Brazil, and didn't even pause to refuel, merely landed and took off again.

"On May 28, 1942, the 38th first anniversary, the 898th was formed--carefully selected from among the old regiment's personnel according to job abilities and personal records.  Under its first C.O., Capt. Harry N. Tufts, of Denver, Colo., it moved into a separate area of the island on the first of August.  Capt. (then 1st Lt.) Raymond O. Kidd, Bedford Va., took over command early in November, 1942 and still commands the organization.

"Late this February, the 898th was relieved and began its homeward voyage.  Their convoy stopped in Brazil to pick up 400 German and Italian prisoners of war, men captured from ships sunk while trying to run the Allied blockage in the Atlantic.  Navy patrol bombers based on Ascension, point out the 898th's officers, aided in the sinking of the would-be blockade runners.

Home Again

"New Orleans was the first port of call for the island-cramped Engineers on March 23 and from there they came straight to this base as a departure point for their 20-day furloughs.

"Now the furloughs are in the past and while they're turning their attention to getting re-acquainted, after two years' absence, with life in the States, they still occasionally cast a mental, over-the-shoulder glance at the speck of volcanic rock in the South Atlantic that they forged into a mid-ocean aircraft carrier speeding thousands of warplanes on their way to victory."

Published without a byline, in the Richmond Reflector, Friday May 12, 1944, page six. 

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