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, December 11, 2013

"New" Historic Photo of Wideawake's Construction

The engineers on Ascension Island, not long after they landed and began their work. My father is in the back row, sixth from photo right, wearing his envelope cap and laughing. Looks like he needs a shave.

Thanks to Michael Murray, the son of another World War II veteran whose father served with mine on Ascension, we have a new "Wideawake" photo for the record.

It was taken not long after the engineers landed and had begun to grapple with their task of building an impossible airfield in the middle of nowhere.

The engineers left the U.S. on a reconfigured ocean liner in the spring of 1942, only a few months after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. My father had just graduated from Auburn, just turned twenty-one, and just had his ROTC unit called up "for the duration."

They weren't told where they were going: it was a secret mission. But they knew they would need telephones to communicate, so as they were loading up, my father, a green 2nd Lt. who had been put in charge of the loading process, asked about telephone poles.

"Aw," said the guy in charge of the equipment list on the dock, "just cut down some trees when you get there."

Unfortunately, they were going to what can rightly be called a desert island.

All this came back to me when I saw the photo that Michael Murrary, of Grand Junction, Colorado, sent me this week. I recognize some of my father's friends: Fred Clarke is kneeling at left. He was a West Pointer who became Chief of Engineers for the Army. After he retired from the Pentagon, I was working as a reporter in Washington D.C. and when my folks came to visit, he and his wife invited us to their Spring Valley home for tea. It was a pretty house and I told his wife so. "Oh dear," she said with a wave of her hand. "Everything in this house has been broken and glued together again. We've moved so many times with the Army!"

Michael Murray's father is kneeling next to Gen. Clarke. Murray told me his father, another West Pointer, served as Clarke's assistant Chief of Engineers and retired a full bird Colonel.

In the back row, I see Gaston Hollimon, who, later in the war, served with my father in the 1902 Engineer Aviation Battalion in the Battle of Okinawa. It appears to me that Gaston is responsible for the rabbit ears on officer Hutton (whom I don't know) who is squinting solemnly into the sun and looks like he could use a laugh.

Harry Tufts is in the back row right. Another West Point man, I learned from my father's letters that Harry later organized an African-American unit and served with them in China. 

Herb Schiff is there too and he was a lifelong friend of my dad's. Herb is 90 now and no longer speaks. But he is in care in Sarasota and his loving family sees him every day. 

Those pith helmets were strictly British and since Ascension Island was (and is) a British Overseas Territory, I can only guess that some in the photo are British officers ... or that the headgear was traded for the photo. The regulation khaki shorts on the fellow standing at right are also part of the British tropical kit.

Anyway, it was such fun to see the photo. My father, sixth from photo right in the back, is laughing with that low delighted laugh he had, when he was relaxed and happy. And though he looks like he needs a shave, I know that's because they didn't have enough fresh water and had to save what they had for drinking. They had to shave with sea water and, as a consequence, even my father--one of the greatest rule-followers of all time--must have let his daily shaving ordeal slip a bit as the men worked seven days a week in 12-hour shifts around the clock, to finish their job in 90 days. A deadline they met of course. Being Americans and engineers. 

What joy these pictures bring to us. Freezing time at a moment that will not come again. Capturing these men when they were boys. Giving us this unique and remarkable tick of the clock that will now be ours to share.

1 comment:

  1. My father was also on Ascension Island, as a radio operator. Wonder if he knew your dad.