Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Carlsen Field, once home to US air base


MILITARY HISTORY: The Carlsen Field area today. —Photo: LOUIS B HOMER

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Carlsen Field, Central Trinidad, is known by most as a place for cattle and crime. But a step back in time reveals its important history. It is also a memorial with remnants of World War II. These include two helicopter landing strips, underground tunnels, a rusted steel blimp hangar and the site of a helium purification plant.

They were parts of a combat base built in 1942 by United States Air Force personnel under an agreement signed in 1940 between the Americans and Britain. The agreement gave the US the right to construct airfields in exchange for 50 used warships which Britain desperately needed to protect the Caribbean from Nazi Germany. When the agreement was signed, Trinidad and Tobago was still a colony of Britain, and, as such, the citizens had no input in the arrangements. The decisions were made by the Colonial Office in England and the sitting governor of Trinidad.

Initially the airfield was used to support the military needs of the main airfield base at Waller Field, Cumuto. Edinburgh, Xeres and Camden were used as emergency landing strips. Edinburgh Field was renamed Carlsen Field in 1945.

After the war, Waller Field was leased to farmers to cultivate food crops. Carlsen Field was used for rearing livestock and Camden was used by Caroni (1975) Ltd as the base for chemical spraying operations to combat frog hoppers that were threatening to destroy the sugarcane crop. It was also used for drag racing.

Memories of the displacement of families are still with residents uprooted from their homes where the bases were being constructed, and sent to live elsewhere.

Samuel Sookoo, now 88, was one of those who longed to return to Carlsen Field after the war.

He recalled, "When I was told to vacate my land at Carlson Field, the US authorities told me they will pay for the house, but man does not own land. It all belongs to God."

After seven years, he was allowed to return to his former home, but feels he is squatting on his own land. Sookoo said, in order to return to the land, he went to Dr Eric Williams, then the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, seeking permission, and Williams told him, "You can go back to the land, but build a board house, not a concrete house."

Sookoo was one of the first to return to his former home after the Americans left Carlsen Field, where he was born and lived most of his life.

"What is now called Carlsen Field is part of Edinburgh 500, an agricultural area, with a clay soil called sapatay," he said.

He recalled that the area was once the home of potters who made a living from producing clay objects.

"Is here all the people making deyas and goblets in Chase Village does come to get the soil for their trade. When we digging a pond we would send a message to them and they would come and buy the clay, but the government put a stop to dat."

Since the base at Carlsen Field was handed over to the government, people from different areas went there to settle. Some have legitimate leases, while others have been occupying land without permission from the State.

Dr Allen Sammy, CEO of the Land Settlement Agency (LSA), said, "Most of the land has been given out to tenants for agriculture, and we are in the process of resettling others. To have the whole area regularised would take some time because there are different problems associated with resettling the people."

Recently the Housing Ministry was called in to remove a number of people who were occupying lands without permission from the State.

Carlsen Field has endless opportunities for farming.

Omkar Samuel said he was born in the village and remembered when the place was called Edinburgh 500. "When they built the Solomon Hochoy Highway in the sixties then it cut us away from Edinburgh."

Edinburgh was the name of one of the sugar estates owned by the Robinson family.

Samuel said many people from the village used to work at Tanteak (a State-owned logging business) before it closed operations about 20 years ago.

A recent announcement by the Ministry of Works and Transport stated that the Tanteak site is under consideration to be the new headquarters for the Licensing Department.

Samuel said the soil at Carlsen Field is suitable for growing a number of tropical fruits such as "goolab jamoon", cashew and guava.

"Dem things does be growing wild here," he said.

Many areas are now used for rearing sheep and cattle, while some farmers concentrate on growing vegetables.

Carlsen Field is positioned to be a great farming community, having to its advantage large areas for tethering animals, good soil for cropping and direct links to the Solomon Hochoy Highway.