Of Terns and Planes

Conducting research for historical fiction is usually interesting, sometimes dull, but occasionally yields an odd or funny story. Lately, I ran into one of these stories while reading Barry Fowle's Builders and Fighters: US Army Engineers in World War II (Fort Belvoir VA: Office of History, US Army Corps of Engineers, 1992).

During World War II, while the armies of democracy battled the armies of totalitarianism, a smaller battle raged between US Army Engineers and a little bird called the sooty tern.

Airfields Needed

The United States and its "arsenal of democracy" cranked out thousands of fighter planes, bombers, and cargo planes for Allied forces fighting in Britain, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Pacific. Transporting those planes over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was a serious problem as the Germans and Japanese expanded their territories. The trans-Atlantic air routes traversed Newfoundland, Greenland, and Iceland, but these routes were hazardous in winter months. A southern route was greatly desired.

Ascension Island

Conveniently located about halfway between South America and Africa, the British territory of Ascension Island offered an alternative. This little 34-square-mile volcanic island has no natural harbor, but has flat areas ideal for airfields.

Wideawake Field

In February 1942, the 38th Combat Engineer Battalion of the US Army Corps of Engineers arrived to build Wideawake Field, named for native sooty terns, also called "wideawakes" for their sleep-disturbing calls. The engineers began building a 6000-foot runway in April, which opened for traffic in July 1942. When Brazil declared war on the Axis in August, opening crucial air bases to Allied planes, this route carried large quantities of planes to the front.

The Sooty Tern

However, a large rookery of sooty terns lay at the end of the runway. Takeoffs and landings flushed out clouds of birds, and birds and planes don't mix. Smoke candles and dynamite blasts failed to convince the terns to relocate to other areas of the island. A planeload of cats was brought in. Sadly, as the author writes in Builders and Fighters, "strong-beaked booby birds on the island...found the cats an appetizing treat." Following the advice of ornithologist James Chapin of the American Museum of Natural History, they destroyed 40,000 eggs. The terns wisely relocated to a no-fly zone of the island. The engineers, displaying the resourcefulness and ingenuity of their profession, found the tern's guano made good bricks for constructing base housing.

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