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, 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.

Most of the time Ascension's weather is perfect, not too hot, not too cool, and with a permanent fresh breeze that runs 20 miles an hour.  It rains often, when the red cinder dust turns to mud.

We visited Georgetown, the headquarters of the British community  There is an Exile's Club, and a prison that hasn't had a client since 1925, and a big sign over a mildewed plaster building, 'Government of St. Helena,' for Ascension politically is annexed to its larger neighbor.  We twisted through lava valleys, bounced over rusty pastures filled with rock, and looked upward at what is called Green Hill, which is not very green.  We saw the foaming beaches, where the swimming is as dangerous as anywhere in the world, and the guest house, now nearly completed, which will handle hundreds of air travelers a day.  It is nicely situated on a sharp slope overlooking the sea.  'Might as well give 'em a view,' said out guide, Colonel J.C. Mullinex, the base commander.

The most conspicuous inhabitants of Ascension are the terns. Thousands upon thousands of these birds, about the size of ducks, cluster noisily on the rocks.  When they get on the runway, in heavy-winged clouds, they can be a serious menace to aviation. One flew into a B-17 recently, smashing through the window, and wrecked the plane's radio. The birds are not edible, but their eggs are. [RC note: the American soldiers didn't think so!]

Lunch was something special.  The officers' mess at Ascension is a cafeteria.  We had a good thick soup, baked frankfurters, a choice of four vegetables, a handsome salad with a cheese dressing, lemonade, cake, stewed fruit and coffee. Every cubic inch of food, except the local eggs, must be brought in.  Nowadays a supply ship reaches Ascension about once a month, bringing not only food but also clothing, gasoline, equipment and munitions. There is no water on the island. Our chemists purify the sea water and make it fit to drink.

Near the long curving beach at the bottom of the runway I saw an object that startled me.  It was a tree, the only tree on the whole island.  It has been bent practically in half by the incessant wind, and its fronds are scrawny.  'That,' Colonel Mullinex pointed out, 'is what we call Coconut Grove.'  Near the tree this thoughtful officer has placed a lone bench, 'Honeymoon Beach.'

The force that maintains Ascension is officially considered a task force.  Officers and men wear steel helmets always.  Every eventuality is kept in mind, even the possibility of a landing attack by Axis submarine.  'Is that beach protected?' I asked innocently enough.  'Well,' the Colonel answered, 'you're standing right between two machine-gun nests, even if you can't see them.'

We passed one of the hospitals and chatted with a gang of male nurses.  Once, General Marshall visited this island.  He asked the commanding officer if he did not want some WACS.  'Not unless you send me a couple of thousand,' the commanding officer replied.

Morale is first class. Yet Ascension is the loneliest and most inaccessible spot any American troops are called to serve in.  Measures are taken down to the most subtle detail, to keep our men snappy and smiling.  For instance, on the remote command post the tables are covered with a bright scarlet oilcloth, to give them a touch of color. Most of the men catch something of the infectious zest of Colonel Mullinex, their commander.  He said to me, 'This is the finest command any man ever had, and I wouldn't change it for anything on earth.'

At about 3:25, we clambered into our C-54, strapped on our Mae Wests, and listened to the throb of the refurbished motor. That evening we dined in Brazil.  We had crossed the Atlantic, comfortably, safely, between dawn and dusk, thanks in large part to Ascension.

I remembered what a Chinese officer had told me in Accra: 'I wonder if God knew how He was helping the Allies when he dropped that island there.'"

Added the Reader's Digest in 1944:  "John Gunther, noted author of Inside Europe, Inside Asia and Inside Latin America, has just returned from the war zones in Africa and Europe, adding another chapter to her personalized records of world events. Besides his distinction as a journalist, Mr. Gunther has won wide reputation as a radio news commentator."

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