Monday, September 13, 2010

No Man is An Island

William Ashley Chapman when he returned to Ascension Island in 1988.

"No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
John Donne 1627

I have been boxing up my father's memories and his extensive correspondence and photos of his first years of World War II. I will be sending them to the Historical Society of Ascension Island, the British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic, where they will be a part of their archives and where some of the photos will be displayed in the American Room.

Ascension Island 1942. Work on Wideawake Field was difficult as the island is solid volcanic rock, so it took repeated blasting to construct the runway.

I've written many times about my father's work with the 38th Engineer Combat Regiment on Ascension Island during the war. His two years there were austere but fascinating--islands are almost always interesting--and his work there was the part of the war he loved to remember best. First of all, this kid who had just graduated from Auburn University had his first role in management: at the age of 21, he was an officer with a company of other young men for whom he was now responsible. And then, this engineering student who had only read books about building things, got to build an airport! What fun!

It may just look like a bunch of dirt to you and me, but this airfield handled twenty-five thousand planes in World War II and is still in use today. Wideawake Field, 1942.

On Ascension, unlike Okinawa where he was near the war's end, there were no civilians behind barbed war, no American cemetery with daily services for men killed in combat, no POW camps, no daily bombings, no daily terror.

Wideawake Field on Ascension is still in use and is still an American airfield on a British Island, so it has a few USAF staffers stationed there along with a small contingent of British civilians who work at a BBC relay station. In the last few years I've been in contact with Shari, a USAF non-com on the island who, in addition to her many other duties, works to maintain the American Room at the Historical Society.

The 38th Engineers built the building behind these men. My father isn't in the photo but wrote on the back: "Command Hill building 1943. It lasted because we built it of cement-cinder blocks which we made. The tile roof came from Brazil."

The Command Hill Building on Ascension Island today.

When my father died, I couldn't bear to read all the many files he had kept about Ascension. He had gone back there at least twice (perhaps a third time too, though I'm not quite sure of that) and near the end of his life he told me many times, "I wish I could take my whole family with me back to Ascension." Oh I wish I could have gone too! When he was able to go, unfortunately, he didn't ask my sister and me to come with him, and, since transportation there had to be on a USAF plane, perhaps it was only possible for him--a retired Colonel--to take our mother with him. But it did make me sad that when it was far too late, he wished we could go with him.

As the months have gone by, the pain has grown less, and I contacted Shari again and asked her if she could use Dad's archives. She answered right away with a happy "yes" and this weekend I sorted through the box on Ascension and was able to get it ready for shipping.

This is one of the photos in Dad's files. It shows his first glimpse of Wideawake Field out of the window of the AF plane that took him back to the island after forty years. The runway is that straight line you can see across the upper right of the photo.

I've done research for three small books as well as for a history research grant I received in Florida, and that work taught me the value of the things people save and donate to libraries and archives. Letters, diaries, papers and photos all become gems to a researcher. Since I had that experience, I realized how valuable both of my parents' things might be to history archives.

William Ashley Chapman on the edge of Wideawake Field, forty years after World War II.

Not only do I want them to be remembered, I want to help historians of the future know more about the part each person played in our country's history: the war against the Axis Powers, the founding of a suburban village, the life of post-World War II families. All of these things will be details writers will thirst for a century from now.

So, I am determined to sort through the things my parents left in this house--and holy cow, they sure left a lot--and make sure the good stuff goes to their college libraries, our town archives, World War II museums, and, to Ascension Island.

Because as the poet John Donne wrote so beautifully, we are each a "piece of the continent, a part of the main." Each of our lives has meaning. We are the rich tapestry of America.

My father is the skinny kid at left with his shirt off at ROTC camp 1940. Two years later he would be at war.

My father with his fellow company commanders on Ascension Island: top row, Gaston Holliman, Harry Tufts, WAC. Bottom row: Ray Kidd (KIA, Ie Shima) and Herb Schiff.

My father, home from Ascension on leave in Homewood, Alabama, with his sister Helen.

My father's contribution to World War II was small, as was the contribution of Wideawake Field. Many soldiers and many families made much greater sacrifices. But each was a piece of the whole. And each part that can be, should be remembered.

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Anitra said...

I sorting through a lot of my parent's stuff right now. My father spent time on Tarawa as a Seebee in WWII.

Its hard sorting this stuff - what is worth keeping, what isn't. I'd like to keep the family museum to a few boxes but I don't want to just toss stuff either. I have the surgeon's report from my father's cancer surgery. I dream of building a bonfire for Day of the Dead as a way to honor it all.

I appreciate following your sorting angst these last few months or so. I don't know who your intended audience is - but I like the idea as a way to process some of my own "finds."

Again, thanks for letting me peek over your shoulder, now back to the estate papers of my grandmother's third husband (yes, they kept that stuff too).

Bonfire. Some archival storage though.

Robin Chapman said...

Our parents and grandparents lived pretty interesting lives didn't they? Burn what you don't want and send the rest to your local library's history archives. It will have a meaning to generations to come.

Thaddeus Seymour said...

You are such a good guy to take the time and care to sort out these items of memorabilia and to send them on to the Ascension Island historical society. They will be treasured there. It takes time and caring. You are a compelling example of preserving and passing on these treasures. What a gift to future generations! Thank you!

Robin Chapman said...

Thanks Thad and Polly: it was the learning I did during the history grant you helped me achieve that taught me the value of this. And it is a way of letting my father's history and the history of his unit live on. So I guess that helps me too in my grieving.