|Avis Part Twelve - And So To Work.|
(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)
June 11th 1942 was a day for surprises. The British escort carrier H.M.S. Archer was cruising close to Ascension and needed to get a message secretly to London. The pilot of the Fairey Swordfish aircraft dispatched to drop a message to the Cable & Wireless Office in Georgetown, was very surprised to see a virtually completed runway on Ascension. He was even more surprised to be shot at! The American Engineers at the Airhead seeing a strange plane trying to land blocked the runway while opening fire. Eventually, calm and good humour was restored, and Lt. E. Dixon-Child became the first pilot to land an aircraft on Wide-Awake Airfield.
The first American plane landed on the 10th of July 1942, with a party of inspecting officers. The airfield was officially open, and the first ferry planes followed within 10 days.
Meanwhile, more work had been completed on the island. Two radar stations were built, one on the ramps climbing Green Mountain which is today the site of the picnic table and bench just by the start of Invalids Path. As for the second station, have you ever wondered why Elliott's path one way is just a footpath, but in an anti-clockwise direction is wide enough to drive along? In WWII you could, thanks to the bulldozer driver who widened it. It was later decided to widen the track even further, leading to the demise of the bulldozer when it slipped over the edge. The vehicle is still there today, surrounded by ginger. Luckily the driver jumped clear.
Attempts were made to improve the water supply, digging a cutting to intercept a drip in Breakneck Valley that kept a cattle trough full. Unfortunately, the drip promptly dried up and never reappeared. Attempts were made too to start up Dampier's Drip again, unfortunately to no effect. Drilling for water was also tried, with a deep well being dug below Middleton's Ridge. Ascension folklore says that there was much excitement when water was found, until one of the crew tasted the water and noticed it was salt water. Was this the start of the theory that Ascension was shaped like a mushroom? Was part of Ascension about to fall into the ocean? It was certainly unusual to find salt water two miles from the sea. The story was confirmed in 1986 when the Americans were drilling for their geothermal energy project. As part of their research they had spoken to one of the original drilling crew.
More work was to be carried out on the island over the next few months, but the time had come for the 38th Combat Engineer Regiment to move on, and be replaced by the permanent garrison, who arrived in mid-August. Not all the engineers left however, some, including Ashley Chapman remained. The US forces now took over the defence of the island, including manning the Fort Bedford Guns. Additional anti-aircraft guns were mounted on Fort Hayes and on Cross Hill. Beach defences were established so that each possible landing point was covered by three machine guns; one at the back of the beach, and one at each end. If you look carefully today, you can still spot some of these defences, mostly made from old railway lines, together with the odd tubular mast section from the old WWI spark transmitting station.
Troops dispatched to guard the beaches would camp out for 4 or 5 days, and then return to base when relieved. The US base itself boasted cinemas, mess halls, clubs, and sports facilities, erected out of canvas or temporary wooded structures. Today all have gone; only the Command Hill offices remain, converted into living accommodation.
With the US Forces moving into the Georgetown suburbs, a telephone exchange was dug under Governors Lodge. The Americans at Fort Hayes and Fort Bedford were the only ones allowed into Georgetown. When Mr and Mrs Chapman visited the island to reopen the Command Hill accommodation, lunch on the Exiles Club balcony was a special treat. It was the first time that Ashley had been allowed to visit Georgetown!
A bombing range was opened at Letterbox. Walkers today can still find the remains of bombs and cartridge cases scattered around. Another range existed too, on Shelly Beach; in the rocks behind the beach, the remains of practice bombs can still be found. Indeed, the bomb outside the Georgetown Police Office was found near there.
But it was the airfield that dominated activity. A large number of aircraft used the airfield at the height of the war. In addition to the routine anti-submarine patrols, the airfield was part of the delivery route for aircraft from America to Europe. In January 1944 for example, 983 aircraft passed through on their way to Europe. This must have presented quite a logistics problem; we know for example that in the 5-week period September 10 to October 14 1944, 962881 gallons of fuel were delivered to aircraft.
The island's total fuel storage capacity was 8 tanks at Cross Hill, total capacity 3,619,000 gallons, and 10 tanks at Round Hill, total 250,000 gallons. A little arithmetic will show that the Cross Hill storage of 3,619,000 gallons will not divide by 8. This is because part of one tank was lost at sea while being unloaded!
Security was tight. When going on leave the servicemen were not allowed to say where they were based. Mind you, they did have a special South Atlantic Forces badge that must have given the game away somewhat! Chapman described the effort of drilling into his leave parties that they must only say that they were based on "The Rock". He also described the disappointment of going on leave himself after two years, and stating that he was based on "The Rock", only to be asked, "So, how do you like Ascension?" Some secret!
Most parts of the island were at one point utilised, or guarded by the US Forces. As you walk around Ascension today, there are many artefacts that remind us of the days when the population of Ascension was at the 4,000 level. Some remains have you asking, "What on earth was there?" During our 9-hour hike around Wig Hill, Dave Rayney and I found the remains of telephone lines. Why there? Packers Guide describes the strange remoteness of four unmarked graves near Hummock Point. An expedition to excavate the graves in the late '70s found the truth; they were American latrines! (One excavator, BBC Engineer Colin Chambers claimed to have broken the 100 yard record in a dash to wash in the sea!)
The track to Dampier's Drip has the remains of a fuel tank close to where a further track was cut from the mountain road to Dampier's. Why put generators there? On the Southern Headland above Mitchell Cove, a short stretch of railway leads to a collapsed bunker. What was it? For those who enjoy exploring our island home, the discoveries are fascinating, and the questions many. Even where the answer can't be found, the ingenuity and effort put into Ascension can always be recognised.
I hope that the servicemen who built the airstrip and operated the base were proud of their efforts. They should be.