|Avis Part Twenty - The Final Saga?|
(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)
As the 1970's ended, Ascension slowly declined, victim of the lack of government money. Things had been trimmed to the point where small cuts were no longer possible. The C&W General Manager, Mr. Ron Field, is said to have made matters clear at the 1981 staff Christmas drinks held at Number 9. "Many of you," he told the gathering, "will no longer be on Ascension this time next year." How wrong he was!
By March 1982, the crisis in the South Atlantic was developing, although few on Ascension were aware of it. At a KWV luncheon, the Administrator of the day, His Honour Mr Bernard Pauncefort, was summoned to take a phone call - an unheard of event! He left the table to take the call, and was told that an invasion of the Falkland Islands had been reported as imminent. Leaving the table at a KWV usually meant a fine of one bottle of brandy to be paid to the Ascension Day Fair! Did he get charged for receiving this tragic news? The history books are silent!
So the Falklands Conflict started, and as is well known, Ascension had a key part to play as a staging post for the task force on its way south. The full story of Ascension's part may not be told for some years, but from the stories of people living on the Island, it was clear that Ascension's quiet peaceful way of life was turned around dramatically. Everyone seems to have their favourite story!
As the number of troops on the Island increased, empty houses, barracks, storerooms, all were turned into temporary accommodation. Staff at the BBC Transmitting Station would have troops dropping in to ask if there was anywhere that they could bunk down! In Two Boats the empty blocks and bungalows were pressed into service. One person who came through Ascension some years later called on the then inhabitants of a bungalow to ask if he could take a photo of their shed. He had spent a week there in 1982, and considered himself lucky. The large numbers of troops posed serious logistic problems, not just for accommodation, but also for food and water.
Temporary accommodation was eventually established at the US Base, using air-conditioned concertina type shelters; it was called Concertina City. The US Commissary under the supervision of Brian Joshua did sterling service providing meals. Brian was later awarded the BEM. Troops used their brief stay on Ascension to keep fit; parties were often seen route marching in all directions, with a trip to the Dew Pond perhaps being a regular feature. The path to the Dew Pond also was the site of a temporary Radar site.
The activity in Ascension was a welcome intervention for at least one PSA store man based in Belize. He had been trying to bring to everyone's attention that for some time he had been receiving a regular delivery of imperial copper fittings, which were not used there. Eventually the problem became too big to ignore, but what to do with them? "Send them to Ascension", he was told. Old accommodation was being rebuilt, and they would find them useful. One year later on being posted to Ascension, his first task was to try and find something to do with a container of copper fittings that some idiot had sent from Belize!
As events unfolded on the Falklands, and the British Task Force succeeded in recapturing the Islands, thoughts turned to a more permanent occupation of Ascension. The additional numbers of people on the Island meant a more secure future not just for the existing inhabitants, but also for the new arrivals, with new jobs both for UK and St Helena ex-patriates. A new camp was to be built to house the RAF contingent that was to remain on Ascension; Travellers Hill Camp was constructed on a new site, and opened in December 1983.
The presence of the RAF meant more prosperity, more job security, and more people on the Island. It is perhaps the most obvious sign of the events that took place in 1982. With the RAF established in their new quarters, Concertina City was removed; even the floods of March 1984 didn't disrupt life for too long. The LUC charter flights were still to run for another year, although increasingly people were using the RAF flights to get to and from Ascension. Large numbers of troops would continue to travel through Ascension on their way to the garrison in the Falklands. Slowly, as it had many times before, Ascension Island settled into its new way of life.
For a poignant reminder of the events of those times, take a walk up to the Dew Pond, not far from the highest point on the island. Among the green silence, you may be able to find a small plaque erected in April 1982 by a US Navy chaplain as the battle in the south raged. It reads:
"May the souls on board the peace train departed rest in peace. And may the light at the end of the tunnel shine upon them."
Graham Avis December 1998
I hope that this series of articles has provided some interest for readers. You can blame Stephen Fowler for persuading me to write them! If they have generated some interest in the history of the fascinating enigma that is Ascension, then they have served their purpose. As you wander around the Island please spare a thought for those who have laboured to make the Island what it is today. Without the efforts of everyone who has lived and worked on the Island, Ascension would still be a barren lump of rock, in the middle of nowhere. I would like to thank those who have helped by telling me their memories of the Island. In particular Corbett Williams, Wilson Scipio, Sid Youde, Eddie Fowler, Mervin Isaacs and Ceddie Henry. I have tried not to quote from the existing books on the Island, but to use instead the sources available either at the Museum in Georgetown, or the Public Record office at Kew.
The following books however have been useful in providing background information.
Hart-Davis, Duff. Ascension The Story of a South Atlantic Island. Constable 1972. Pickup, Kenneth H. 1985. Ascension Historical Society Gallery Catalogue. Packer, John E. Ascension Island - A Concise Handbook, First printed 1968