Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dad's Final Return to Ascension

British soldiers (you can tell by the knee socks and Sam Browne belts) pose at the Command Hill building, October 1943, built by the "friendly invasion" of Americans on Ascension Island, in the South Atlantic. Ascension is a British Overseas Territory, but the airfield built there during the war by the Americans continues to be a USAF base. So it was always an interesting collaboration by these two allies, divided, as they were, by a common language.

Today is a wonderful day. The box I shipped of my father's files and papers, scrapbooks, letters, drafts of the many articles he wrote and photographs of his return visits to Wideawake Field, have arrived safely on Ascension Island, whence they were betaken in the weekly USAF flight from Patrick AFB in Florida.

The people on Ascension, that little spot in the South Atlantic between South American and Africa, who are working to preserve the island's World War II Heritage Sites, wrote me a wonderful email which I received this morning:

"Hi Robin,

We received the box yesterday on the plane! Mike, an American who works here on the base (for the last 40 years!) and is very
interested in the WWII history, helped me open it. Thank you so much--there is so much in it!

It is going to take a while to catalogue it all but it is going to be a terrific addition to our collections. Mike remembers meeting your father in 1988 when he was here [on Ascension] for the Command Hill reopening. Those pictures are great as well. I've been looking for some photos to do a display for our exhibit on that & the 1990's visit.

We do have Duff Hart-Davis' book [Ascension: The Story of a South Atlantic Island, Doubleday 1973]. I did notice on our quick look-through yesterday the correspondence between your dad & Mr. Hart-Davis.

I hadn't put two and two together to realize that the "Chapman" pictures in the museum were your father's. I'm thinking that when we do the Heritage board for Wideawake Field that we will try to use your dad's pictures for the most part. It just seems fitting. The pictures are the first part of the collection that we are going to sort through for this reason. And I have loads of reading to do!

Let me know when you get the booklets about the heritage sites: they went out on this morning's aircraft. I hope you get a good idea of the heritage boards we are creating from the booklets I sent.

Thanks again for remembering about us when sorting through your father's cherished possessions.

Take care,


My father in 1984, in front of the Command Hill building after it had taken forty years of battering in the South Atlantic. It was made of cinder blocks the Americans produced on site (lots of cinders on a volcanic island.) The roof tiles came from Brazil.

This is the Command Hill building on Ascension in 1988, when my father returned again for the re-dedication of the newly rehabilitated structure. These are the kinds of photos, that will help historians in the future as they write their works on the Allied effort in WW II.

Dad at the Command Hill re-dedication. Mom was with him this time and the event was official so that's why he's wearing a tie and looking so spiffy.

It is so much fun for me to have found a use for all this stored up energy my father expended on this fascinating chapter in his life-- that none of us had shared with him. Most of us in the family, me included, had grown weary of the tales of this place that we hadn't visited and the charm of which we couldn't quite grasp.

When he died I gathered up the detritus of this huge effort he had made over the years to write about this place t, correspond with his friends who had been there with him, write articles about his adventures there, collect photos, etc. and I stuffed it all in a box because I couldn't bear to deal with it. At that point, I found myself angry, and wishing he had spent half as much time thinking about me, his daughter, as he had about this stupid island.

Of course, what I was really angry about is that he had died.

As the months have passed I have begun anew to see how interesting this experience was for him, and see it through the eyes of the 21-year-old kid he was when he arrived there. Islands always have a magical attraction for people, and thus it was for Dad and Ascension.

And when I decided to contact the people on Ascension at the US AFB there, all the angst I had felt about his passion for a place I had never much cared about fell from my shoulders. The Heritage Society on Ascension could use his papers! My father's love for the island could live on in the history archives of this strange and wonderful place--so essential during World War II, but, for him, such a lucky assignment, because no battles were ever fought there.

The most dangerous things about the island were two: it was so remote, the American fliers had to hit it or forget it, because if they missed it, they were done for, as there was no other land for thousands of miles. "Miss Ascension, and your wife gets a pension," was the black humor of the day from navigators who worked without GPS.

The other dangerous thing almost took my father's life: the sea. Ascension experiences what are known as "rollers"--a long series of giant waves that just pop up out of nowhere--and swimming off the beach there can be dangerous. He didn't know this and went for a swim one day and the rollers came in, slammed him on the beach and dragged him back out to sea repeatedly until he became exhausted and couldn't fight it anymore. His friends saw he was in trouble, and linked arms in a human chain and he finally caught the arm of the last one and was pulled from the sea exhausted.

In any case, now my father's things are making their own final journey to the island he loved. Having done my own historical research for various projects I know how much they will help someone some day. They were doing nothing sitting in a closet. Dad's joy and engineer's fascination with a successful project will now be shared. His young man's dreams have gone back to Ascension Island. I think that's a terrific outcome for everyone.

(By the way, I have repeatedly tried to find Ascension on Google Earth, and Google Maps and was not successful with "Ascension Island, South Atlantic" or "Wideawake Field" or "South Atlantic British Overseas Territory" but I finally found the key: you have to type in "Royal Air Force Base, Ascension Island" and Google Earth will know what you're talking about. I thought it was a USAFB, but anyway, that's what works with Google, in case you want to look for this obscure little place.)

Wideawake Field, under construction in 1942. To me this looks like a big bunch of dirt, going near which would require me to shower and re-do my hair. But to my father it was engineering and as such an absolute barrel of fun.

Click Here to View the Ascension Island Web Site

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