Editor’s Note: What follows is an oral history recorded by Linsey Lee from Hector Asselin of Vineyard Haven. Titled Everywhere You Looked There Was an Airplane, the account is of the World War II Naval Air Station on the Vineyard. It was included in the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s exhibit Those Who Served which ran from spring 2009 until Labor Day of this year. The accounts will be published in an upcoming booklet and also will be posted on the museum’s Web site mvmuseum.org. Ms. Lee is the oral history curator for the museum; this piece appears with permission.

I was born in Warren, Rhode Island. I was always interested in movie projectors. My parents had given me a little projector, hand-crank. It had 25 feet of film on it and it was a shepherd bringing his flock of sheep over a hill and that was the end of it. Every time company would come in, I’d have to show them this reel in the dining room.

When I enlisted I was close to 20. I was stationed right near home at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. I had to put down what my experience was in work and what my hobbies were. And I put down that my hobbies were movie projection. And that was it. We got a notice on our bulletin board that there were 14 of us that were going to be sent out off the base to a school. We got on the train and we traveled at night to Detroit, Michigan. A bus took us into the city where it was all tall buildings and we went up to the seventh floor in one of the buildings and it was fitted out as classrooms. Come to find out, I’m looking at twin 16mm movie projectors there. I’m saying, “Well, I guess they did all right by me.”

We were there to learn how to give courses in recognition for sailors or those who were gunners in planes. We were taught to identify Japanese and German warships, the silhouettes, and also of the Japanese and German war planes. There were two projectors aimed on one screen, one projector would show the plane coming in at you and the other projector would show where, as that plane was coming in, where you were to lead it. You had to shoot ahead of it. Those machines were devised to do that, and we had to learn how to operate them.

We left Detroit and came back to the base at Quonset Point. Then again we received sealed orders, 14 names on the bulletin board. Rumor had it that we were shipping out and we were going overseas. It was scary and exciting, because here we were, thinking “Overseas pay! Ooh!” Of course, we were thinking of the other thing, too, the dangers.

We wound up in New Bedford. We got on the ferry: “Hey, this is not the way to go overseas! Or is it?” Not a word about going to the Vineyard. Not a word.

When we got there, we were told that we were going to be in the barracks and we had the barracks numbers. We started up the road here, took this sandy lane that went from Goodale’s pit to the base at the airport. That was the only entrance from the north. The road from the blinker hadn’t been built yet. The army built that later. We didn’t know where we were until we got up the base there and we were told we were on Martha’s Vineyard. We hadn’t the slightest idea.

The whole place was still under construction when we got there. We were the first unit to arrive. We unloaded, took our sea bags and went into the barracks, and when we got inside, here are all these cardboard cartons with our double bunks all knocked down, all in these cartons. And we had the darnedest time getting those straps that are around the cartons to open. Anyway, we worked at that and set up our bunks.

We were hungry. We went into what we called the chow hall. Nothing was clean, the sawdust was all over everything — the base had just hardly opened. The apprentice baker made us some cookies. Well, you know, those cookies were bigger than a pie, believe it or not, and they were tasteless. But we were hungry, so we ate the doggone things.

The next morning we met the lieutenant commander, Henry Scott. I worked under him, and I’ll tell you, it made my time in the service very pleasurable, because he was just a nice guy. His duty was to run the recognition training at the base. He was great. He set up all kinds of displays and we had models of the German and Japanese ships and planes. He had one of these rheostats and he could make it bright morning sun or he could make it evening light to show the silhouettes of all of the war craft.

It was our function, at the base, to provide refresher classes for pilots and, for those that hadn’t yet gone overseas, to sharpen them up and get them ready. Some would come in after they’d been in active duty overseas, you know, and they were tired. Their aircraft carrier would come into Quonset and they’d fly over here. We were a place they could relax and refuel.

The base grew. I think the most we ever had at that base was something like 640 sailors. It was a busy place. We had the field, the inner field of the airport now, filled with planes lined up from these fellows flying them over. Everywhere you looked there was an airplane.

I remember all kinds of plane crashes. Oh, there was a lot of lives lost. We had night patrol squadrons go out and some of the planes never got back. In fact, just recently, a few years ago, they found one of the planes out offshore. And they keep finding them, you know, as the dredgers go out.

A sad story: we had a squadron of planes come in that had been overseas and they were celebrating their return to our base. Some parents knew that their son had come back — he was a pilot — and they were here. Everybody was celebrating because the war was over. This lieutenant commander had taken his plane up, all alone, and was flying around in front of his parents, who were on the porch. And lo and behold the plane broke in half. I heard this crack and the noise, I looked out the window, got out the door, and here was two pieces of plane coming down. They got his watch and things like that, but can you imagine? After all that he’d done overseas and his parents are there celebrating with him and he took this plane up to show them and that was the end of that. The parents! What a thing! So that was one of the bad experiences.

We had to create a skeet range and be on the range when the pilots and the gunners had free run of it. There were two towers, houses, high and low. You would sit in the houses and when they called, “Pull!” we would release the spring that would shoot the target into the air. They are round, clay targets. Then the gunners would fire at them and we’d keep the score. We’d practice the lead to hit the target, and that was probably the most basic thing. You have to have that feel of the shot being ahead of the target.

We taught our recognition classes in portable buildings that came in sections and they were all painted the navy color, dark gray, and they came up on a barge from Quonset. They were put up by the civilian employees that were Islanders. A trailer, only much wider than a trailer.

And one end of one of the sections was empty, and I set up a movie theatre. Oh, boy! They sent us over 16mm projectors and I had the use of the carpenters and set up a little stage and a screen and a projection booth and I ran the movies at night for them. Boy, that was great.

It was a happy sort of a condition there. And word came that Quonset was sending over 35mm projectors, the real theatre projectors, and going to send over films that came right out of Hollywood! Clark Gable was in the first picture and it was current, it was just a late release. The sailors would go in town and they’d come back with their girlfriends and take them into the movies.

Then I set up another theater in barracks three, I think it was. The upper floor was empty and we had a bigger screen, and some seats that were not folding seats. They were the comfortable seats. We set them up there and oh, boy!

We started to get the films that they were getting on the Island here. Pretty soon Mr. Hall, who ran the movies in town, kind of got to us. It was the government competing with private business. I could understand that. But then the war ended, so there was no problems.

The USO was a great melting pot for the servicemen and civilians of the Island. We went to the USO where Cronig’s Real Estate is now, on Main street in Vineyard Haven. We met a lot of nice people, and the USO did a lot, you know. I met my wife, Eva, there.

Plus we had our restaurants where we’d meet people. The Artcliff Diner was then the railroad car that it started out to be. It had the rounded roof, it had the little round soda fountain seats and it had the brass rail for your feet. They had a pot stove and a heater that they fed by wood. That would be the first place we’d stop before we’d either go to the movies or some other function. That’s how we got to know people around the Island.

When I was courting Eva, before I got my Plymouth car, I would walk from Daggett avenue in Vineyard Haven to the airbase nightly and you could hear a pin drop after midnight. Everything was calmed right down. You could hear the rabbits in the field, running through the field alongside of you, and a deer would cross right in front of you and you’d hear rustling in the bush; that was how quiet it was. And, of course, when the moon was out it beautiful, because you could see where you were walking, more or less. You were allowed to come back to the base anytime you wanted, but you had to check in and check out whenever you went. You had to go through the guardhouse. Everybody that went in and out had to have their pass. I’ve still got one in my pocket, I think.

We had nice times. During the war, we met a lot of nice people. I always think of the good that that airbase did. We were able to furnish the pilots and the servicemen with the movies and all the things that would just relax them. It was a nice experience for most anybody that went through those gates. I was blessed to stay there. Just picked out of the crowd, you know? I was one of a few that it seemed the light shined on, and, boy, am I thankful.