THE TIME OF THE AMERICANS
In the cramped hand of someone not much used to writing, the Vieux Fort police record entry for Saturday 30 November 1940 reads:
7.20 am. Chief of Police Lely came and said that there will be a war ship calling to VX Fort - or by car with American and what-ever they do as been the same must be reported to him.
8.53. Arrival. lc58 Branett telephone and reporte the arrival of the S.A. Warship to VX Fort - to lc 27 Phillip and asked him to informed the Chief of Police and Inspector of Police of the arrival 8.55 am been the chief of Police was absent.
9 am. Jetty. C/l Coomb left for the Vieux Fort Jetty as to preserved order during the landing of the American gentlemen.
10.5 am. Departure. Zn S.A. Warship no.394 left for Castries.
10.10 am. C/l Coomb returned from the Jetty all correct.
Behind the anxious punctuality of what was (compared to other entries) a major excitement for Vieux Fort, we find the first field visit by American army staff looking to establish a United States military base in St. Lucia.
At the start of the Second World War, England urgently needed war material, while the US was keen to build up a chain of defence bases to protect its eastern seabord and the approach to the Panama Canal. A swap was arranged and in August 1940, 99-year leases were signed giving the US the right to set up military stations in British-Guiana, Trinidad, St. Lucia, Antigua, Jamaica, Bermuda and Newfoundland. In exchange, Britain received fifty reconditioned destroyer ships.
On December 8th, 1940, US president Theodore Roosevelt visited St. Lucia on board a naval ship. He called the Destroyer/Base agreement "epochal" and described it as "the most important event in the defence of the United States of America since Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana purchase."
As a result of the agreement, some three thousand acres of flat land in the south of St. Lucia, near Vieux Fort, were assigned for the construction of a US airbase and another 120 acres near Gros Islet.
Amongst St. Lucians, excitement soared immediately. In November of 1940, the island's oldest newspaper, The Voice, wrote: "The district has been surveyed by the Americans and flags have been planted at several points on the surrounding hills. ... The general feeling in Vieux-Fort, and even at the village of Laborie three miles away, is one of jubilant expectancy. 'Work will be increased and we will be well paid' a labourer at Vieux-Fort told me, while one woman to whom I spoke as she was returning home from her garden, a yam-laden basket on her head and hoe over one shoulder, said 'I am sure I will get a good price for my yams and other provision, and my husband and my children will all get work."
Considering most people's living conditions at the time, this feverish anticipation was understandable. In 1940, St. Lucia had 71,222 inhabitants. The large majority of these were former slaves or indentured labourers who depended on farming, fishing and agricultural labour on sugar plantations for their livelihood. The Great Depression of the 1930s had caused dire poverty all around and as world prices for raw sugar continued to fall, thousands of St. Lucians had not had two pennies to rub together for several decades. Although the island's merciful climate ensured that nobody needed to starve, a staple diet of breadfruit and root vegetables did little for general health and it was even remarked that people were 'noticeably fatter' during the mango season!
In 1940, the southern town of Vieux Fort contained between fifteen hundred and two thousand souls. Here especially, 'Mister Hard Times' had taken up residence. Describing Vieux Fort before the influence of the US base became felt, The Voice wrote: "Stern and haggard faces met one on every side. The spirit of the people was reflected in the appearance of the town. Deserted streets, dilapidated weather beaten houses, sadly crying for a coat of paint, vacant lots, empty shops - a city of the dead."
Construction of a seaplane base in Gros Islet started in February 1941. Vieux Fort followed suit two months later. Local labour was employed where possible and hundreds of men and women flocked to the two sleepy fishing villages in search of work. Hundreds more left their homes in St. Vincent, Barbados, St. Kitts and elsewhere in the Caribbean and travelled to St. Lucia for the same purpose.
In Vieux Fort, after eighteen months of buzzing activity, 352 buildings had been erected, as well as 25,000 feet of concrete runways with taxiways, hardstands, revetments, two nose hangars and other maintenance buildings. Barracks and houses for 4,673 enlisted men and 649 officers were built, as well as a one thousand-man laundry, 96,951 square feet of warehouse area and a 150-bed hospital.
Other major projects were the construction of a deep-water harbour to enable ships to bring in building equipment and heavy machinery, and infrastructure for water, electricity, sewerage and fuel. Memory holds that two tunnels were also dug, allegedly to ensure the possibility of movement during an airraid: one tunnel running from the airport to the hospital, and one from the airport to the top of what is now known as Clarke Street. The wide concrete road around Vieux Fort also dates back to the time of the Americans and apparently doubled as an emergency runway.
In all, more than ten million US dollars were spent on the base in Vieux Fort. Of this, over nine hundred thousand dollars went into constructing the hospital, and an additional two million dollars into equipping it. (These items were shipped out when the base was de-activated in 1949. The building subsequently remained empty until the mid 1960s, when a US religious order, the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, re-opened it as St. Jude's Hospital).
By mid-1942, Vieux Fort had a population of eight thousand people: more than four times its size just eighteen months earlier. Furthermore, over five thousand American military men were stationed on the southern base also.
An tan Laméwichains - Creole for 'at the time of the Americans' - is a period vividly remembered in St. Lucia today. It is recalled as a time when the living was high. Musing about these days, people will tell you that the Americans put endless money into circulation, most of which was spent without a thought for tomorrow. A telling tale is that of American soldiers drinking a shot of whisky, opening a bottle of beer, taking a gulp to 'chase' the whisky, and - arm outstretched - running the remainder of the beer into the gutter. St. Lucians reportedly gladly imitated this kind of 'cool' behaviour. Another (possibly less accurate) recollection is that of men wiping the sweat off their brows with dollar bills.
Never mind the myth-making, it is a historical fact that during the time of the Americans, wages were two or three times higer than before, and rumshops, night clubs and dance halls flourished. An elderly Castries lady remembers how, as a little girl visiting Vieux Fort during school holidays, she was awestruck by the sight of gorgeous local women, dressed Hollywood-style in pleated slacks, wearing bright-red lipstick and smoking cigarettes with dramatic hand movements a la Marlene Dietrich. "All I could think was: Lord, I want to be like that when I grow up. Hah! Little did I realise of course that these were women of the night!"
Alas, with the momentary 'gold-rush' came the usual problems of overcrowding. Unsanitary living conditions ensued. According to a 1942 tax list, Vieux Fort town harboured some three hundred dwelling houses. With a population of eight thousand, this made for an average of 26 persons per house! In November of 1941, The Voice newspaper cried shame on the situation: "A small house with two rooms can be had at no less than five dollars a week. About ten and twenty and often more persons live in one of these houses. They have to squeeze together on the bare floor at night. In the smaller houses, sleeping is done by relays. The first relay would snatch as much rest as possible during the earlier part of the night. Later, another relay would come in, and the first relay goes out to accommodate them. Under houses, balconies, kitchens and outhouses [areas] are used as dormitories by scores of workers at Vieux Fort."
Imperfect sanitation and new ways of life led to an increase in epidemic diseases, particularly typhoid, tuberculosis and venereal afflictions. On the other hand, after decades of bitter poverty, the American wages did much to improve and vary people's diets and enabled them to buy some clothes, shoes and household goods. Furthermore, the US military drained most of the mangrove areas around Vieux Fort, thereby starting the eventual eradication of malaria. Lastly, by 1945, thanks to medical progress, some measure of control was brought to the explosion of syphilis and gonnorhoea.
The height of employment at the base was in June 1942, when 4,496 West Indian workers earned a living at the base in Vieux Fort and another 1,500 or so in Gros Islet. For several years to come, the presence of the American army in St. Lucia created a level of welfare not previously known to such a large segment of the population. Labourers, farmers, fishermen, entertainers, house owners and many others profited from the American presence.
By the time the US bases in St. Lucia were dismantled and the remaining infrastructure and buildings sold off to the local government - in 1949 - most immigrant workers had already moved on. In the course of the 1950s and '60s, large numbers of St. Lucians followed that example. Those that migrated overseas, did so with a raised awareness of the value of their labour, with newly acquired skills and with knowledge of modern work methods and ethics. Those that stayed behind in Vieux Fort, faced a return to relative poverty, marginality and boredom in the 1950s.
A number of St. Lucian men and women joined the armed forces during the Second World War - some of whom even lost their lives in the line of duty - but the island itself never saw much active battle. The closest it came to Nazi attack was on March 9th, 1942, when a German submarine slipped through the defense lines and entered the harbour of Castries. At 10.52 pm, it fired torpedos at two ships moored there: the CNS Lady Nelson (the principal carrier of the Caribbean Fruit Trade) and the Umtata from Calcutta. Twenty people were killed and nineteen others injured. According to one historian, far greater damage to life and property was miraculously prevented. "A third torpedo was fired at an Alcoa ship which was berthed in the cove-like area near the Peninsula. [But] because of its peculiar position in that cove the torpedo was lodged in the ground and the ship escaped being hit. This was a very lucky escape because the ship in question was carrying a full cargo of T.N.T. to be used at the Vieux-Fort base, and had it been touched the whole of Castries may have been blown away."
A second battle in the Castries harbour took place on May 26th, 1942, this time between a German submarine and US destroyer Blakeley. The Blakeley had been torpedoed off Martinique and sought refuge in St. Lucia, but must have been followed there by the Nazi submarine. A skirmish ensued, and thousands "of townsfolk gathered to witness the spectacle". Although the submarine eventually got away, she was believed to have suffered some damage in the exchange.
The two fully-prepared US military bases at Vieux Fort and Gros Islet did not come into play during either one of these conflicts. They essentially continued to act as watchdogs monitoring the movement of fascist forces in the Middle American region. The legacy of the American presence during World War Two is not to be found in the annals of warfare and battle - pages already filled to overflowing with Anglo-French conflicts in the 17th and 18th centuries - but has nevertheless left clear marks on the social landscape of St. Lucia. It is a legacy that continues to make for heated debate and exciting exploration, some sixty years on.
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