|Avis Part Eleven - The Friendly Invasion.|
(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)
The entry of the United States into the Second World War brought a feeling of relief to Britain; we were no longer alone. The feeling of not being alone spread to Ascension, especially on Christmas Morning 1941, when for the second Christmas of the war, a warship was seen approaching the island. Only Mr Cardwell, the Cable & Wireless General Manager was aware that the Americans had expressed interest in building an airstrip here, and for security reasons, he had told no one! To make matters worse, Cardwell was spending Christmas on the mountain, so had to dash rapidly to Georgetown to meet the visitors. In the meantime the defence force almost opened fire on the ships before they were identified. Aboard the US ship was a team who had arrived to check the suitability of the site that Cardwell had identified for a possible new airfield. The party landed, quickly confirmed his observations, and departed with profuse thanks for his help. Although the US had only entered the war in December 1941, they had begun preparations for conflict much earlier.
One of those called up in April 1941 was Ashley Chapman, who after being recruited from university, was posted to an army engineering unit - the 38th Engineer Combat Regiment. Lt (later Lt Col) Ashley Chapman arrived on Ascension at the end of March as part of Task Force AGATE, whose job it was to build an air base on Ascension. The task force had departed the States in a bit of a hurry, and the job had to be completed by the middle of July. One item not loaded was telegraph poles. "No problem", was the answer, "Cut down some trees when you get there!"
The problems of getting men, machinery and stores ashore must have been immense. It was the first of many difficult tasks that were successfully tackled. Initially the stores were kept in a temporary quartermaster's store established half way up Cross Hill behind the Needles. A white pyramid on the side of the road into Georgetown commemorates the site.
Work started on the fuel farm, on the airfield itself, and on an improved road from Georgetown to the airfield site. This road, called D-Co Road in honour of D Company who built it, claimed the first American death on the island. A young private getting a lift on a bulldozer fell off, and was killed by the vehicle running over him.
A temporary camp was established near the airfield site to house the construction gang. Called Camp Casey, it too is marked by a small white pyramid; it can be seen on the right of the road as you drive past the current airfield buildings towards Mars Bay, opposite the RAF Administration Building.
The arrival of the Americans led to other changes. The Colonial Office appointed an officer, Col James Tomlinson, to liase between Cable & Wireless and the US Forces. Tomlinson had an office in No. 55, the old Naval Captain's Office in Georgetown; the Americans too had a temporary office there. Tomlinson and his wife lived in Georgetown in Bungalow No. 2, on loan from Cable & Wireless.
Night and day, 38th Combat Engineer Regiment laboured to complete their tasks. It was hot, dusty work, but the facilities quickly took shape. The fuel farm at the back of Cross Hill was completed, and the long pipeline connecting the farm to the Airhead was also laid, much of it by hand. You can still follow the pipe today, crossing some of the more desolate parts of Ascension. More fuel tanks were buried in Round Hill at the airfield itself. Pumping stations on Long Beach pumped fuel ashore and into storage. In order that tankers could deliver fuel, an undersea pipe was constructed, to which a floating terminal was attached. The undersea pipe was itself an interesting construction. Welded in one length, it was tied to drums used as floats. 1000 men carried the pipe to the waters edge and pushed it into the sea. Then at a signal, the plan was to untie the ropes and allow the pipe to sink to the sea-bed. Others, including Ashley Chapman acted as guards, in case of shark attacks. Unfortunately the ropes could not be undone, and the pipe was sunk by shooting holes in the barrels.
A second pipe was laid at a later date. The line of this can still be seen at the back of Long Beach. Two fuel tanks on the beach were added in 1942, so it is said as dummy tanks. A US inventory however, lists them as a diesel tank and a petrol tank. Certainly they were used; perhaps they had a duel role.
A base was built to house the servicemen who would be manning the completed station. The base was inland from the airstrip in an area known as Donkey Plain. What was the Parade Ground for the camp can still be seen, it was incorporated into the RAF Transmitting Station opened in 1998. Accommodation was basic, either wooden buildings covered with tar-paper, or tented accommodation was used. Ashley Chapman lived in an area reserved for officers; slightly elevated, it had views of the camp. Today the site of his tent is occupied by the wind farm.
A new hospital was built in an area still known as Hospital Hill. Close to Two Boats, it had two surgical wards, operating theatres, general wards etc. As you drive past the school towards the mountain road, Hospital Hill is straight in front of you. A small footpath to the site still exists; vehicle access was from the New Mountain Road. The BX was also in this area, just outside the school car park. The American Cemetery was also sited near here, in an area now covered by bungalows in Two Boats Village. Fifty-four Americans were killed on the island during the war, and were buried here. The bodies of all Americans buried in this cemetery were returned to the USA in the 1950's.
A command complex was constructed with a panoramic view over most of the island. The site became known as Command Hill. The tiles for this complex were especially imported from Recife. The same tiles were used to provide an additional catchment on the island, to try and improve the natural water supply. The American Telephone Exchange was also near here in a tunnel dug into Dark Slope Crater. Perhaps the most amazing feat though, was the construction of the runway itself. This meant removing all dust to expose the bedrock, and levelling a length 6000 feet long and 150 feet wide. It was then covered with compacted ash and tarred. In conditions of extreme secrecy and hardship the 38th completed the USAF Base. Having landed on the island on the 30th March, by the end of June the task was completed.
So how did they solve the shortage of telegraph poles? After all, there were no trees to cut down. Once more English Bay was raided, and the old guano railway lines were removed. Tripods were built out of these and used to support power and telephone lines. One example of this can still be seen outside the Museum. And so the Ascension airfield was almost ready for the first planes to arrive. The camp was complete awaiting the new garrison, and the fuel farm was full. All that was required was a final inspection. It had been planned that the first plane to land would be the inspection team.
But this is Ascension. Rarely do things go to plan, and anyway that new runway was rather tempting!