The U.S. Bases in Antigua and the New Winthorpes Story
Teachers College/Columbia University
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Although U.S. interest in the Caribbean had been growing since the late 1800s, when Puerto Rico and Cuba were won from Spain in 1898, the Virgin Islands were bought from Denmark (in 1917), and the Dominican Republic and Haiti — as well as the Central American countries of Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Panama — were put firmly under U.S. control, this process took an enormous step forward with the advent of World War II. The United States determined that the best way to protect its East Coast and its shipping lanes from enemy attack was to establish bases at strategic points across the Caribbean: this became the "Caribbean Coastal Frontier."
Cuba and Puerto Rico were already in hand, but the other sites had to be acquired from the British. This was easier than might have been expected because the British were hard-pressed at home and anxious not to have to defend the Caribbean colonies as well. Thus, in one of the deals of the century, they generously gave the Americans ninety-nine-year leases to eight base sites in return for fifty reconditioned but over-age destroyers.
The sites were scattered from one end of the Caribbean to the other: from British Guiana on the south to Trinidad, St. Lucia, Antigua, Jamaica, and one of the Bahamian out islands. As Eric Williams noted acerbically, the Caribbean could now be considered the "American Mediterranean."
Economic Conditions in Antigua in 1940
Once one of the brighter spots in the British Caribbean, by 1916 the British Colonial Office was referring to Antigua as the "Cinderella of the West Indies" (CO 152/351/155, 3 May 1916). The Great Depression only worsened an already bad situation. The Antiguan economy and population, almost entirely dependent on sugar and its ancillary activities for its livelihood, was by the late 1930s—to quote Antiguan historian Novelle Richards—"a land of misery and depression, an island of slums and hovels, of barefooted, unkempt people" (Richards 1964: 1). By 1938, unskilled sugar workers were earning only a pitiful $.28-.36/day (Williams 1970: 444), when and if they could get it—less than in any other Caribbean island. Bendals, the second-most important sugar factory, closed in 1940. Although the newly formed Antigua Trades and Labour Union had won a 50 percent wage increase, this had only raised average wages from 1s to 1s/6d a day, hardly enough to live on, and much of the increase was eaten up by war-related inflation. Unemployment was high. Thus for Antigua, facing a declining demand for its sole export, sugar, as well as rising unemployment, worker unrest, and generally straightened financial circumstances, the Americans arrived at precisely the right moment. As an article in Life magazine noted at the time, the Americans planned to spend U.S. $4 milliion on the bases in Antigua, a huge infusion of capital at that time. The bases thus offered the Antiguan labor force the first real alternative (aside from migration) to the plantation, and gave a desperately needed boost to all sectors of the economy.
The U.S. Bases
The Americans wanted to build a Naval Air Station at Crabbs and an Army Air Base at Coolidge. Although the overall leasing agreement was not signed until March 27, 1941, and the Antigua agreement until May 28, the U.S. flag was first raised on March 21. Work on the Naval Air Station had begun even earlier, on February 4, and the first members of the U.S. armed forces, a detachment of fifty Marines, had arrived on March 17. Work on the larger Army Air Base began on May 13.
The locations that the Americans chose for their bases were strategically placed on both sides of Parham Harbour, one of the most protected harbors in Antigua and the only one with flat land nearby for runways.
Bottom: This 1933 map also shows the village of Winthorpes, as well as High Point and Millar's estates. You can also see the cane railroad. (Note that the larger image may take time to load.)
Caption on the map: Map of the Island of Antigua, B.W.I. Respectfully dedicated to George Moody Stuart, Esq., C.B.E., Chairman of the Antigua and St. Kitts Sugar Factories, as a mark of esteem for his valuable work in connection with the sugar industry and general advancement of the island. By Alex. A. Camacho, M. Inst.B.E., Late Sub-Inspector, Construction, Naval Station, St. Thomas, V.I., U.S.A. December 31, 1933. [Map courtesy of Antigua and Barbuda Museum]
The Naval Air Station was built on Crabbs Peninsula, on the east side of the harbor, on land acquired from independent peasants.
For the Army, the government acquired a much larger area across the harbor, extending from Fitches Creek to the bottom of Judges Bay (now known as Jabberwock beach).
Top: This map, based on 1942 data, shows the U.S. Marine Camp, the U.S. Naval Air Station, the U.S. Army site (Fort Byham) and their surroundings. It shows the village of Winthorpes, part of which was inside the fence.
Bottom: The caption for the map above. It reads in part: Prepared under the direction of the Chief of Engineers by the Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army Map Service, (AM), Washington, D.C. Compiled from War Department Map 4011-14. Aerial Photography and Mosaic by Keystone Aviation Co., Inc., 1942. [more...]
[Map courtesy of Vernon Hall. The larger image, which has great detail, may take a few minutes to load.]
The Army base included the 970-acre Millar's estate, owned by the Camachos; High Point, owned by the McDonalds; Winthorpes, owned by the Gomes; and the village of Winthorpes. High Point's Number 11 canefield became the site of the main runway (Quinn nd).
Millars Estate House, owned by the Camachos, which became the Officers' Club. A handwritten caption reads: "Millars House. The country home of my Aunt May and of Uncle John (Dad's brother) in Antigua. They had no children, and we were often there with them, enjoying the wide open spaces for hide-&-seek, etc. In World War II it was all taken over by the American Air Force building an airport there."
The entire Army base was fenced, from the northern end of Judges Bay on the north to Winthorpes Foot Creek on the south. There were four gates: the main gate, called the Base Gate or West Gate, at Carlisle; the North, or Jabberwock, Gate below the Antigua Beach Hotel; the South Gate just west of St. Georges; and a fourth gate at Judges/Barnes Hill.
Although these were U.S. bases, the contractors were civilian companies: the Arundel Corporation and Consolidated Engineering Co., Inc. for the Navy and S.J. Groves & Sons Company for the Army. Arundel brought about 15 foremen and hired about 1,000 local people to construct barracks, a pier, a concrete apron, and seaplane ramps, and to dredge the channels and blast the reefs for seaplane runways, a turning basin, and a shipping channel. In addition, an observation tower was erected at the tip of the peninsula. Even more people worked constructing the Army facility at Coolidge. Not only did the runway and other facilities have to be built, but the entire village of Winthorpes had to be moved to a nearby location.
The headquarters for the commission planning and building the U.S. bases in the Caribbean was in the Wupperman mansion in Trinidad. The photo on the top left shows the operations office; the photo on the bottom left shows the drafting room. The photo at the top shows S.J. Groves, of Minneapolis, second from right, with Paul Minder of Chicago (far left), who had the construction contract for St. Lucia. Second from left is Major D.A.D. Ogden, the U.S. Army engineer in charge of constructing the land bases in Antigua, St. Lucia, Trinidad, and British Guiana, and far right is George Archibald, the U.S. War Department's chief of planning.