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, June 21, 2011

The Story Behind the Story of A U.S. Base on British Ascension

For some time I've wondered about the treaty and/or legislative details that led to the construction of an American air base on Ascension Island, which is a British Overseas Territory.

From my reading of Winston Churchill's fascinating history of World War II--six volumes, but who knew the history better than he?--I've long suspected that the U.S. right to that stretch of clinker on that desert island must have come from one of the Lend/Lease or Destroyers for Bases deals cooked up between FDR and WSC in the lead-up to America's entry into the war.

My reasoning has gone this way: my father, an engineer, graduated with his degree from Auburn and an ROTC commission in June of 1941, and in July 1941, much to his astonishment, his unit of engineers was called to active duty.  He had to leave his first job at General Electric after just one month and he was sent to Ft. Belvoir, Virginia for an "Engineer Refresher Course."

In his old age he spoke of this as being really funny to him at the time--we weren't at war with anybody, and he'd just finished four years of college engineering classes.  What was up with an "Engineer Refresher Course?"

"They were teaching us about how to fill potholes," he snorted seven decades later.

He was at Ft. Belvoir in December 1941--taking a shower, he says--when his roommate stuck his head into the bathroom and said:  "The Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor."

His response?  "Where's Pearl Harbor?"

(His memory may have been pretty good, even at age 90 when he told this story. I've looked at his log book, and he had gone to Columbia, S.C. on 12-6-1941 to take up a J-3 Cub, and thus, may have just gotten back to base on Sunday afternoon when the news broke in the Eastern U.S.)

Anyway, by February--less than sixty days later, which is faster than a speeding bullet in the Army--he and his unit were on their way by ship to an "undisclosed location," which ended up being Ascension where they were tasked to build an airfield in 90 days. It was a huge project for such a short time and they worked in twelve-hour shifts, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, to finish the 7000-foot runway, completing it three days ahead of schedule.

The reporter in me could tell, just from my father's story, that this plan was in the box and ready to go before December 7, 1941. Somebody in what was then called The War Department knew, when war came, we would need this particular location; knew we had the rights to use it; and further had this whole operation laid out in a pretty detailed file.

It happened too quickly not to have been in the planning stages long before Pearl Harbor.

I've now found some newspaper confirmation of my suspicions in a piece written by Washington D.C. reporter Peter Edson dated 12-20-43, distributed by news service NEA (that's a United Features/Scripps syndicate still in operation) and headlined: "We Discover New American Air Base: Use of Ascension Island is Badly Kept Secret."

(He was slightly stretching the story with that headline. On November 28, 1943, my father had finally written home to Alabama saying, "The lid is off!" and telling his folks where he was.)

In any case, Edson's piece, because of his Washington sources, is fascinating and I'll print it in full in the coming days.  But just a teaser here, as he writes:

"Being another one of these American-built-paid-for-and-maintained bases on British territory, it will become a topic for argument in deciding its postwar use.  The strong nationalist point of view is that all such bases, wherever built, should remain as American bases.

"U.S.-built military air bases at Newfoundland, Bermuda and other points involved in the swap of old destroyers to the British will remain under the American flag during the 99-year lease, but cannot be used for commercial aircraft.

"Some of the leading commercial airline executives are of the opinion that this is unimportant because most of these bases are not on what will be the commercial postwar air routes.  Ascension Island, before the war, certainly was no great asset, except for millions of terns and sea turtles which went there to lay eggs.  Its human population numbered 300, mostly living in the one community of George Town [sic].

"But it's an important air base now, and it's no longer a secret and what's to be done about it and the hundreds more like it in the postwar by-and-by is a free topic for debate."

So, even though Ascension is not listed in the Destroyers for Bases or Lend/Lease general stories I've read on the Internet, I suspect it is somewhere in the fine print of one of those British/American congressional deals or in addenda to them, of which there were several, prior to December 7, 1941.

And though it did not turn out to be of much commercial use--after the initiation of jet air travel there was not much need for a stopover in the middle of nowhere--it has been a great American military asset, though its organization--an American-maintained RAF base with some British and some USAF staffers--remains a bit quirky.

Florida Today just had an excellent piece on Ascension and its use to the U.S.  And though I hate to send you to another site, you can find it at:


Turns out it did have a definite use in the "postwar by-and-by" after all.

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