Coastline: WWII in the Cape Fear

Jul 14, 2016

From the earliest days of European settlement, Wilmington and the Cape Fear region have been places of active military involvement. From the Revolution through the Civil War, from liberty ships in World War II to the relocation of the Battleship North Carolina, this area has seen its share and more of events that have shaped the military history of our country. In fact, there is a movement in progress to have Wilmington declared America’s first World War II city. Our guest on this edition of Coastline is a man who knows a great deal about all these topics, and more, Wilbur Jones.

Wilbur Jones is military historian. He is a Captain, US Navy Reserve (retired), immediate past Chairman, USS North Carolina Battleship Commission; Chairman, World War II Wilmington Home Front Heritage Commission. He is also retired as a civilian employee of the Defense Departmen, and served as an aide to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He leads battlefield tours in Europe, the Asian Pacific area, and here in Southeast North Carolina. He is spearheading the effort to have Wilmington declared America’s first World War II City.

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Cleve Callison: Let’s start out with the World War II city aspect of this. You’ve been involved with that, and I know this has been a years-long project in the making. What is the status of that now, and what is the genesis behind that? 

Wilbur Jones: For eight years, I’ve been very heavily involved in an effort to seek national recognition for Wilmington as America’s World War II city, based on what we did to contribute to the war effort during World War II and subsequently what we have done since then to preserve that legacy. In the last several years, we have gotten cooperation from our congressmen and our senators in introducing bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate that would call for that designation as the first American World War II city. Congressman McIntire, who has now retired, and I explored all opportunities we could think of to have an organization designate us without a lot of unnecessary fanfare. All these years after World War II had been ended, no city had stepped forward to claim that title or even to seek it. But we found that even though organizations such as the Smithsonian and the National Trust for Historic Preservation felt that Wilmington probably deserved it, they didn’t have the authority or responsibility to make that designation. So, Congressman McIntire said, “Let’s go to the Congress. Let’s introduce a bill, have it passed, have the President sign it.” And that’s a pretty good authority, a responsible one. So the evolution has come through three sessions of Congress now. Congressman Rouzer, his bill was introduced last year. It’s passed the House of Representatives as part of an omnibus, a larger bill, Veterans Affairs. It is now over in the Senate Veterans Affairs committee, waiting for action. Senator Tillis, last year, introduced a companion bill in the Senate. It has been assigned to the Armed Services committee and is still awaiting action there. So I’m in touch with the Senate offices of Senator Burr and Senator Tillis, who have been very cooperative in helping us, and we’re just trying to get it through the process over in the Senate. It’s much different from the House, as you recognize.  

CC: You’re talking about the bill as a whole is much different, not this particular little clause—

WJ: No, the bills are identical.

CC: Oh, okay.

WJ: We’re not asking for money, and it’s nonpartisan. It’s just a one-page bill. The question is, how is it fit into the legislative process in the Senate? And I’m pulling my hair out right now. As I said, eight years, going on nine. We’re not giving up because Wilmington deserves this for what we did during the war and our efforts to preserve this history.

CC: Let’s talk about some of those efforts. A lot of people have probably seen—it’s kind of a famous, iconic portrait—a picture of Wilmington, an aerial portrait of Wilmington with a whole bunch of Liberty ships lined up along the river. This was something I didn’t know about until I moved to Wilmington six years ago, but all the Liberty ships that were made here, over 240, I think, something like that, that were constructed here?

WJ: You’re close, and I think that you’re talking about is the reserve fleet after World War II. The Mothball Fleet was put up in the Brunswick River, over in Brunswick County. There were several hundred ships. Not all of them were made in Wilmington. During World War II, our shipyard produced 243 ships, about half of those were Liberty ships.

CC: Why was Wilmington selected for that? What was special about this? Did we already have that manufacturing and port capacity? I think of the shipbuilding yards all over the country, why was Wilmington such an important one?

WJ: I’m sure it was political influence.

CC: Really?

WJ: Probably. We had the space. Why not? They stayed there, on the Brunswick River, until well into the Vietnam War when they were either activated for Vietnam service or scrapped or sold to other nations. 

CC: You mentioned that was one aspect of it, the Liberty ships. What were some of the other aspects that would make Wilmington America’s first World War II city?

WJ: Oh gosh, how much time do we have, just an hour? A number of things— We were the headquarters for the Atlantic Coastline Railroad, which was one of the largest in the South. We had two Medal of Honor recipients from New Hanover High School, Billy Halyburton and Charles Murray. To our knowledge, it’s the only high school in the country with multiple Medal of Honor recipients from World War II. And we had a number of manufacturing plants here, like the Block Shirt Factory that made over one million shirts for the military. All five of the Armed Forces were stationed here. The Marines, of course, at Camp Lejeune, and boy, did they take over the town on Saturday night. The Army was stationed here at Fort Fisher with an advanced training base, with their main base up at Camp Davis on Highway 17. The Navy was here with patrol boats, hunting German submarines on the Cape Fear River and down in the Southport area. And the Army Air Forces were here. They took over what is now Wilmington International Airport, turned it into a submarine hunting base and a P-47 fighter base. And we had three German prisoner of war camps here.

CC: You mentioned submarines, Wilbur. Were there submarines definitely off the coast of North Carolina?

WJ: Oh, yes.

CC: How close did they get?

WJ: Real, real close. They were sinking ships off of North Carolina, as you know. Wilmington was at the southern end of what was called Torpedo Junction. Several sinkings occurred off of the Southport, Wrightsville Beach area. I can remember as a young boy walking on Wrightsville Beach and seeing the debris that would float up and the oil from the sunken ships that would reach the beach. The submarine activity continued until about the middle of 1943 when the Battle of the Atlantic turned against the Germans.

CC: I believe I heard you say—I was listening to some information that you gave to our producer Isabelle Shepherd beforehand—that it’s possible that the only attack from a submarine on U.S. soil took place in this area during World War II.

WJ: Yes. I believe that. My research indicates that it likely happened on the night of July 24, 1943. A German submarine surfaced off of Kure Beach and fired three shots at the Ethyl-Dow chemical plant, which was on the Cape Fear River side of Federal Point. It landed in the water and fortunately didn’t hit the plant. If that happened, and I believe it did—I have interviewed witnesses and there is a family at Kure Beach that claims that they have seen the German submarine surface—it would be the only time that Germany actually attacked the east coast of the United States.

CC: And I suppose we don’t know which German submarine it was or what happened to the crew of that?

WJ: We believe we know because post-war records indicated that, we believe that submarine was sunk a couple of days later by aircraft from this area.

CC: I’ve heard this rumor, maybe you know this rumor, maybe it’s a true story that everybody knows, that the body of a German submariner washed up somewhere around here, and in his pocket, there was a ticket stub from a local movie theatre. Is there any truth to that?

WJ: Sounds good, doesn’t it? Let’s see, I guess you’re probably the 200th person that we’ve had this conversation about. In fact, Ben Steelman of the Star News—

CC: That’s probably where I saw it, was in Ben Steelman’s column.

WJ: Yeah, well, we were emailing each other about that. I think it is a myth. It is a very good story, but the important thing is that we do have evidence that German spies came ashore in the Carolina Beach or Kure Beach area, and they were apprehended, and we don’t know what happened to them after that. But the business of having Bailey Theatre tickets in the pocket is probably an urban legend. Let’s put that to rest.

Ellen (caller): I find anything about World War II very fascinating. My father was killed in 1943, February 3, and he was on the Dorchester. I know the history of the Dorchester, but I would just love to know if there were any survivors, if there was anybody that was on that ship that’s still alive today.

WJ: I can’t answer that question universally. I have never run into anybody in Wilmington who was a survivor. Certainly, for those who don’t know the story of the Dorchester, that was the case where the Armed Forces chaplains gave their life jackets to members of the Armed Forces so they could save themselves.

CC: The story of the four chaplains.

WJ: Yes, and the chaplains went down with the Dorchester. I would love to talk to you privately at your convenience about this story because I’ve always felt that it was fascinating. Please contact me.

Ray (caller): Mr. Jones, I just would ask you to comment on two things. One, there was an enormous Army base that essentially vanished after the war, you know. Enormous place up there, where a lot of people were stationed.  

WJ: Camp Davis.

Ray (caller): Yeah, and that’s always intrigued me. And another thing, if you have comments on the importance of the shipyard here, they put out a lot of ships. I think that was the biggest contribution we made to the war. They put ships out in record time down there at the shipyard. Do you have any notes on that or anything?

WJ: Let’s go to the second question first because we were talking about the number of ships that were built here, 243 altogether. The submarines, they were bait for the potential sinking, and it was not unlikely that many of them were chased after they finished their shakedown crews and were commissioned and sent into service, and we even know that one of them was sunk not too far off the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

Camp Davis was literally dismantled after the war. The Army closed the base down in 1944. It was an anti-aircraft artillery training base, and they had an advanced training base down in Fort Fisher, and some remnants of Fort Fisher of World War II are still there, and they have a nice exhibit in the Fort Fisher museum. But if you go to Camp Davis today, all you’ll see is a metal pole marker, a historic marker. There are a few signs there. In fact, the last time I drove through Camp Davis was just a couple of months ago, and there are some structures, foundations still there, maybe a building or two. And you can see the company streets. The Marines from Camp Lejeune have taken over the air strip that was in use, but all the buildings were dismantled. They were sold. In fact, one of the chapels at Fort Fisher is now the Greenfield Lake Baptist Church, right off of Greenfield in that area.

CC: So it was moved?

WJ: Yes, and they were sold for a nickel and a dime because the military stayed there for a couple of years after the war, until it was finally just decommissioned.

Valgene (caller): My question is, I heard that there was a POW camp on the corner of 8th and Ann, and I was wondering if any of those prisoners stayed in the area or in the country after the war was over.

WJ: That’s an excellent question. We had three prisoner of war camps here, as a matter of fact. The one that you referred to between 8th and 10th on Ann Street, and what is now Robert Strange Park, directly across from Williston Middle School, which during the war was the black high school, Williston Industrial High School. So that was the main camp. The first camp was at the corner of Shipyard Boulevard and Carolina Beach Road, right behind where the CVS drug store is now. We have a historical marker there on that corner. They were all German prisoners. They were captured in Tunisia, in North Africa when the Afrika Corps surrendered in May of 1943. We got our share. They came here. We had about 550 Germans all together at the maximum in that camp at Robert Strange Park. There was a third camp, it was a detachment out at Wilmington Army Air Base. After the war, none of them stayed here, but several of them came back to Wilmington after the war, and a number of them stayed in touch with Wilmingtonians for whom they had worked because we had a labor shortage, and many of them were farmers, and they helped on the farms and the fertilizer factories in the area, and they stayed in touch with their Wilmington hosts.

CC: That’s fascinating to think about that bond between people, and something like that enduring even after the hostilities are over. That’s an interesting story.

Nancy (caller): I know we’re talking about World War II, but I’m just curious, I know next year will be the centennial of the U.S. entry into World War I, and I’m just wondering if your guest could speak to Wilmington’s involvement in World War I and if there are going to be any events planned next year.

WJ: Yes, and thank you for thinking of the centennial of World War I. We’ve already started activities, as a matter of fact. A couple of years ago, we put together a public and private team and moved New Hanover County’s only World War I memorial from in front of New Hanover High School down to the riverwalk, and I invite you to go down and see it. All these years, since the early 1920s, that memorial had been at New Hanover High School and no one even knew what it was, no one even stopped to look at it. In connection with the centennial, we moved it down to the riverwalk, where it is now very prominent.

As far as other activities, working with director Julie Wilsey of Wilmington ILM, we are going to update the displays in memorial to Arthur Bluethenthal, who was a Wilmington aviator for whom the airport eventually was named. He was the first Wilmingtonian killed during World War I. He was flying with the French Lafayette Flying Corps and was killed in 1918, and we’re going to do something special to commemorate him.

Bill (caller): Just a follow-up comment on the Camp Davis and some of the chapels that got scattered about. I’m a Presbyterian minister and serve at Potts Memorial Presbyterian Church in Penderlea, North Carolina that moved one of those chapels there, and the chapel is pretty much in its same original condition. You can see a couple numbers on the wall where they moved it board by board. And they also moved a barracks that they used as their fellowship hall, and it’s a capsule of time, the way its been preserved.

CC: Have you ever been to that one, Wilbur, at Penderlea?

WJ: No, I haven’t, but when I’m up there, I’ll stop in.

George (caller): I’ve been re-reading the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, I think in part based on current circumstances, and I’ve been struck by some amazing similarities, and I was wondering if your guest would comment on our current political environment, our candidates, and how he thinks they do or do not seem to mirror some of the social and political situations that preceded World War II.

CC: I don’t know that either Wilbur or us is an authority on current political matters. I don’t know that I want to touch that one.

WJ: Let’s stick to World War II and other things.

CC: You know, all of these things are kind of in the eye of the beholder.

WJ: That was nice of him to call. I’m glad he’s reading that book because it’s very informative and certainly he will learn a lot from it, but I would prefer to stick to World War II and military history.

CC: We did get a call from Ann. She was asking about the play that has been written, Margaret Rogers, is that the name? Something like that? But there’s a play that is being written about World War II and about Wilmington and World War II. And I know, Wilbur, you know a bit about that. Tell us a little bit about that.   

WJ: Margaret Rogers, dearly departed, was a wonderful friend of mine and was one of my cohorts in preserving history for a number of years. This play, and I’m glad that Ann called in. This year was the 75th anniversary of the Hannah Block Historic USO Community Arts Center at Second and Orange Street, downtown Wilmington. It’s also the 75th anniversary of the start of the USOs in the United States. Let me tell you what we’re going to do. We have an original musical play titled Mrs. World War II Wilmington: We Fell In Love at the USO. It is written and will be produced by Tony Stimac. Tony is a recent resident moved to Wilmington. He is a 40-year veteran of New York musical theatre—writing, directing, producing—and his script is about soldiers from Camp Davis who meet local women and the things that go on during the war and love triangles and so on, with the ending taking place over in London as they are deplored and getting ready to go into the European battlefields. So, we will have the opening night gala reception on Veteran’s Day, November 11. And for that production, we’ll have two productions on November 12th and a matinee on November 13th. So, y’all mark your calendars and come down to the USO for an original play!

CC: So it will be at the USO?

WJ: Yes, it will. There are a number of original scores that I’ve heard that were written for this play by New York songwriters. They’re fantastic, and we’re blending it in with some of the old favorites, contemporary songs such as In the Mood, Sentimental Journey, I’ll Be Seeing You.

CC: And we’re playing some of those today on our show.

Bob (caller): I went to the Hannah Block USO open house two weekends ago. It was very interesting. First time I’d been there since it had been redone. I was notified about it by the article in the paper, the Wilmington paper, the day before. It had a picture of Villefranche-sur-Mer, France. Wilbur, you had mentioned in it that you had been there. Were you based there in the military or was this a later visit?

WJ: Thank you, you got two of my favorite subjects in one. That picture of Villefranche-sur-Mer on the French Riviera was a photo I took in a four-week trip to France in May. After that, I wrote this piece for the Star News titled “French Cuisine, Wines, and Culture” about my experiences there. I first went to France in 1958. I go there regularly, and the Star News thought because I’ve written so many articles for them on military history and national defense, “Hey, why don’t you write a low-tech primer for the average American traveler going to France?” And I thought that would be tremendous. And we had a real good time, my traveling companion and I, in putting that together.

Bob (caller): I spent 22 months based in that port, 1965-1966, in the U.S. Navy. I was on the flagship with the Sixth Fleet.

WJ: That’s right. That was the home port of the Sixth Fleet.

Bill West (email): It’s good to hear that you’re still in the game, Wilbur. Thank you for your efforts to get Wilmington rightly recognized for World War II activities.

WJ: Bill West and I grew up together, and during World War II, we and other neighborhood kids fought all the battles on the home front here. We went through Forest Hills and New Hanover High School together. So Bill, thanks for checking in, and we miss you down here. Sorry you had to move.

CC: People who’ve been on Topsail Island see these structures, these concrete structures along there. Tell us about those. Those played a role in the war, did they not?

WJ: No, post-war. A couple of years after the war, the Navy began testing rocket propulsion and rocketry on Topsail Island and their missile program, and those towers, many of which are still there, were used for spotting and observation and other technicalities regarding the firing of rockets and missiles. In fact, their museum on Topsail Island is called Missiles and More Museum. If you’re ever in that area, drop in because it’s the best museum to Camp Davis of World War II that’s in existence.

CC: It’s just a strange thing to drive along the coast there and see these big concrete bunker-type things.

Wilbur, I know you’ve led tours of various places—battlefields and things like that—but you’ve also had a career on the civilian side of things and you were active in the White House under a couple of presidents. Can you talk about that?  

WJ: Yes, I’ve had a wonderful career in staff politics, which began in Los Angeles, took me to Washington, DC. I spent 28 years in Washington, not all of which was in politics. I had the pleasure of working my way up from being a precinct chairman in Los Angeles to working for two California Republican congressman, one of whom was Barry Goldwater Jr., Senator Goldwater’s son, who took me to Washington with him when he was elected, and I had a number of political staff positions in Washington and worked my way into the White House where I served for two years as an advance representative and assistant to President Gerald Ford, and it was obviously the most remarkable and rewarding part of my life. President Ford was the best boss I ever had. He was everything you’ve ever heard about him being a kind and congenial and very accommodating man, with the responsibility he had. It was also a twenty-hour per day, seven day per week job. I was particularly brought home here over the July 4th weekend because I advanced his trip to New York City on July 4th of 1976, which was our nation’s bicentennial.

CC: Oh, of course, the tall ships at New York Harbor.

WJ: The tall ships and the International Naval Review. I had him on a Navy ship out in New York Harbor, and it began to rain. He disappeared. The Secret Service and I and his body man could not find him. Eventually he showed up with the captain. He’d gone up to the captain’s cabin, talked to the crew, had a cup of coffee, came back down. I said, “Mr. President, where have you been? We lost you!” He said, “No harm, Wilbur. I was up having a cup of coffee with the captain.” We were quite relieved because I became the only advance man in the Ford White House who ever lost the president.

CC: At least they found him again.

WJ: I tell you, I could still feel the cold rain. I was freezing on the Air Force One coming home back to Washington, DC, because I have to hold the umbrella over the president. He stays dry, and I get wet.

Rusty (caller): I’m 69, spent my early years in Wilmington. When Dawson was a two-way street, I remember as a child, my dad and my uncle had us search the houses, look under the beds and the closets for German and Japanese soldiers. Before my mom and grandmother could go in, we had to clear the premises. Where did that fear come from? Was Wilmington that much at risk or what?

CC: Rusty, you’re talking about something that happened after the war or during the war?

Rusty (caller): Yeah, I was born just at the end of the war. I’m 69. That may have been a family thing, or—

CC: So that fear existed long after the war was over then.

Rusty (caller): Yeah, we had green shades from the windows, kind of a throwback to black outs and things like that, I think, that Wilmington experienced. I’m just wondering if it was founded. Did my family need some help then, or was there a great fear that gripped this city?

WJ: During World War II, there was a fear during the first two years of the war, that we could be attacked at any time, and I have very vivid memories of black outs and having to pull shades down and streetlights that were painted black at the top and air raid sirens going off and airplanes going off to attack submarines that may or may not be there. Yes, there was that fear because the government let us know the possibility of attack, and from 1944 on, it started to wane, and then as the war turned in our favor. But post-war, I don’t remember that in post-war because after the war ended, I mean, we were back to as normal as we could be.

CC: You know, that does bring to mind the fact that we’re probably much more aware of this today, there’s been a lot more publicity about the effects of what we now call PTSD. In World War I, I think they called it shell shock. I’m not sure what they called it in World War II. But there certainly were some people who had psychological effects long after the war was over, whether they were in combat or not, just the great fear that came about.

We had a comment from Darcel. She wanted to talk about the fact that the Greatest Generation, referring to the Americans who went to World War II either willingly or drafted, and she wanted to hear a discussion about why aren’t African Americans mentioned specifically? I guess Truman desegregated the military after World War II, or maybe in 1948 or something like that, according to Darcel, but there certainly were African American soldiers who were part of the war effort, were there not?  

WJ: Oh yes. Tuskegee Airmen, I’ve studied extensively, and the service that they provided as fighter pilots over in the European campaign. During World War II, the services were segregated, and the African Americans were utilized primarily in the rear echelon areas as cargo handlers and stevedores and clerical jobs. There were a couple of divisions, all black divisions, infantry divisions, and tank battalions that did see service, but the Tuskegee Airmen were the more famous ones. Here in Wilmington, we had Camp Davis soldiers, many of them were black, and they had their own club which was at 9th and Nixon Street, which now is the community Boys and Girls Club. The building itself is very similar to the Hannah Block Historic USO at Second and Orange Street. One thing I remember so much, and in doing my research for my books was that the best clubs in town were the black clubs. The black clubs attracted the Duke Ellingtons and Ella Fitzgeralds and that type of entertainment, and they wouldn’t come to the white clubs, and they didn’t play Lumina, and the clubs were segregated as well. But it was a whole different time then.

CC: But it’s important to recognize that contribution.

WJ: Yes.

CC: You lead tours of battlefields, Wilbur. I think I mentioned that you lead tours in Europe and France and other places like that, but you also lead tours around this area, I believe. What are some of the places you go on these tours?

WJ: In the Pacific, I’ve taken to a lot of the Pacific battlefields, but most of my attention in recent years has been in Europe: the Battle of the Bulge, Normandy, D-Day, the invasion of Southern France, Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, and so on. But locally, I lead about a three-and-a-half-hour tour of the World War II sites here. We go over to Fort Fisher and see the base there, we go see the prisoner of war camps, we go over to the shipyard, which is still important because many of the buildings are still in use by the state’s Ports Authority. We go to New Hanover High School to see the memorial to our two Medal of Honor recipients. I take them to a number of places like that. If anyone is interested in a tour like that, contact me.

CC: We got a comment from Nicole from Wilmington, who is a social worker dealing with mental health issues. We talked about the fact of PTSD, she said that in World War II it was sometimes called “combat fatigue” or “soldier’s heart.” Those are not terms I’m familiar with.

WJ: Combat fatigue was the accepted term.

Bob (caller): I heard you mention the shipyards. That was my comment. I guess they built the most amount of Liberty ships in World War II or a high amount, and just that relationship, or the houses in Sunset Park and the effect it had on the area.

WJ: Thanks for that added dimension of the shipyard impactparticularly the housing, the so-called temporary housing that went up to house the workers. Many of those developments are still in use today.

CC: Yeah, he mentioned Sunset Park.

WJ: Yeah, well, Sunset Park was part of the community, but he’s probably thinking about Maffitt Village and Greenfield Lake areas and also Hillcrest at Dawson and 15th, which is still in use today. They were built for black shipyard workers and noncommissioned officers.

CC: I just want to clarify, “soldier’s heart” is a term from the Civil War era.

Jana (caller): My question has to do with the women air force service pilots who were stationed at Camp Davis in World War II.  

WJ: Camp Davis was the first duty station for the WAFS after they finished their training at Sweetwater, Texas, and they were flying targets, pulling targets for anti-aircraft purposes for training.