Much like the Civil War's impact in the 1860s, America's involvement in World War II brought profound social and economic changes to Wilmington, North Carolina. As the nation's home front prepared to support America's war machine, Wilmington and New Hanover County underwent a major expansion in the shipbuilding, chemical, and petroleum industries. Thousands migrated to the Wilmington area pursuing defense work — and military personnel were not far behind.
In late December 1940, nearly one year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor catapulted the United States into World War II, construction began on a new military facility at the tiny village of Holly Ridge, about 30 miles northeast of Wilmington on U.S. Highway 17. Within five months, the new base — named Camp Davis — sprang to life, and its first military cadre arrived in April 1941. By August, the post was swarming with some 20,000 officers and men. Camp Davis, home to one of the U.S. Army's seven anti-aircraft artillery training centers, was attached to the First Army, Fourth Corps Area.
Hell hole! The biggest joke we had going were "combat mosquitoes" that were at the airport. They pumped 50 gallons of gas in them before they found out it was a mosquito!
— Cpl. Theodore "Ted" Litwin
445th AAA Battalion
The only town we went to was Boom Town [Holly Ridge]. Boom, you're in; and Boom, you're out! That's how big it was!
— Pvt. Santo Orlando
599th AAA (AW) Battalion, (C Battery)
For a brief period, Camp Davis enjoyed the distinction of having all three of the principle elements of coastal artillery under one command: anti-aircraft, seacoast defense, and barrage balloon training. Davis was also unique in that its firing ranges were not located on the main reservation. Instead, the facility employed five remote training sites for anti-aircraft gunnery and automatic weapons practice. These ranges were dispersed along the state's southern coast at Sears Point, New Topsail Inlet, Maple Hill, Holly Shelter, and Fort Fisher.
"Seeking isolation from interference to insure uninterrupted training," asserted Col. Adam E. Potts, "the camp proper is located in the great Holly Shelter pocosin whose massive silence is now broken by the din of ack-ack, while the shores near Sears Landing echo the cannonade of larger calibers. Nor is this the first time that the noise of war has broken the peace of these lowlands, still haunted by the memories of Indians and pirates, slavers and Spanish marauders, Regulators and Taxmasters, Green and Cornwallis, and climaxed by the greatest naval bombardment in the world's history at Fort Fisher. Now a new chapter is written here, as men bivouac on these same trails to prepare for global service."
As the reservation expanded, the Fort Fisher site — located 50 miles south of the main base — became the primary firing range for Camp Davis. And as Fisher's importance grew, so did its facilities.
Original specifications called for a host of features that would make the remote firing range a self contained post. These included 48 frame buildings, 316 tent frames, showers and latrines, mess halls, warehouses, radio and meteorological stations, a post exchange, photo lab, recreation hall, outdoor theater, guardhouse, infirmary, and an administration building. In addition to these facilities, the site featured a 10,000-gallon water storage tank, a motor pool, a large parade ground, and three steel observation towers along the beach.
The main highway in the area, U.S. 421, bisected the sandy ruins of the land front of historic Fort Fisher. New firing installations were erected along the beach, between the highway and the Atlantic Ocean — not unlike Fisher's oceanside batteries during the Civil War. These included, among others, batteries of 40-millimeter automatic cannons and 50-caliber machine guns. In addition, the site's utilities, living quarters, and other features sprang up west of the shore installations, between the highway and the Cape Fear River. The area surrounding the old Civil War fort was soon dotted with the trappings of a modern military facility, and expansion would continue throughout its tenure as a firing range.
At an isolated sector on Federal Point, an anti-mechanized target range was constructed in the summer of 1942. Here, anti-aircraft gunners at Fort Fisher received versatility training and learned to be effective against tanks and other armored vehicles of modern warfare. Ammunition bunkers were also dug along the highway north of Battery Buchanan — the massive four-gun bastion below Fort Fisher that had commanded New Inlet during the Civil War. Buchanan's remains were damaged as a result of military construction.
The crowning addition to these improvements was the construction of a large airstrip at Fort Fisher — an endeavor that destroyed a sizable portion of the once-formidable "land front" of the 80-year-old bastion. In these unstable times, national defense took precedence over historic preservation. Nevertheless, most of the new trainees were aware of the area's significance, and Camp Davis's post literature highlighted Fisher's historic past.
By the time anti-aircraft training operations ceased at Fort Fisher in 1944, the facility had grown to include an 80-seat cafeteria, a 350-bed hospital and dental clinic, and covered an area of several hundred acres. The post had become an integral site for activities associated with Camp Davis's Anti-Aircraft Artillery Training Center, and additional units from other ground forces also saw duty here. This important auxiliary post of Camp Davis was maintained by the Army Service Forces (ASF) through the Fourth Service Command, and the necessary complement of ASF personnel and equipment were stationed at Fisher.
Training at the Fort Fisher range began in October 1941. "As of yore, when the most powerful guns of the day were blasting away at Fort Fisher," noted one of the camp's brochures, "the famed Strato-gun of AA is now blasting at targets from the same ground." Almost eight decades earlier, African American troops had served on Federal Point as part of the Union expeditionary force sent to capture Fort Fisher. With the arrival of the 54th Coast Artillery in 1941, black soldiers were once again in the area for military service — along the very sand mounds and beaches that once marked the Confederate stronghold. The 54th — the army's only black 155-millimeter anti-aircraft artillery unit — brought 24 "one-five-fives" to Fort Fisher for their two-month training session. The unit also trained with other weapons, including machine guns.
That December, news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, shook the nation to its core. On the day following the December 7 catastrophe, with overwhelming support from Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, forcing Roosevelt to end America's official neutrality on the war then raging in Europe.
As the nation prepared for war, Camp Davis bustled with activity, and training at its remote firing ranges escalated. As more emphasis was placed on anti-aircraft artillery training, the barrage balloon school was transferred to a post in Tennessee.
The training schedule was vigorous — six days a week — and the air over coastal North Carolina was loud with military activity. Planes towing target sleeves on long cables roared back and forth above the beaches of Fort Fisher and Camp Davis's other firing ranges, while anti-aircraft gunners below pumped streams of shells at the soaring targets.
Two towing squadrons and a base squadron were stationed at Camp Davis Army Airfield. These aircraft flew thousands of miles each week — both day and night — in missions along the coast. At night the planes gave the searchlight battalions — the "Moonlight Cavalry" — practice in picking up enemy raiders in the darkness. One such battalion attached to Camp Davis was the 225th AAA Searchlight Battalion (Semi-mobile), which trained for a short period at Burgaw (40 miles west of the main base) before departing for duty overseas.
You have searchlight aided night firing, so you could pick out the sleeves, and tracers arch out over the ocean. It was sort of a beautiful sight. In fact, I got married while I was home on furlough. My wife came down and lived at Carolina Beach for several months, just before we were alerted for shipment overseas . . . . Now they could sit down on Carolina Beach and watch the 40s and 50s being shot out over the ocean. It was a really beautiful sight.
— Staff Sgt. Herman Ledger
599th AAA (AW) Battalion, (C Battery)
As training intensified at Fort Fisher, many of Camp Davis's visitors ventured to the sandy post to observe the reservation's primary firing point. The year 1943 proved to be its busiest, and included a visit from a British anti-aircraft battery that arrived to conduct exercises with American gunners.
The nation's war effort was in full swing, and 1943 brought a significant change in the use of its resources. The army needed more pilots, and thanks to the strong-willed efforts of pilot Jacqueline Cochran, it now had a group of talented women to serve in national defense. The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) arrived at Camp Davis on July 24, 1943 — in their first assignment beyond ferrying duty. On August 1, the WASPs were put to work piloting A-24s and A-25s, and took on the duty of towing targets for Camp Davis's anti-aircraft artillery training. In addition to target duty (both day and night), the women stationed at Davis flew radar deception and tracking missions. The WASPs went on to fly missions from a number of bases across the United States.
By the time the range closed in 1944, at least 43 different anti-aircraft battalions, coast artillery regiments, and engineer, signal corps, ordnance, and air warning units had trained at Fort Fisher.
And we trained . . . I get a kick out of this . . . we trained the 82nd Airborne . . . on their heavy weapons. And heavy weapons to them was 50 caliber machine guns. What a bunch that was! I could write two books about them guys.
— Cpl. Theodore "Ted" Litwin
445th AAA Battalion
The harsh conditions on Federal Point had not changed in the long years since the Civil War, and trainees and other personnel were forced to coexist with the ubiquitous sand and mosquitoes — the same problems faced by Fisher's original garrison. It was "a forlorn spit of sand and scrub growth pinched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River," asserted a member of the 558th AAA Battalion, "a quagmire of sand, sand, and more sand. It was strictly a no-nonsense place designed to put grit and fire in the bowels and brains of its trainees." In the summer months, however, the beach atmosphere and constant ocean breezes appealed to many of the troops at the sandy post. For some, the surroundings inspired a festive attitude. Indeed, one veteran remembered that his entire battalion — the 535th — was once reprimanded and denied weekend leave due to sloppiness and lack of discipline.
We had a lot of fun on that beach! I hear today it's all eroded.
— Pvt. Santo Orlando
599th AAA (AW) Battalion, (C Battery)
Fort Fisher lacked the elaborate recreational facilities found at Camp Davis, but by the spring of 1943 it boasted a full schedule of activities. In August, the new post theater opened with a screening of Stormy Weather, starring Lena Horne. There were also plays and musical variety shows, most of which were performed by the soldiers themselves. Professional performances, sponsored by the United Services Organization (USO) were an added treat, and were often joined by "home grown" talent — including the Fort Fisher Swing Band and other groups.
Many of the post's trainees were from interior regions of the United States, and had never before seen a beach — let alone tried to live near one. The adjustment was difficult, and more than a few soldiers balked at the notion of dining on fried clams and oysters. To acclimate the men to their new environment, the post offered swimming lessons, advice on how to avoid sunburn, and beach safety instructions.
Sports were also popular at Fisher, and went a long way toward boosting morale. The trainees enjoyed games of volleyball, horseshoes, and golf; but boxing was by far the most popular. Throngs of spectators gathered for the matches, held indoors or outdoors according to the season. The fervor reached its peak in January 1944, when boxing champ Joe Louis arrived for a visit.
The soldiers also enjoyed the Fort Fisher station because of its proximity to Wilmington, and recreational opportunities at nearby Carolina Beach. The war transformed Wilmington into a boomtown — its population soared and its businesses flourished. And not surprisingly, the bustle of wartime activity and throngs of military men conspired to erode existing moral restrictions. Agnes Meyer, a Washington Post correspondent on assignment in Wilmington in April 1943, complained that "the state of things" in Wilmington "is pathetic if not indecent . . . . I would not be a worker in Wilmington if you gave me the whole city."
Through the years, Wilmington and its environs have been greatly affected by our nation's wars and their participants. The Civil War brought a peculiar amalgam of prosperity, hardship, and destruction to the port city, and the town faced a long, hard road through Reconstruction. And while the social climate may have suffered in Wilmington during the Second World war, that conflict served only to strengthen the city.
Camp Davis and its satellite ranges closed in October 1944 — with nearly one full year of war yet to be waged in both theaters of conflict. In summarizing the post's accomplishments, the Coast Artillery Journal asserted that Camp Davis would "live in every shot fired at Axis Planes; in high morale and combat efficiency . . . and forever will live in the hearts of all World War II antiaircraft artillerymen."
Since the end of the war, there have been rumors of German submarine activity associated with the Wilmington area. Indeed, many U-boat operations were conducted along the east coast of the United States during World War II, and several American vessels were sunk in North Carolina waters — including a few downed by the famed German U-boat captain, Erich Topp.
Through the years, a popular story has been told regarding a U-boat attack near Kure Beach on July 15, 1943. Carlton Sprague, a platoon commander in C Battery, 558th AAA Battalion, remembered that while his unit was stationed at Fort Fisher, a German submarine surfaced under cover of darkness and lobbed five shells at the Ethyl-Dow chemical plant. This facility manufactured a key ingredient for high octane fuel. According to the story, all of the enemy shells overshot their mark and plunged into the Cape Fear River. Apparently, a news blackout followed, and over the years the story has drifted into legend.
Some residents recalled that on the night of the supposed attack on the chemical plant, the shipyard in Wilmington suddenly went black. Due to the demand for new ships, however, this facility remained open day and night, and its lights were usually left burning during the city's routine air raid drills. The citizens had been warned that if these lights ever went out, it meant that a real raid was at hand — for production at the shipyard never stopped. The blackout supposedly frightened Wilmington residents, but an attack never materialized.
Carlton Sprague related another interesting anecdote more directly related to Fort Fisher. "Some time in August of 1943," he recalled, "while we were stationed at Fort Fisher, members of C Battery were on guard duty, and the patrol on the beach, not far from our gun emplacements, encountered four German military personnel from a submarine that landed on our beach and we turned them over to the S-2 for processing." Did members of the Kriegsmarine come ashore at Fort Fisher? And if so, why?
"I was officer of the day," continued Sprague. "It was my recollection that they were to sabotage the channel in the Cape Fear River, which would detain ship traffic at the Wilmington navy base. They had missed their location by just a few miles. I don't believe their final intent was to complete their assigned mission, but rather to surrender to American authorities." According to Sprague, this incident was one of four in which German U-boats landed saboteurs on the American mainland. The other locations included Hancock, Maine; Long Island, New York; and the New Jersey coast.
At least one additional landing occurred on American soil near Jacksonville, Florida — four nights after a landing at Long Island, New York. The eight Germans in the Florida incident — all former residents of the United States — were supposedly caught with large supplies of cash and explosives.
While there seems to be some historical basis for the Florida landing, the North Carolina incidents are more difficult to prove. No hard evidence or official accounts have surfaced to lend authenticity to these stories. Nevertheless, the tales are interesting and thought provoking — and have not been disproved. If nothing else, they add to the long-standing mystique, traditions, and colorful maritime legends of the Lower Cape Fear.
Text used with permission. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.
Fort Fisher World War II Files, Research Branch, North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh.
The Wilmington Campaign and the Battles for Fort Fisher.
by Mark A. Moore — (Da Capo Press, 1999).