|Avis Part Eighteen - Curry or Stew!|
(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)
In the mid 1950's St Helena was going through one of its bleaker times. Despite the existence of the flax industry, unemployment was still at a significant level. In the South Atlantic however, events were unfolding that would help to improve the situation greatly. With the development of long-range inter-continental ballistic missiles, the U.S. needed a range extending deep into the South Atlantic Ocean to test them. Hence, in 1956 the Bahamas Agreement was drawn up between the American and British Governments, and the construction of a new U.S. Base started, heralding the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Ascension.
The return of the Americans to Ascension, initially as a survey operation, but later as a construction project, was to provide a much-needed boost to employment. By the end of 1956, 181 St Helenian men were employed in a temporary capacity on Ascension Island constructing the US Base. Also employed were a number of West Indian workmen - an example that would be followed in a future building project.
Initially the construction crews lived under canvas in an area called Tent City, which was situated approximately on the site of the current US concrete batching area. In addition to the operational buildings, radar stations, fuel facilities and runway repairs, living accommodation for the permanent staff had to be constructed. Unlike today's consolidated site, the original base was in two parts. The current site with a bar, cinema (sorry, movie hall!), and living quarters housed the US workers. The Saints eventually lived in a second part of the base out near the airhead, which utilised a number of old wartime buildings that had been left standing. The fact that there were two bases should not be seen as an indication that the facilities at the airhead were in any way poor; they were in fact the envy of those in Georgetown and at the mountain! One of the old buildings is still there; Toad Hall is one of the original war time buildings used as a barrack block. This second facility also had a mess hall, a cinema, a club, and a beach hut, in fact, everything that could possibly be required.
As in Georgetown, the work, largely for the construction firm Jones & Tomkins, was manual labour. Although the base would be run by the USAF's main contractor Pan Am, Jones & Tomkins and other sub-contractors continued to do the construction. Heavy equipment existed for more major construction projects, but the bulk of the work, as in Georgetown, was accomplished by muscle power. As well as labourers, from the beginning St Helenians were employed as carpenters, masons, mechanics, and a whole range of other trades.
Living conditions were very different from Georgetown. The main drawback was that the bedrooms were a dormitory design, and rather cramped; up to 16 men to a room, although some buildings had smaller rooms. A young Sid Youde for example, shared a room with 8 other men in an old building fitted with round porthole type windows. Mind you, they did have one major advantage; the beds came with sheets! Although the buildings were old, they were quite sound. In many ways the conditions set new standards. There was no restriction on the use of water, and there was the ultimate joy - flush toilets! There was none of the regimentation of Georgetown; no "lights out" for example, similarly there was no restriction on the sale of spirits to younger Saints. The base from the beginning had a BX, but this initially was housed in Georgetown in one of the Cuba properties, until the final location could be built. The workers were transported to and from Georgetown in a lorry to get their goodies.
The food was plentiful, although the menu was a little monotonous by today's standards, being largely curries. To say no one complained would be perhaps rather optimistic, especially for Ascension Island. A little song was created about the food;
Some say it's curry, Some say it's stew, Some people like it, But **** if I do!
Complaints weren't serious though, because of the quantities. The regular entertainment at the club would see additional suppers served, making the Base much visited by the hungry hoards from Georgetown!
A new concept was introduced - ice in drinks. All in all, the Base set new standards in accommodating workers, and this was to have a considerable effect on future staff welfare for all the companies and organisations on Ascension Island.
Even with the Base open, construction work continued. In 1958 the New Mountain Road, which ran from Command Hill to the Mountain via Hospital Hill, was rebuilt and tarred for the first time. The mountain ramps were also tarred for the first time, which was quite a luxury for those walking up and down!
The Base operations were eventually expanded by the addition of a Target Tracking Radar Station, which was built from 1960 - 1961. This facility, known as the Golf Ball, was built on a site overlooking the Archer Cemetery at Comfortless Cove. It meant the construction of a separate road, the Nike Zeus Road, to the area, replacing the old dirt road from the back of Long Beach. A collimation tower, complete with its own access track cutting across the old Victorian path to the sand blowhole was constructed part of the way towards English Bay, to calibrate the radar.
It was the prospect of space travel however, that was to provide another potential boost to the island. In 1963, a dirt track road was constructed from Muriel Avenue, via Butt Crater, up the North East slopes of the mountain, and on to the top of Weather Post. One of the people working on this track was Bunny Lawrence, soon to return to work at English Bay. The track was to provide access to Weather Post and the Devils Ashpit area to allow the testing of several sites on the eastern side of the mountain for a new project. The track is still there today, although virtually impassable even to Land Rovers. It does however make a very pleasant Sunday walk. If you ever visit the Scout Camp Site, follow the first two hundred yards of the old road from the campsite up to the top of the ridge. The views from this spot are some of the best on Ascension.
The expansion of the USAF into Ascension however, had done little to change the Cable & Wireless operations significantly. Other than extra unloading at the pierhead, and the arrival of additional tarred roads, in the early 60's life in Georgetown and on the mountain continued in its old routine. All that was to change rapidly however, and the sleepy old days were about to end. The early sign of this was the arrival in 1961 of a small advance party from the BBC looking into the use of Ascension as a relay base. The positive report led to further extended tests. In 1963, using a small caravan at English Bay, two BBC engineers carried out a series of tests that proved Ascension was a more than suitable for the construction of a relay station. Ascension was about to begin another big expansion.
It would never be the same again!