Wednesday, May 27, 2009

From a Remote Island in the Atlantic ...

Caps from Ascension Island Island. Since almost no one ever goes there, almost no one has one Ascension Island cap, much less a gaggle of them like this.

My father speaks about Ascension Island in a continuous loop. He was stationed there during World War II and something about his experiences on this remote, quirky volcanic island have stuck in his declining memory. He and the 38th Engineers built Wideawake Field there, where 25,000 planes ferrying men and supplies to the China, Burma, India theatre could land safely to refuel en route.

One day my Dad said to me:

"I have this hat from Ascension I got when I went back there twenty years ago. Wouldn't it be nice if somebody there sent me a few more caps like this for my grandchildren and said, 'No charge, sir. Thanks for your work?'"

I know my father doesn't remember it when he makes wishes like the one about the caps. But after he said it, I came back to my place and got on the Internet and contacted the administration of Ascension Island to see what I could do.

The island is in the British Commonwealth, though Wideawake Field is still administered by the U.S. Air Force and is a down range site for missile launches and NASA. (The tiny island is in the Commonwealth because Napoleon was exiled the second time to St. Helena, which is 700 miles away. The British didn't want him to have an island, even 700 miles away, from which he could launch another comeback.)

When I didn't get an answer to my electronic message in the first few weeks I started to gripe under my breath at the British: "Typical. They're happy to have us save their bacon, but ask them for a couple of caps and you never hear back." I shouldn't have been so hasty. And anyway, it wasn't the British administration that responded.

After about a month, I received a note from a young woman stationed on the island who works for the U.S. Air Force and who is also Chairman of the Ascension Heritage Society. On a place with a total population of 1,100, people generally wear several hats--speaking, as we were, of hats in the first place.

As we e-mailed back and forth, she asked a lot of questions about my father's service there and said she and the Heritage Society were working to learn more about the U.S. World War II sites before all of the men who were stationed on the island in 1942 had passed away. I gave her all the information I had--and heaven knows, I've heard my Dad's stories enough lately--and I gave her the name and address of the only other surviving officer I knew about.

She said she would see about the caps.

Today, they arrived in a manila envelope from Ascension, via Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard County, Florida. Since Ascension is volcanic, each one has a volcano on it with a little eruption cloud above it. And they came with a really nice note:

Dear Col. Chapman: I hope you like these hats. We, at the Ascension Heritage Society are very grateful for all that you and your men did while on the Island. We are working diligently to preserve the U.S. Army World War II sites. Very truly yours, Ms. Shari Parkhill, A.I. Heritage Society

That's twice in a week somebody has thanked my father for his service during World War II. And I won't say he was beaming, because he never really did that when he was well and he's much less able to beam now, at 89. But he was happy. And he put on one of the new caps to show it.

Ascension Island Web Site

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Anonymous said...

The Commonwealth is, with one exception, a group of independent nations that were former colonies of the UK.

Ascension Island is a British Colony. We don't call them "colonies" any more because that sounds...well...imperialist, so we call them British Overseas Territories. But that means "colonies".

Most of the 1100 people on Ascension are from St. Helena, where Napoleon was imprisoned and died. As the economy there has been in the toilet since Napoleon died and the garrison was closed, some 20% of them live on Ascension, where there are jobs. Some of them have been there for a long time. Some have been born there.

Several years ago HMG promises these people, who were officially classified as temporary migrant workers and their dependents, a democratic government with the right of abode and the right to own property. The people agreed to pay income tax, in preparation for the advent of democratic rights. There has been a U-turn, however, HMG changed its mind with no believable explanation, and the people are discouraged and unhappy, but afraid to lose their jobs and be deported if they speak out.

Further reading:

Bob in Anguilla, British West Indies

Florida Beach Basics said...

what a nice story! when I moved to Brevard County in the early 1960s, Ascension was a major player in tracking launches, etc. and my RCA friends used to go there frequently. glad to hear they are maintaining the history.

Robin Chapman said...

Thanks to Bob for the correction. Just another note to readers, people from the island of St. Helena are called "Saints." I always wanted a moniker like that.