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 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.

"We of Task Force Agate first saw Ascension Island on 30 March 1942 from the desk of the USAT Coamo.  The island seemed to rise from the waters of the South Atlantic Ocean as we steamed toward it ...," he says.

He describes the British possession of Ascension as an inhospitable island with no native material for construction except rock in abundance; roughly 34 square miles of barren lava rock except for 2,000-foot-high Green Mountain; situated eight degrees south of the equator, midway between the west coast of Africa and Brazil, about 5,000 miles southeast of Florida.

"Everything we used was brought with us on the troop transport and the two freighters, the Luckenback and the Pan Royal," Colonel Chapman explains, with D Company constructing the access road from the pierhead to the airport site while the ships were unloading.  When the convoy departed, "we felt very lonely, having to complete the mission and survive until the job was done."

"Living conditions were harsh physically and psychologically," he says.  "Fresh water was the critical element and was used only for drinking (two canteens per man per day), cooking, and equipment radiators.  Sea water was used even for concrete.  Food was less than gourmet with lots of Spam and powdered eggs."

There was no recreation and no mail in or out for about four months.  "There was nothing but wind, dust, rock, and work."  And on Ascension Island, "the wind is eternal," he exclaims.

Equally eternal was the work.  "The project proceeded 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  The shift for all was 12 hours, seven days a week," Colonel Chapman says.

Yes sir.  Did you say you wanted a runway?

Officers of the 38th included those "recently graduated from southern colleges and universities with their shiny, new gold bars earned via the land-grant college ROTC programs" and "a smattering of older, experienced Reserve officers [the company commanders ... [who] had worked in civilian engineering jobs before being called to active duty."

As for the draftees, Colonel Chapman continues, "you never saw such men as these:  farmers, butchers, tradesmen, a bootlegger, and even a powderman from Brooklyn who had worked on the big New York tunnel jobs.  With the Army's reputation for misfitting men to jobs, how did the powderman ever become assigned to an outfit with the destiny of the 38th Engineers?  There were clerks, an FBI man, construction equipment operators, truck drivers, and mechanics.  They were all there!  Was this staffing providential or did the Army just get it right once?  Whatever the basis, Wideawake Field, Ascension Island, in service today, attests to the skills of these men of the 38th."

Fire in the hole! Can you see the tents in the distance?

"The greatness of the men stood out in contrast to the inadequacy of the construction equipment of the Army Engineers of that era,"  Colonel Chapman says.   "Improvisation, determination, and 75,000 pounds of dynamite were the ingredients of success.  Dynamite was required even to dig latrines.  All the explosive was used in the excavation, on third of which was employed in two grand-finale shots. Even so, there was no enough explosive to construct a level runway.  Wideawake Field, as the base was named, has a hump in the middle where it is cut through the base of a cinder cone on one side and a lava flow on the other.

"The runway was completed in the 90 days alloted and the first US Army Air Corps plane a B-24, the Kissin' Cousin, landed on 10 July 1942 ..."

When the field was finished ... "the 38th departed, leaving the 898the Engineer Aviation Company (Separate) to provide engineer support to the new base.  Barely enough equipment had survived the ordeal to outfit the company.  The rest had been completely expended on the 90-day project.  The 38th was completely resupplied and outfitted at its next station, even down to shoes and socks."

Company Commander, Ray Kidd of Bedford, Virginia.  He and my dad were friends and Ray persuaded my father to remain on Ascension with the 898th for another year.  Kidd was later KIA on Ie Shima 1945.

1 comment:

  1. tdlund53@att.netJune 3, 2013 at 5:37 PM

    My late father, John Asher Ward Lund, was a member of the Headquarters & Headquarters Company of the 38th Engineer Regiment (Combat). He went to Ascension Island, Dakar, Senegal, the Belgian Congo building airfields, then on to Casablanca, across North Africa. He landed in Siciliy, then Salerno and then on to Anzio before moving on to England to stage fro D-Day as a member of the 1st Engineer Brigade Special that landed on Utah Beach just 3 days shy of 69 years ago. he ended up with the 291st Combat Engineer Battalion , demined the Eiffel Tower and then onto the Battle of the Bulge where his unit was given the name "Those Damned Engineers" by the Germans. He later served fro nearly 34 years as a Homicide Detective with the Indiana Police Department. Needless to say I'm very proud of him and his service!

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