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.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Birds on Ascension Island Were Comical, But Not to The Army

Air Force bomber takes off from Wideawake Field, 1943. Air Force photo.
The Birmingham News
"Birds on Ascension Island Were Comical, But Not to the Army"
Tuesday, February 4, 1947 (Page 11)

"Professor of physics at the University of Pennsylvania, Louis N. Ridenour served during the war on the staff of the radiation laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."

by Louis N. Ridenour
NEW YORK, Feb. 4--(NANA)--"I have this story from a friend of mine who is a practicing ornithologist.  He was called in as a bird expert, at a time when the Army Air Forces found themselves at their wits' end--all on account of the habits of birds, and the love of a mother bird for her egg.
Louis N. Ridenour was an early advisor to the U.S. Air Force, the Manhattan Project, and later to NASA.  Born in 1911, he died in 1959.

In the early days of the war, when a landing in Africa was big stuff, there was, by the standards of the time, a good deal of air transport across the South Atlantic.  The shortest route across the South Atlantic is from Natal to Dakar, but the distance between these two places is considerable.  Accordingly, it was regarded as a great stroke of luck that about halfway across the ocean, and a little to the south, there was an island called Ascension.

In peacetime this island was a British cable station and had a total population of a few dozen, made up of cable company employees and their families.  However such was the importance of cutting down the dead load of gasoline carried by our aircraft crossing the South Atlantic that it was decided to build an airfield on the island and to garrison the place with sufficient troops to take care of any Nazi attempt to capture it by attack from the sea.

Well, about 3,000 engineer troops moved in and in less time than it takes to tell it they had constructed a runway.  To be sure, Ascension is a volcanic island, which is mostly crags and mountains, and the runway as it finally turned out had a great hump in the middle.  If you landed short you were [okay], but if you overshot a little you were going downhill and had a hard time keeping out of the ocean.  And the runway went between a couple of hills, so that when you came in on your final approach it looked as if you were flying into a cave. But there was a runway and there was plenty of 100-octane gas brought in by ships, and it was a fine thing to be able to carry the added load that you could when you took only enough gas to make Ascension.

In fact, the problem [with the runway] didn't develop until a couple of months after the runway was finished.

Wideawakes still make Ascension their home.

Everything had gone fine until then. But one day there was a sort of a dark cloud in the sky, and it resolved itself into more birds than you have ever seen. These birds, according to the cable company employees who had been there for some time and knew all about the natural phenomena, were sooty terns.  It seems that the sooty tern, when he makes Ascension island, is referred to as a "wideawake," but nobody knows why.

It is the practice of the wideawake, or sooty tern, to come to Ascension to lay its egg or eggs.  Most wideawakes lay one, but some lay two.

You can imagine the surprise and delight of the mother wideawakes when they glided in for a landing and found that new runway.  Here was a level place, not the old steep ravine lined with masses of lava.  With one mind the wideawakes came in and landed on the runway and there they stayed.  They built nests and some of them laid one egg and some of them laid two.  In either case, they were mighty fond of those eggs.

From time to time, of course, airplanes came in too.  But the runway, which had been made of lava a few weeks before, was now made of lava and birds' nests. On every nest was a mother wideawake who was determined not to forsake her egg until disaster clearly could no longer be avoided. You can see what happened. The mother wideawakes stayed on the nests until the last possible moment, then flew up just in time to come through the windshield right into the pilot's face.

Word of all this got back to the Pentagon, of course, and headquarters, Army Air Forces, undertook to solve the problem.  Their first move was to send down an ornithologist.

This ornithologist--not the one I know, but another one--had a brother-in-law in the Department of Agriculture, and he remembered something his brother-in-law had said at dinner the week before.  "When an insect pest gets out of hand," the brother-in-law remarked, "we look around for a natural enemy to keep it in check." Birds were clearly the problem on Ascension, and the ornithologist thought about natural enemies of birds.  "Cats!" he said to himself.  "There are no cats on this island."

So he sent a signal back to Washington, asking for cats.  His requests were enjoying a high priority, since the problem of the wideawakes on Ascension was one of the toughest that headquarters Army Air Forces had to deal with in those days.  They sent all the available second lieutenants out after cats, and in a very short time an entire B-24 full of cats was winging its way to Ascension.

Mind you, this wasn't the only approach to the wideawake problem that the Army Air Forces had undertaken.  On the basis that what can't be cured must be endured, they had asked one of the great manufacturing companies to develop a windscreen which would be impervious to wideawakes.  With characteristic ingenuity, this company built a giant slingshot and began to lob frying chickens at windshields made of various sort of laminated plastic, in an effort to find something that would transmit lights, but not wideawakes.

Well, the bomber full of cats landed presently on Ascension. And for a while it looked as if everything was going to turn out all right. The cats were killing wideawakes by the dozens.

Unfortunately, there are also boobies on Ascension.  The booby is a bird that cannot fly very well, but has an extremely strong beak and neck.  The cats didn't know any better than to tangle with the boobies, and presently the cats were all dead, with holes in their heads.  And the mother wideawakes were still waiting until the very last minute, and then coming through the windscreen.

About this time, the first ornithologist was recalled [from the project].  My friend, who is clearly a second-string bird man, was the one to whom the Army Air Forces [next] turned in this crisis.  They sent him down to Ascension in his own C-87 and he saw the problem at first hand: for when he came in to land the wideawakes waited until the last possible moment and then came in through the windshield.  The large manufacturing company had not yet solved the problem of making an impervious windshield.

My friend has no brother-in-law, let alone a brother-in-law employed by the Department of Agriculture.  Accordingly, he said nothing to himself about natural enemies.  Instead he noted that the difficulty arose from the fact that there were wideawakes on the runway. They were there, he reasoned, because their eggs were there. So he borrowed a platoon of soldiers and had them trample out the eggs in a 50-yard square. Sure enough, the wideawakes went away.

If you look carefully at this photo (or double click it to enlarge it) you'll see at least three soldiers and a jeep out on "egg" patrol.  Wideawake Field 1943.   USAF photo.

He rounded up all the soldiers on the island and marched them down the runway with instruction to step on every egg they saw.  When this was done, the wideawakes went away in sadness and my friend went away in triumph.  The next year the wideawakes that had been there before stayed away from the runway and laid their eggs in the ravines.  No doubt this would give a lot of pleasure to Darwin, if he were still alive.

The great company was able to lay aside its slingshot, for there no longer was a wideawake problem on Ascension."   (Printed by permission of the Atlantic Monthly: that was the note on the bottom of the Birmingham News Article.)

I found this article among my father's papers, and I cannot swear that it is true.  But it was, after, published by the Atlantic Monthly!

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