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.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Letter From Herb

One of my father's fellow officers--just as newly minted as he from an ROTC class of '41--was Herb Schiff, who became one of his best friends.  It was a friendship that lasted until my father's death in 2010.  Herb is, I believe, the last surviving officer of the 898th Engineers who remained on Ascension 1942-1944.  He isn't well and is in skilled nursing in Sarasota but he's on his way to age 92. I recently found this letter he wrote my father about their experiences. No date on the letter but it appears to have been sent before one of my father's trips back to Ascension. 1986? 1992? Something like that.

Lieutenants Schiff and Chapman on Ascension. The relentless sun of the equator turned them both brown.  My father said his lips grew swollen and cracked and you can see that in this photo.

"Dear Ash,
For stories about Ascension Island, you undoubtedly have the following--
Pilot to Tower: I'm coming in.
Tower: Where are you?!
Tower, in surprise: You've landed in the wrong direction!
Pilot: Sun was in my eyes.

"The following are greatly abbreviated 'stories:'
One newly-arrived island commander demanded that the salt-water supply pumps to the water distillation plant be moved off the beach and up to higher position--was it 100 ft. higher?!--above the beach. [This is funny to engineers because the island was flat, except for its volcanic mountains and a salt water distillation plant naturally sits closest to its greatest supply need: salt water.]

Col. Tomlinson, British liaison officer, was eagerly awaiting completion of the electric power distribution line to his residence on a ridge off Green Mountain.  As he watched the construction crew at work on this important installation, he became alarmed and let this be known when he noticed that the wire being used for the 13800V line being strung from one mountain ridge on to his residence was uninsulated.  He said the electricity will leak out! [Another engineering joke.]

British troops in their tropical khakis guard an outmoded gun (where are their helmets? Rifles?) Still, it was their island and they held its ground until the American Infantry arrived later in 1942.

Sgt. John Stewart did not believe that the mid-point tap on a single-phase transformer was any different than the neutral, common junction of a wyi-connected, 3-phase system until he tried joining two of these mid-point taps together--that were in different phases--and electrical fireworks resulted! [My father's sister Helen, married a nuclear engineer with a PhD in physics and he did not know how to jump start a car using jumper cables, so, I say, the unlucky Sgt. Stewart has no call to have been ashamed.]

We would surely enjoy being with you if you & Faye could make it to Southern California while we are there. [My folks often got together with Herb and his wife Ursula over their sixty-year friendship, a bond formed between Dad and Herb on Ascension Island.]


After looking at this photo with a magnifying glass, I'm pretty sure that's Herb, standing on a pile of volcanic magma.  Except for the very top of Green Mountain, Ascension was a true desert island and had no vegetation.

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1 comment:

  1. My brother, John Riddle, was stationed on Ascension Island for a year about 1942. He was a radio operator and the story about the pilot landing from the wrong direction made me wonder if my brother was in the control tower at the time!
    If anyone reading this knew my brother, I would like to hear about it.