|Avis Part Fourteen - The Return of the Americans.|
(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)
With the withdrawal of the last serviceman in 1947, Cable & Wireless were once again in sole occupation of the Island of Ascension. Compared with the last time that the island had been left to them, there were a couple of advantages. The roads were in much better condition with even tarmac roads as far as Command Hill. The section past South West Bay Red Hill for example was called Miracle Mile. There were also vehicles and a ready supply of fuel at one penny a gallon, thanks to the departed US Forces.
As well as the Georgetown residents, C&W also had 20 men living on the mountain, where they looked after the vegetable plots, the pigs, sheep, and cattle, including the dairy herd. Although times were hard after the war, there was still some entertainment available; every Saturday night for example, a film was shown at the cinema in Georgetown. A young Desmond Stevens, who was later to serve at the BBC for many years, started to work at the farm in 1949. He later described a typical Saturday night. After work, the men would walk the 5 miles to Georgetown to see the film, and to meet their friends in the St Helenian Club. The mountain men were allowed to stay overnight in Georgetown and get a lift up in the morning with the lorry going to fetch the daily milk supply. All except Desmond; as the dairyman, his task was to milk the cows. After the film therefore, he had to walk back up the mountain, so that the milk would be ready for the lorry. This was his weekly routine - after all there was nothing else to do.
For the ladies of Georgetown, life also settled into a routine. Coffee mornings or afternoon tea on the verandah were common. The children were helped with their schoolwork using the packages designed for British children living overseas. Supplies in the post war period were limited, but occasionally clothes or cloth from St Helena would make an appearance. The regular mail ship also gave an opportunity for the wives to visit the ship where items could be purchased in the ship's shop, and the hairdressing salon visited.
The F1 Mess (Cable & Wireless staff of a certain grade were referred to as F1 staff), also ran a little business providing mineral waters for sale. The Mineral Water Factory situated in Cuba (today it is the Scout's Store), contained a machine for carbonating water, and applying crown corks. The machine can be seen in the museum.
Leisure activities tended to be quite physical. A walk to Cricket Valley to shoot rabbits for example was not unusual. This involved going up to the mountain, on to North East Cottage, around the path to the current picnic area, and then on to the valley! Although picnics today at the Ashpit site are common, fifty years ago there were no roads to the area. The favoured picnic site was instead an area close to Muriel Avenue, today the site of Two Boats Village. Not only were the coconut palms there, but also many mature casuarinas trees making it a shady, pleasant spot. Other activities included the hunt around the old American Base, where old rubbish tips yielded many artefacts, particularly the Coca-Cola bottles. Of more interest however, were the quantities of surplus tools, stores, motor spares, and it is even rumoured whole vehicles dumped by the departing US Forces and buried in pits behind Miracle Mile. Ascension residents spent many a happy weekend prospecting in that and other areas, even into the 1970's.
In 1953, HMS Sparrow called to service the Hood guns on Cross Hill, and remove the live ammunition in the storerooms. One of the party was a young Ken Marshall (later to be a resident of Two Boats, and Island Head of Organisation). Other visitors came on the visiting mail and freight ships, some staying to undertake surveys. HMS Herald spent two days in 1985 trying to find "English Astro 52", a plaque left by a survey that had visited English Bay to fix the island's location using star sights. It emerged that someone had put the power station stores on top of it! In the mid-fifties a party of US servicemen assisted by workmen from St Helena arrived to clear the bodies from the US Cemetery, and repatriate them to the US.
Despite the closure of the airfield, there was still the occasional visit by aircraft. Cable & Wireless would co-operate by switching on a homing beacon, the plane would land, a party would visit, and then hopefully disappear into the sky once more. One such visit in 1954 had a party of US officers undertaking a brief survey of the island. Sensing the visit was a little more important than others, the General Manager entertained the visitors, for which he later tried to claim hospitality. The claim was quickly rejected!
US interest in a return to the island had been surfacing for some years. Starting in 1955, the US Navy undertook a detailed survey of the whole island, with the team living under canvas between the old airfield and Miracle Mile. The witness posts for the survey can be found in the most amazing places! For an example of what to look for, there is one just behind the Courthouse in Georgetown. By 1956, an agreement had been signed between the US and British authorities leasing land on Ascension for use by the American Air Force Eastern Test Range, so the US authorities, their main contractor Pan Am, and their sub-contractors arrived to build the US Base. Initially living in tents, the contractors built the living quarters at Miracle Mile. The runway was repaired, radar sites established on Cross Hill (on the site of the old Lloyds Signal Station), and at South Gannet (Telemetry Hill) near the airfield. New fuel storage systems were installed with tanks at Catherine Point just south of Georgetown. The pier was widened so that it could be used for the delivery of fuel for both the US Base and visiting aircraft. By 1957, construction of the first phase was complete, the tents removed, and the base opened. The Americans were back! As in 1942, they were self-reliant with their own power, water, food and supplies.
In 1957, the British Ornithological Union Centenary Expedition arrived for an 18 month study of Ascension Birds. Led by Bernard Stonehouse, the expedition of up to seven personnel, including four permanent members, camped at Mars Bay. They brought most of their own supplies with them, including a landrover and a boat. The boat, used to survey Boatswain Bird Island, was moored at North East Bay, with the landrover in regular use to visit bird areas around the island. Water was obtained from the US Base; Cable & Wireless could only offer four gallons per day per individual, the US had sufficient capacity to offer up to 100 gallons a day! The expedition did detailed studies of the Wideawakes, and confirmed the unusual breeding cycle of 9.6 months.
As the decade closed, Ascension had become an island of contrasts. In Georgetown and on the mountain, C&W staff lived the island life they had known since the withdrawal of the Marines in 1922. At Mars Bay a group of determined bird watchers lived a basic existence under canvas.
In the new US Base at Miracle Mile, the Pan Am staff, both American and St Helenian lived a life of comparative ease and luxury.