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    Avis Part Thirteen - Old Glory Still Flies!
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(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)

The building of Wideawake Airfield is a well-known chapter of Ascension's history. What is less well known, is that there was a continued small presence of British Forces on the island throughout WWII. In addition to the HF direction finding station behind Long Beach, manned by the Civilian Shore Wireless Service, both the RAF and the Royal Navy were also here. The RAF maintained a small staging post at the airfield, and the RN ran an HF signals station. This was based in Georgetown in properties rented from Cable & Wireless. The operators lived and worked in the area today known as Cuba, in bungalows 27, 28, 29 and 30. The receivers were based in bungalow, utilising aerials adjacent to the golf course. The Transmitting Station was on Wireless Plain, the transmitters in the buildings erected by the Navy for an earlier war, and an earlier signal station, with the aerial slung between the two lattice masts. The transmitters were operated by remote control; the ducting running from bungalow 30 can still be seen close to the 9th green on the golf course.

One continuing problem for the US Forces was provision of fresh food and water. The Georgetown residents had the supplies from Green Mountain, but these were clearly insufficient to cope with the extra demands of 2000 servicemen. All water at the US Base was distilled from seawater, and in short supply. Its use was limited to drinking, cooking and the washing of hands and face; seawater was used for laundry and for showers. Notices warned the transiting crews and passengers that fresh water was so short, and advised against abandoning the shower in favour of swimming in the sea. As always however, enterprise wins through, and for a short while some of the St. Helenian staff living in Georgetown operated a laundry service, using their own meagre supplies of water. A complaint by the C&W doctor soon had the Company Manager outlawing that activity.

Fresh food was a problem that plagued the US Forces. Tinned rationed made up the bulk of the supplies, although frozen foods were also used. The number of Coca Cola bottles later unearthed from US rubbish dumps would suggest that there was no lack of that necessity! Salad items were for a long time something totally unavailable. To solve this shortage the US Base went in to the farming business with the setting up of Hydroponics Station Number One.

The growing of vegetables using hydroponics was at that point in its infancy; indeed the station on Ascension was believed to be only the third large-scale production plant built. The troops made quite a sacrifice to see the plant established; it was built on their baseball diamond! Consisting of four sections, each comprising 25 beds, and constructed out of ash-felt covered concrete, each bed was 8 inches wide, and between 85 and 115 feet long. Fresh water was mixed with the required chemicals, and pumped to header tanks on top of Table Crater. From there, gravity allowed the water and nutrients to be supplied to the first section, which drained into the second section, and so on down the line. From the last section the mixture was drained into a sump, and from there pumps allowed it to be recycled. The growing medium was the black clinker that is such a common sight today. In a modern attempt at hydroponics in 1985, the black clinker was found to be a superior medium than today's commercial product, Perlite.

The first crop consisted of cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, green peppers and lettuce. Unfortunately pests such as mice and insects initially attacked the plants, but were soon brought under control. With a lack of bees, the first plants were pollinated by hand, so a hive of bees was flown in to cope with subsequent production. Troops must have looked forward to the first harvest; unfortunately they had to share it with a planeload of reporters who, in August 1945 were flown in to celebrate the achievement! Costly but effective, the hydroponics scheme finally solved the fresh food problem. The remains of the site can still be seen close to the northern edge of the new RAF Transmitting Station aerial field. For the best view of this and other parts of the US Base "Permanent Camp Area", walk the track up Lady Hill for a birds eye view of this and other parts of the island.

With the ending of the war in Europe, the base still had a role with transport Links to the Far East through India. A grim reminder of war occurred the day after the Victory in Europe celebrations, when a plane crashed on take off, killing twelve; the last fatal war accident. With victory over Japan, the base activity wound down, the guards were removed from the beaches, the RAF Contingent and the RN withdrew. As the base wound down, the number of servicemen dropped until by mid-1946 there were only 200 officers and men of the US Forces left on the island. One unfortunate result of the war was Governor's Lodge, which had initially housed the men of the Royal Artillery and subsequently the US forces manning the Hood guns. It had become so dilapidated that it was deemed beyond repair. Cable & Wireless tried to obtain compensation for the damage, but this was rejected.

In May 1947 the last troops left the island and the US Base was deactivated. In moving out the US forces removed all the temporary buildings and tents. At sites such as the US Hospital, only clinker areas remained to show that anything at all had existed. Surplus material had been either shipped back to the US or buried in large pits near the site of the old base. Around the island, the remains of the defensive outposts were abandoned, the radar equipment and US guns removed. (The Hood guns on Fort Bedford were left, together with a supply of ammunition in the vaults) The fuel tanks were left, with the tanks far from empty, giving a supply of petrol that would keep the remaining population going for many years. One effect of the US withdrawal was a return to driving on the left. There had been so many US vehicles in WWII that the island had switched to driving on the right to prevent problems.

The buildings that had been built from the durable materials remained, including the Command Hill offices, radio buildings near the site of the present base, and the nose hangars. Other stores and equipment were packed into the two quartermaster's store huts and left, with Cable & Wireless contracted to inspect the site from time to time and report any damage. The HF direction finding station was converted into a homing beacon transmitter to be operated by C&W staff, if ever planes were required to call. As the last troops departed they left very little reminder of the intense activity that had been the Ascension of WWII.

The island population level reverted to just 200 Cable & Wireless personnel. No more parties, no more Coca Cola, no more ice cream for the children, and no more open-air cinemas. There remained however, one poignant reminder of the war. As someone wrote at the time;

"At Muriel Avenue close to the Two Boats, Old Glory still flies amongst the clump of coconut palms that is the site of the American Cemetery."


Copyright © 2000, Graham Avis
Created by Stephen C Fowler
Last revised on the 9th of February 2002