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.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

How the Col. Got His Groove

William Ashley Chapman on Ascension Island in 1988.

I am working on an article about my father's unit on Ascension Island during World War II and I realize the one thing I haven't written much about here is that he returned to the island in 1988. He wanted to go back in 1982--for the fortieth anniversary of the completion of Wideawake Field--and started pestering anyone and everyone he could. He had to do that, because there were no civilian flights to Ascension in the 1980s.

He was a retired officer, a "full bird Colonel" as they say in the Army, so he could get people in the military to take his calls. But after a short chat any enlisted clerk could tell this old guy didn't have the one thing needed to get him there, i.e. pull. Ascension Island wasn't for tourists. It was a priority base. I think a flight there is unlikely. Sir.

Nevertheless, he would just ask for the next guy up the list in rank. And after five years of this, he had worn down the system. He had annoyed his way into getting there, out of Patrick AFB in Cocoa Beach, Florida, (Wideawake was a downrange field for NASA and the USAF) when something unexpected happend. Maggie Thatcher decided it was not okay when Argentina declared the Falkland Islands, long a territory of Great Britain, a possession of Argentina. War broke out and Wideawake Field, on the British Overseas Territory of Ascension Island, became a staging area for all those Sandhurst toffs. Happy days, in a way, for Col. Chapman to know his construction project was being used again to help out an ally.

But not such a good thing for the civilian he now was, drat it all. Great Britain made the island off-limits during the Falklands War!

My father was not to be denied. He persisted in writing letters, for six more years, and finally, in 1988, he was "invited" to return--just in time for the, um, 48th anniversary (which was officially deemed the 40th anniversary held six years late!) of the field's construction. Heck it was better than nothing; he got to go there on a USAF C-130 that made a weekly run to Ascension out of Patrick; he got to take my mother, who pretended to enjoy herself on the windy, sandswept-middle-of-nowhere-clinker; he got to present a plaque to somebody or other at an island ceremony; and, best of all, he got to land at Wideawake, the 6000-foot runway he blasted out of the remains of a volcano when he was a green college graduate with just a piece of paper saying he knew how to build stuff.

Col. Chapman presenting his plaque, "To the men who built and maintained this airfield," on Ascension Island.

The darn thing was still working fine after almost half a century and still is today. And still has a hump in the middle where the island's cinder cone used to be. (They just didn't have enough dynamite to level all of Mother Nature.)

See that diagonal strip at the top of the photo? That's Wideawake. My father took this picture from the USAF plane that transported him to Ascension in 1988.

It shows you the power of persistence. He had it in abundance. When he built Wideawake. And when he returned to see it 48 years later.

His life was such a lucky one. Going back to Ascension Island was just one of the many, many good things that happened to him in his ninety years. Things he often made happen. It was the secret of his success.

Ascension Island, 1988. If you won't take no for an answer, you'll get your answer eventually!


  1. Thanks for posting. My Dad was in the 38th during WWII

  2. great story. thanks.
    - i found this researching the island after learning my grandfather was stationed there during ww11

  3. My father was there for most of the war. I have some photos of him & various companions, with his commentary written on the backs. Except for my father & mother, nobody else I've encountered seems to have heard of this place--til now. I'm looking forward to your book.