National Geographic : 1944 May
Ascension Island, an Engineering Victory BY LT. COL. FREDERICK J. CLARKE Former Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion, 38th Engineer Combat Regiment YOU couldn't blame the birds for not leaving. There was no other place to go. Pilots who sang, "If we don't hit Ascension, my wife gets a pension," were having their own little joke. They had been briefed with the assurance, "You'll find it. Can't miss it ain't nothing else nowhere near it." So the birds stayed. The first regimental formation on April 28, 1942, named the in cipient airfield in their honor, "Wideawake Field." And when the war hawks came riding in on the Ascension Island beam, the wide awakes (sooty terns) added their noisy cries to the roar of the planes headed for Africa and combat (page 639).* This tiny speck of volcanic lava, 6 miles wide and about 9 miles long, astride certain shipping lanes from the Americas to England and Africa, was vital to the success of Allied strategy in those days of Axis victories.t Few of our long-range bombers could carry a pay load of much-needed supplies from Natal to West Africa unless there was a refueling station somewhere along the route. The American chapter of Ascension Island's volcanic history began on an early spring afternoon in 1942, when out of the South Atlantic its towering profile broke on the sight of an Army task force (pages 626 and 631). The mission of the task force was to construct an airfield on the plane-transport route from Brazil to Africa. "Build an airfield on a volcano? Imprac ticable, if not impossible," the Americans had been told. But a preliminary survey showed they could. And they did. On July 10, less than three months after the first piece of equipment dug into the rock, a U. S. plane sat down on a runway more than a mile long. United States Engineers Vie with Volcano in Earth Moving From that time on, the wideawakes had to share their roost. Three hundred and eighty thousand cubic yards of rock and ash were to be cut from the mountain hump in the biggest job of earth moving since the volca noes themselves lifted Ascension out of the sea (page 636). *See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "Sindbads of Science," by George Finlay Simmons, July, 1927, and "At Home on the Oceans," by Edith Bauer Strout, July, 1939. t See Atlantic Ocean Map Supplement, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, September, 1941. United States Army Engineers have seldom taken on a more difficult assignment. The one bright spot on Ascension was Green Mountain, where a patch of tropical vegetation hung in a lofty bowl (page 628). The rest of the island was made up of numer ous volcanic hills. Large, thickly scattered rocks everywhere prohibited the passage of vehicles and made even walking difficult. The only two settlements on the dun-colored island were Georgetown, where the offices and employees' homes of a British cable company were located, and the patch on Green Moun tain, where fruit and vegetables were raised for Georgetown's families (page 635). There were no natives. The servants for the British families came from Napoleon's island of St. Helena, eight hundred miles away. But with planes needed desperately at Suez, Ascension's rust-cindered isolation halfway between South America and Africa suddenly became explosive in importance. Temporary lighting systems rigged up by the Engineer soldiers to allow for night-and day unloading and round-the-clock construc tion were shielded so that they could not be seen from the sea. The building of the airfield was to be one of the war's best-kept secrets. Unloading was the first big job. Huge rollers, sweeping in from sea at unpredictable times, raised the water level as much as 3 to 102 feet in a powerful surge of waves (page 633). This made it difficult to tie lighter barges to the one small pier. On one occasion, while the pier's steam boiler was under repair, three of the Engineer air compressors were connected to the winch and used to power the loading booms. With the only fresh-water sources needed by the permanent residents, the Engineers set up sea-water distillation units to provide their drinking water (page 624). Mess halls and kitchens at first were sited near the ocean; and the shower baths installed later were salt-water showers. Soldiers washed their mess kits and kitchen pots in the ocean a quick but wet expedient, since the waves 50 feet away at one moment were waist-deep the next. The runway was the highest priority proj ect. A fortnight after the landfall had been made, three miles of road, built by hand, stretched up the hillsides to the airport site. Only one site was possible, across a saddle between two of the hills.