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.

Friday, August 24, 2012

When The Engineers Started Rockin' on Ascension Island

The "Wideawakes" of Ascension Island, photo from about 1943.

It has been seventy years ago this year that the 38th Engineers landed on Ascension Island, tasked with building a secret air base in just 90 days. They didn't have enough water. They weren't resupplied nor did they get mail for months. They worked around the clock in two twelve-hour shifts until some of them dropped from exhaustion.

And they made their deadline and helped the Allies win the war. My father talked about his assignment there a lot at the end of his life. But he never mentioned the dance band!

One of my readers, William Orr, an educator from Hillsborough, Florida, in the son of man who served on Ascension at about the same time as my father. There were several thousand men on this job, so we don't know if our fathers met. But Orr is the first to tell me about The Wideawakes, the island dance band, which some of the men formed once the airstrip had been built.

Twenty-five thousand planes came through the island, ferried to battle zones all across the world. Sometimes women from the ATF flew those bombers, so women did come through Ascension. The USO came through as well. And there were movies in an open air theater.

It makes sense that some of the men, who liked music, would want to make some of their own. Thanks to William Orr for filling me in on this aspect of life on Ascension I had never heard about. He also sent a series of photos of the band, which I'm posting here in case any of my readers can identify any of the men in the band. We thank them all for their service. Many of them went on to Africa, Europe and the Pacific and some of them did not come back. 

Looking at the young faces in the photos is so sweet. Who says engineers are a bunch of nerds, eh? They all look like hep cats to me. 


  1. Thank you for posting these pictures. They took my breath away. My father, Robert (Bob) Duffy was a Wideawake! He is the tall fellow standing with the clarinet in the first photo.he is inthe other photos also

    1. Sarge: That's totally cool. I was thrilled when Robin posted these for me. My father was the tenor sax player on the far left (stage right) in most of the pictures, initials WTO. His name was Bill Orr. He carried his love for big band music and jazz his whole life. I met one other band member, Max Goldenziel, several years ago. Do you have other pictures from the 38th Engineers?


  2. I am working on a project for a neighbor whose father, Sgt. John A. Schepis was a member of Company A, 38th Engineers General Service Regiment. I discovered that he arrived at Ascension Island 30 March 1942 and worked on the airfield construction until about August, when the unit was transferred to Africa. I also discovered that he was attached to the 1sr Engineer Special Brigade (with the 38th) at Normandy, arriving at Utah Beach on 10 June. My research is not yet completed, but I know his daughter will be thrilled to see your blog. Is there anything you have that might enhance/ personalize this story about his time at Ascension?
    Thank you. Lou Arata (larata@verizon.net)