Atkinson Field and World War II

A memoir 1943 to 1946

By Ivan O. Carew

Having been born and having grown up in the capital city, Georgetown, in the county of Demerara, British Guiana, now called Guyana, I did have some knowledge of the villages on the Eastern bank of the Demerara River.

Historically Guyana was once a Dutch possession, hence many of the villages were given Dutch names that still exist to this day. To the best of my recollection there was the village of Soesdyke (Dutch) then there was Madewini (Dutch) sparsely populated in those days with a few thatch-roof houses. Beyond that was Hyde Park with a hilly terrain and  rainforest. Residents along the river banks did farming on the slopes of the hills.

An aerial view of Atkinson Field

After the commencement of World War II, Parlaiment in England agreed to allow the US to establish bases on some Caribbean Islands and in British Guiana for the protection of the hemisphere. Hyde Park was the site chosen for the Air-Force Base, named “Atkinson Field” after an Air Force General.

Situated 25 miles from the capital city of Georgetown on the right bank of the Demerara River, the transformation of Hyde Park was just simply incredible. I remember it was the Elmhurst Contracting Co. that started the ball rolling; work went on practically non-stop, 24/7, cutting down trees, laying out sites for roads; huge Mac trucks transporting sand of which there was an abundance in the hills. Air-strips and roads seemed to be high on the priority list, of course there was a local labour force(l tried but didn’t get hired at that time). Guyanese were seeing Allis-Chalmers tractors and Mac trucks in operation for the first time. When the foreign engineers arrived they worked on installations or we might say, the infrastructure; they built power plants, water treatment plants, sewage systems, emergency water reservoirs, a large hospital, barracks, military headquarters, a bakery, laundry, mess-halls, air-craft hangars, underground ammunition dumps, canteens and warehouses. “Hyde Park” was now officially a military reservation renamed Atkinson Field”. All structures were heavily camouflaged, painted in battle-green colour and surrounded by tall trees.

I had the good fortune of being recruited for a job at this immense military reservation in December 1943, without a clue that my whole life was about to change forever.

There was talk around town that they were going to be hiring people at the MP Station which was situated at the corner of Waterloo and New Market streets, a two-storied colonial style building, and I showed up with a few other guys and sure enough, I was hired.

After answering a few questions I was given a temporary pass and instructed to join with other new employees at Garnett Wharf the very next morning where we’d board a boat named Batchelda for the trip to Atkinson Field. I soon found out the military ran two double-decked boats, the Orange Nassau and the Batchelda to transport personnel and cargo from the City to the base on a daily basis. This was a period when the upper reaches of the East Bank had no proper roads.

Once we arrived at the Base we were received by Walter Lawrence, an American civilian, who had recruited us the day before in the city. He was responsible for supervising all canteens on the base and would be my boss for the next three years. We all called him Pops.

A day of activity waited. First, we were taken to what was known then as the 10th area. Man, it was like you were in a different country; planes are taking off and landing within minutes of each other! We walk into this building on the first floor which turns out to be the Canteen or P.X. (a military term for “Post Exchange”). Pops was gone just for a few seconds and when we saw him again he appears with his boss, Major Voly who looked to be about 7ft tall and spoke with a Texan drawl. The major outlined the terms of our employment and a bit of an orientation: we’ll have to get used to eating American food and sleeping on cots in barracks like the soldiers, and to observe the laws of the military reservation; we’ll be working five days per week with two days off. Then he said to us, “any questions?” At this point no one raised a hand; guess we were like, just tell us when to start.

The orientation completed, we were taken to the medics (military term for hospital) where we all had a complete physical evaluation. Well, we were told our job title would be “food handlers”. We were paid on the 25th day of each month. After a while whenever pay day came around the boys would say “the Eagle is flying in today”. I worked in the PX until the end of World War II in 1946.1 called the experience my Rite-of-Passage.

Working with the U.S. Military in a time of war was indeed an eye-opening experience for those of us who had the good fortune to work as civilians in a military environment. It gave us the unique opportunity to not only interface and interact with the enlisted men stationed at the base but also to meet and talk with in transit air-force personnel whose planes would stop in for re-fuelling, ammunition, etc for their ongoing missions. They would come by bus, stop off at the canteen (P.X.) to have a beer, a couple of burgers, eat some ice-cream, or even a bag of pop-corn, a reminder of back home!

I worked as a waiter from 5pm to 10:30pm (1700 hrs to 2230 hrs military time). The question I was always being asked was “you speak such good English, where did you go to school?” Well, now you have to give the questioner a brief geography lesson to answer his query viz: British Guiana is the only British Colony in South-America. Yes, they are always amazed when we the natives speak because our immediate neighbours are all Spanish -speaking with the exception of Suriname (Dutch) and Brazil (Portuguese). They would continue, “did you go to college?’ I guess it says a whole lot for our Primary School education with its Parochial over-sight. Sometimes officers would visit the canteen to be with their men instead of going to the Officers Club which was just a short distance from our Canteen, another opportunity to get to chat with a lieutenant, a captain, or a major, while serving a round of beers or coke. There was a coin-operated Duke Box in the Canteen, so we were kept up-to-date with all the latest hit tunes.

Our Base Commanding Officer was a Full-Colonel and wore a Silver Leaf (insignia). After a while we made a study of the various officers’ insignias so we knew two silver bars was a Captain, one silver bar was First Lieutenant, a single gold bar Second Lieutenant, a gold maple-leaf was a Major . It was always a welcome sight to see a Black military officer walking past our Canteen and a white P.E.C. or private first-class saluting him. We did see quite a few Black officers walking by on their way to the Officers’ Club or Mess Hall. General Marshall passed through the top floor of our canteen which housed a library and mini Department Store.

So much was going on in our little corner of the world at this time in our history. World War II was raging in Europe, Pearl Harbour had plunged America into war with Japan.

Atkinson Field in a sense was isolated from the rest of the country’s population who, for the most part, was quite oblivious to what was going on there on a daily basis. Not many of our citizens had radios, but most shops and stores in the City would have a radio and people would gather around to hear the latest B.B.C. broadcast.

Back to the Base! For the four or five months we lived in open barracks we felt as though we were soldiers. We slept on fold-up canvas cots; we quickly learned that Billeting is where we went for our bed-linen and blankets. After moving to Area # 4 the barracks were divided into rooms with a passage-way extending the full length of the building. Each room carried 3 double bunks to accommodate six persons; three clothes closets; adequate shower and bathroom facilities. Rules were strictly enforced: lights out at 10:00pm (2200 hrs); beds to be made to military specifications-cover sheet to enclose mattress, draw sheet tucked under mattress 2/3’s up; blanket tucked under similar to draw sheet and the 1/3 of blanket and draw sheet folded over at chest height. It became a regimented exercise after a while, and you also knew that they ran inspections and if at any time your bed was found to be un-made, well, they’d take away your bed-linen and you would have to go to billeting and re-apply for a fresh set and pay a fine (fee). How about that!

Breakfast at the mess-hall was an adventure in itself. We all try to get there between 6:30 and 7:00am. We are each given a coupon book with 20 tickets each valuing 24 cents (Guyana currency); we form a line, hand in a ticket, grab a tray (aluminum) and a cup (heavy white china, no handle). Everything is laid out on a 10ft long table and we are being served by the kitchen helpers (or K.Ps). We start with a choice of juice; would it be orange, grape-fruit or tomato; then there are white bread, whole wheat and raisin breads; a platter filled with peanut butter, marmalade, bacon and eggs (scrambled). Next stop: a smaller table on which sits 3 large pots with faucets: there is tea; there’s coffee and cocoa; you’ve got yourself pretty much together and now you take your seats at any one of the many tables on each of which is a mug of cream. I mean, for 24 cents what can be better than that!

I’ve tried to describe the breakfast meal, just try and imagine what lunch and dinner would be like, with Fourth of July and Thanksgiving specials. Fact of the matter is we all gained weight after a while.

We report for work at 8:00am. We may on occasion board a truck, travel to the docks to pickup cases of Coco-Cola that came up from Georgetown. (Wieting and Richter was our supplier, they had the franchise for bottling Coco-Cola in what was then British Guiana.) After offloading at our canteen, we may go to several warehouses to pick up other supplies (we serviced other smaller canteens with needed supplies. Lunch time is one hour.

Whenever we have to take supplies to the hospital canteen we are visibly reminded that there’s a war going on. We see many of the wounded up close.

Between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00 PM we’re given time-out. We could visit the store (located above the canteen). Note: the entire building is called the P.X or Post Exchange. We would usually welcome the opportunity to do a little shopping. Man! Everything was priced duty-free (an arrangement made between the governments of the USA and Great Britain). Prices were ridiculously low and most nights when we wait tables we went home with handsome tips in our pockets. Here’s a brief run-down: Crew neck Tee Shirts: .30cts; Boxer shorts: 30cts; Large bath towels: 30cts; Barbasol shaving cream with a pack of blades stuck to the side: 24cts; a pair of brown silk socks: 24cts; After-shave Lotion Aqua Velva or Palmolive 48cts; Ipana and Massage tooth paste: 30 cts. (top of the line products at that time); Tooth brushes of quality (Dr. West) 24cts. Wow!

We resume work at 5:00pm (1700 hrs). At this stage we are dressed in uniform- white short-sleeve shirt with PX logo on the pocket and white trousers. The canteen is now permitted to sell beers and so for the next 51/2 hours we are waiting tables. This is the evening period of our daily work assignment; actually, it translates into a twelve hour day. But here is where we have the most fun.

According to regulations all enlisted men are required to be in full uniform which included a neck-tie and head-gear. A guard is always posted at the entrance of the canteen at 5:00pm each day fully dressed and with his rifle flung over his shoulder to enforce the rules. If anyone got out of hand at any time we’d just summon the guard who’d come in and take care of the situation. At 9:45pm (2145 hrs) one of us would blink the lights as a signal to everyone that in 15 minutes the canteen would be closing.

Here’s a bit of life-lifter: those who travel the high road of humility are not troubled by heavy traffic!

Growing up in colonial British Guiana and being poor, and to now find yourself surrounded by so many new and exciting things in which you can play a role is indeed exhilarating. You are constantly reminded there’s a war going on; there are the stationary GIs who perform various tasks to keep the Base functioning; then there are the in transit guys referred to as “TRANSITS” who bring in the B-17 and B-29 bombers or the fighter planes for re-fuelling and re-loading bombs for the next combat mission. Yes, we were exposed to all that stuff. On occasions while we’re waiting tables we would get into conversation with a few in transit guys. They sometimes expressed their true feelings about the war. This guy said to me “my parents took me to Japan when I was a kid, I have friends over there and now we’re at war.”

Being native civilian employees working with the U.S. military establishment gave us maybe a bird’s eye view of what life in the continental US is all about. We were able to observe that despite the enormous conflict raging at the time, every effort was being made to provide for the well-being of all those in uniform, be it the army, navy or air force. Periodical entertainment was provided by the U.S.O shows, Radio, Broadway and Hollywood personalities would come from time to time to do some performances then move on to another base. Then there was the month-end enlisted men’s dance. A prominent local dance band would be hired through the U.S.O club in Georgetown. The club was housed in a building purchased by the US government located in Kingston and equipped with club related amenities such as pool table, library and bar. For the enlisted men’s dance the club manager would recruit a hundred or so young women to attend. The Batcheldor would make a special trip up river to the Base carrying the dance band and the local beauties (of course they would be the fair-skinned, Portuguese and Chinese mixed races of our multi-racial society). The dance was always held at the cinema located a few hundred yards from the PX. The entire area between the two buildings is cordoned off and the MPs are out in full force for obvious reasons. During the evening the GIs and their dates would come over to the canteen for refreshments. This was usually a fun time for us as not only were we paid over-time but we were able to enjoy all the goodies that were available, like those luscious ham and cheese sandwiches that the officer’s mess would supply; beers were off-limits but everything else was “on the house”- lots of coke, toddy (milk-shake in a can), ice-cream, chocolate bars and chewing gum. Cases of cigarettes, all brands, compliments of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra or some other movie star. A case of cigarettes would have say 50 cartons each carton holding “10 packs” Lucky Strike (Luckies), Philip Morris, Camels, Chesterfield and Pail-Mall, they were all there for the taking and was never all used up so whatever was left was shared among us. Man! I became an amateur smoker, my favourite brand was “Camels/‘ I just liked the smell of the tobacco. And so at the end of each month if I am not on pass, I’m making some over-time. Wow, what a life!

I was just a nineteen-year-old kid who didn’t have a lot of the comforts growing up that I was now being exposed to. I mean, it was kind of surreal and yet through it all, it gave me a wonderful sense of gratitude and a new awareness of who I was as a human being. There was no scarcity of anything at the Base.

Under the threat of German U-boats in Caribbean waters, every other month a Merchant Ship would dock at Atkinson Field on the Demerara River. Of course, this was only possible because of convoys of naval vessels escorting them over the long journey. Yes, incidents happened, the Lady Nelson, a British passenger ship was torpedoed off the island of St. Lucia while sitting at anchor. There were no deep water harbours back then for the large vessels to berth so the ships would anchor in the channel and out-board motor boats would ferry the passengers ashore. That incident occurred some time in 1944. Thankfully, the ships that brought in our supplies were always there. Stevedores would join the ship in Georgetown, and upon arrival at Atkinson Field, cargo is off-loaded on the Docks. We from the PX would collect and transport perishables consigned to us like ham, bacon, eggs and cheese; trucks from the motor-pool would transport stuff to various warehouses; casual labour was usually hired from Madewini, outside of the Reservation on a day-to-day basis to help with loading and off-loading of trucks.

The Merchant Ships became a familiar sight. After a time we could tell if this trip we’ll be seeing State of Maryland or it’ll be State of Virginia, those were the names of the vessels that brought our supplies.

“Tenth Area” was always a hive of activity, there was the Post Exchange, a popular meeting spot; situated East to West, first or ground floor canteen, second floor, mini department store, Library and pool table; to the South of us was a Chapel and Military Headquarters, north of us was the cinema; a few hundred yards from the cinema was the Officers’ Club and Mess Hall. The bus stops at the road-side entrance to our canteen discharging only military personnel and so we’re constantly seeing all ranks on their way to the Club or Officers’ Mess to have a meal. I’ve met or seen quite a few generals up close, three or four star. Then there was General Marshall, he was one of the top guys maybe five star.

Some time in 1944 elections for the President of the U.S. was in full swing. There were all kinds of information posted on the walls of the Canteen. Then one day we were told Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt is visiting all of the Bases in the Caribbean campaigning for her husband, F.D.R. In prepartion for her visit to Atkinson Field our Boss was pushing for a spotless canteen. On the day of her arrival we could see the Presidential jet escorted by four or five fighter jets coming in to land. That day we were required to dress in our PX waiter uniforms and stand in a straight line, sort of a civilian guard-of-honour. Major Voly, our military boss, greeted her at the entrance. This tall lady and entourage walked pass just smiling. I don’t know if they were called secret service back then, but there were two gentlemen in a quite different colour uniform from the usual tan or battle green gabardine material. I swear one of those guys was 7ft tall!

I had a near-death experience in 1945 one morning during our routine transporting of coco-cola from the docks to the canteen. Generally, after the truck arrived at the building, everyone would get off, the tail-gate would be let down and one guy would go into the building and unlatch a small window on the western wall. One of us on the outside would signal the driver to back-up within two ft of the windows and stop. At this stage one guy would climb aboard the truck (there was a plank in the store room that would be extended through the window to the tail-gate and the guy on the truck would slide the cases down one at a time). Before the plank was put in position two guys had to get into the store-room. Rather than going all the way to the front door, they would go side-ways between the 2 ft space and hop in through the windows. On this particular day I was one of the two. My partner was first to make it through the window, then it was my turn. But before I could have reached the window, the truck began moving back, the tail-gate bracing my chest to the wall. I was unable to scream, my breath was cutting off but I could see two women running and shouting to the driver. He pulled off right away and ran to the back to see what was happening. Being young and macho I refused to go to the hospital. However, the driver got pretty nervous and explained that he thought he had pulled up the hand brake, his foot was on the brake pedal but as there was a slight decline at the spot where the truck began to roll backward. I could have felt the wall giving as I was being squeezed but it had only lasted a few seconds. Had it been a harder kind of wood I would have had broken bones! The guys had me lie down for a while to observe whether I had any kind of reaction. They brought me a cold drink and after a while I got up and re-joined them in offloading the truck. In hind-sight I think going to the hospital would have been the right thing to do. I didn’t and I am still here. I’ve had many physicals since, and no broken bones. Oh, what a mighty God we serve!

The Allied forces over-ran Germany and we celebrated V.E. Day while in the Pacific Japan’s Kamakarzie fighter planes were targeting American Destroyers flying into the hull or on to the decks blowing up the ship and themselves along with it. Then, after several warnings that went unheeded, the first Atomic Bomb carried by a B29 bomber was dropped on the industrial city of Hiroshima, a first in the history of wars. Days later a second bomb was unleashed on another industrial city, Nagazaki. The Emperor of Japan, Emperor Hirohito agrees to surrender and so there was another celebration V.J. Day which marked the end of World War II!

In retrospect my employment with the U.S. Airforce Base had been a tremendous eye-opener that I fondly refer to as my “Rite-of-Passage”. Many of my co-workers, like myself, I’m sure, benefitted from some of the military discipline and daily responsibilities that we were mandated to observe and carry out. Personally, I enjoyed the camaraderie with enlisted men of all ranks who frequented the canteen. Waiting tables gave me the opportunity to indulge in some meaningful exchanges at times with high-ranking officers who sometimes came by to have a beer with their subordinates and then they would move on but never without leaving a generous tip. I got married to my fiance on December 29,1945 and became a dad a few months later.

After V.J. Day we were kept on for another six months and then it was crunch time for us locals.

British Guiana became an independent nation in May, 1966. The name Atkinson Field was changed to Timheri International and subsequently, Cheddi Jagan International.
And so after some 67 years the air strips or runways that were built by American men and machines are still in operation today, of course, with periodical maintenance!

The pilot of the B29 bomber nicknamed (Enola Gay) that dropped the first Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima, died today in Columbus, Ohio at age 92. One hundred thousand persons died that day- a sad legacy of World War II!

PS: I spoke of the canteen selling beer after re-opening at 5:00pm. We were all made aware that the beer supplied had reduced alcohol content.
If you were coming to Atkinson Field by road there was a Grand Station and gate at Madewini where you were required to stop, have your vehicle and occupants checked and cleared for admission by military police (MPs). A chain link fence (about 10ft high) could be seen starting from the river bank going through the length of the  reservation.

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