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Today in World War II History—July 6, 1942

Anne Frank at school, age 6, Frankfurt, Germany, 1929. (public domain via Wikipedia)

Anne Frank at school, age 6, Frankfurt, Germany, 1929. (public domain via Wikipedia)

75 Years Ago—July 6, 1942: Anne Frank’s family goes into hiding in Amsterdam.

Japanese land on Guadalcanal to build air base.

British First Army activated, will participate in Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa in November 1942.

Australia begins tea rationing (1 lb/5 weeks).

Map showing Allied and Japanese positions as of 2 July 1942 (US Military Academy)

Map showing Allied and Japanese positions as of 2 July 1942 (US Military Academy)

Today in World War II History—July 5, 1942

Destroyed Soviet tank near Voronezh, June 1942 (German Federal Archive: Bild 101I-216-0412-07)

Destroyed Soviet tank near Voronezh, June 1942 (German Federal Archive: Bild 101I-216-0412-07)

75 Years Ago—July 5, 1942: Margot Frank (Anne’s sister) is summoned to Nazi work camp.

Germans reach River Don near Voronezh in drive for Caucasus oil fields.

Today in World War II History—July 4, 1942

Cover of Ladies’ Home Journal for the “United We Stand” campaign, 4 July 1942

Cover of Ladies’ Home Journal for the “United We Stand” campaign, 4 July 1942

75 Years Ago—July 4, 1942: British First Sea Lord Dudley Pound orders beleaguered Arctic Convoy PQ-17 to scatter; 22 of 33 merchant ships will be sunk en route to Murmansk, Russia over the next week.

First official US Eighth Air Force operation: 6 US crews flying RAF A-20 Bostons and 6 RAF Bostons bomb four Dutch airfields, but 3 Bostons are lost (2 US, 1 British).

Over 100 magazines show US flag on cover for the “United We Stand” campaign (Read more about the campaign at the Smithsonian Institute).

First American Red Cross Service Club opens in London, the Washington Club.

Of Terns and Planes

In July 1942, the armies of democracy battled the armies of totalitarianism, but a smaller battle raged between US Army Engineers and a little bird called the sooty tern.

While researching the Army engineers for my novel With Every Letter (Revell, 2012), I ran into an intriguing little story in 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).

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

Map showing the location of Ascension Island (public domain via Wikipedia)

Map showing the location of Ascension Island (public domain via Wikipedia)

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 does have 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 1942. On June 15, two British Fairey Swordfish made an emergency landing on the unfinished airstrip, dodging gunfire until they were identified as Allies.

On July 7, 1942, Wideawake Field officially opened, allowing a better route for single- and two-engine aircraft across the Atlantic. When Brazil declared war on the Axis in August 1942, opening crucial air bases to Allied planes, this route carried large quantities of planes to the front.

Sooty tern (US Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

Sooty tern (US Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

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, the engineers 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.

A Crucial Role

Wideawake Field became a vital airfield during World War II. Over 25,000 aircraft stopped at Wideawake while crossing the Atlantic. In addition, aircraft based at Wideawake played an important role in helping drive German U-boats from the South Atlantic.

Today in World War II History—July 3, 1942

Destroyed harbor of Sevastopol after the battle, July 1942 (German Federal Archives: N 1603 Bild-121)

Destroyed harbor of Sevastopol after the battle, July 1942 (German Federal Archives: N 1603 Bild-121)

75 Years Ago—July 3, 1942: On the Crimean Peninsula, Germans take Sevastopol and 100,000 POWs.

RAF flies 780 sorties at the First Battle of El Alamein.

Today in World War II History—July 2, 1942

US Civilian Conservation Corps poster, 1935

US Civilian Conservation Corps poster, 1935

75 Years Ago—July 2, 1942: Churchill’s government overcomes a parliamentary Motion of Censure in an overwhelming vote.

US Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps is ordered disbanded, completed 30 June 1943.

Today in World War II History—July 1, 1942

British troops digging defensive trenches near El Alamein, Egypt, 4 Jul 1942 (Imperial War Museum)

British troops digging defensive trenches near El Alamein, Egypt, 4 Jul 1942 (Imperial War Museum)

75 Years Ago—July 1, 1942: First Battle of El Alamein begins—German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel makes deepest penetration yet into Egypt.

Sub USS Sturgeon sinks Japanese transport Montevideo Maru off Luzon in the Philippines; 845 Australian POWS and 208 US and Australian civilians are killed in Australia’s worst maritime disaster.

US discontinues production of alarm clocks to save metal; however, rising absenteeism will lead to a quick repeal (Read more: Metal Shortages in World War II).

Destroyer USS Coghlan receives US Navy’s first shipboard twin Bofors 40-mm gun.

Bofors twin-mount 40-mm heavy machine gun aboard the Queen Mary, which was used as a troop transport during WWII, Long Beach, CA, June 2017 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

Bofors twin-mount 40-mm heavy machine gun aboard the Queen Mary, which was used as a troop transport during WWII, Long Beach, CA, June 2017 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

Today in World War II History—June 30, 1942

US Coast Guardsman and dog on beach patrol, Parramore Beach, VA, 21 Oct 1943 (US Coast Guard photo)

US Coast Guardsman and dog on beach patrol, Parramore Beach, VA, 21 Oct 1943 (US Coast Guard photo)

75 Years Ago—June 30, 1942: Soviets evacuate Sevastopol as Germans advance.

German troops under Rommel reach El Alamein, Egypt.

US begins draft registration for men 18-20.

US Coast Guard’s Beach Patrol Division established under Capt. Raymond Mauerman.

Destroyer USS Fletcher, first in new flush-deck Fletcher class, is commissioned in Kearny NJ.

Technical drawing of a US Fletcher-class destroyer, published in All Hands magazine, 1954; note that the radars are missing (US Navy).

Technical drawing of a US Fletcher-class destroyer, published in All Hands magazine, 1954; note that the radars are missing (US Navy).

Today in World War II History—June 29, 1942

Benito Mussolini inspecting German troops, Sicily, 25 Jun 1942 (German Federal Archive: Bild 146-2006-0102)

Benito Mussolini inspecting German troops, Sicily, 25 Jun 1942 (German Federal Archive: Bild 146-2006-0102)

75 Years Ago—June 29, 1942: Capt. Charles Kegelman of the US 15th Bombardment Squadron, flying with 12 RAF Bostons to Hazebrouck, France, becomes first Eighth AF member to bomb Nazi-occupied Europe.

Germans take Mersa Matruh, Egypt.

Mussolini flies to Egypt with his white horse, anticipating victory parade in Cairo.

Today in World War II History—June 28, 1942

Maj. Gen. Lewis Brereton (public domain via Wikipedia)

Maj. Gen. Lewis Brereton (public domain via Wikipedia)

75 Years Ago—June 28, 1942: Germans begin summer offensive in Ukraine toward Stalingrad.

US Army Middle East Air Force is formed in Cairo, Egypt under Maj. Gen. Lewis Brereton.