World War I had been – at least for the United States – a brief war, and its impact on the southern banks was comparatively small and brief. But World War II was a different matter entirely.
By late 1939, military recruiting stations were opening across the state, and after the Selective Service Act was passed in September 1940, Governor Clyde R. Hoey declared that “America is now thoroughly aroused and patriotically united.” In May 1941, President Roosevelt proclaimed an “unlimited emergency,” and German and Italian consulates were soon closed as the U.S. committed to aiding Great Britain. In September, more than 400,000 men participated in unprecedented military exercises across the middle of the two Carolinas.64
After Pearl Harbor, all efforts were directed toward the war. The mild southern climate, relatively low land costs, and low population density argued (as did powerful southern legislators) for establishing military bases in southern states, and nearly twenty were sited in North Carolina – a number of them close to the Outer Banks.
World War I era Fort Bragg became the largest artillery post in the world; more than 100,000 troops eventually trained on its 122,000 acres.65 Both Camp Lejeune and the Marine Air Station at Cherry Point opened in 1942 – the latter partly because long stretches of beach offered excellent opportunities for simulated landings. More than 60,000 men got their training at Camp Davis in Onslow and Pender counties, which came to serve as temporary home to more than 100,000 artillery trainees. Camp Mackall, adjacent to Fort Bragg trained glider pilots, and New Hanover County’s Blumenthal Field became a base for coastal patrol bombers and fighter training. Elizabeth City’s Coast Guard Air Station (1940) provided coastal and antisubmarine patrols (though vastly insufficient ones, as it turned out); Weeksville Naval Air Station (1942) was a blimp base for the same purposes; Seymour Johnson Air Base was near Goldsboro. By war’s end, more than two million troops had trained at more than one hundred facilities in the state.66 [ILLUSTRATION: WWII military installations EncycNC p1232. CAPTION: Fig. 7-4: World War II Military Installations in North Carolina. Powell, Encyclopedia of North Carolina, 1232. Map by Mark Anderson Moore. North Carolina Office of Archives and History.]
North Carolina’s war production efforts were extraordinary, even in the context of such extensive national commitment. The war production boom began in late 1940, and some $2 billion in Federal funds flowed into the state. Following the governor’s wartime slogan (“No idle labor, no idle land, no idle machines”), some factories built rockets, bombs, and radar equipment; others turned out airplane assemblies. Submarine chasers came down the ways at Elizabeth City, and mine sweepers at New Bern. Wilmington’s shipyards turned out large numbers of vessels, including the first Liberty Ship, launched the day before Pearl Harbor. The North Carolina mountains offered new sources for critical minerals no longer available from abroad, including half of the nation’s mica. Forest and agricultural production went up dramatically; to lessen the labor shortage, some POWs were put to picking cotton and harvesting peanuts.67 North Carolina delivered more textile goods to the effort than any other state, and the Ethyl-Dow plant at Kure Beach manufactured all the tetra-ethyl lead used in the war.68
The production boom had a positive economic effect as Federal funds flowed, builders bought supplies and paid workers, and troops and their families bought goods and services. The downside, however, that it was difficult to provide housing, food, equipment and supplies, and entertainment for so many troops so quickly, and vice (including gambling and prostitution) and social costs (e.g., divorce) mounted. Additional stresses issued from the rationing of sugar, shoes, coffee, meat, cigarettes, tires, and other essential goods.69
An early sign that the Outer Banks were going to be a site of major military activity was that large numbers of ships were sunk by German submarines off the North Carolina coast during the first half of 1942, beginning with the Alan Jackson on January 18.70 Efforts were made to keep news of the carnage from the public, but as 287 men died in sinkings off Hatteras alone (giving the area the name “Torpedo Junction”), burning oil slicks could be seen offshore, bodies washed up on beaches, and strict blackouts within twenty miles of the coast emphasized the danger, there was no hope of keeping the danger secret.71 Ocracoke Navy man Jim Baum died when the Caribsea was torpedoed; his framed license washed up on the beach.72
Until the U.S. belatedly learned how to mount adequate defenses (finally adopting in May 1942 the convoy system that the British had been using since World War I) and the carnage decreased, it had been, as Cheatham aptly termed it years later, “the Atlantic turkey shoot.” Surfacing offshore after sunset, as Cheatham describes it,
the U-boat commanders could see—through binoculars – people walking around porches of homes close to the water. They saw sleepy little fishing villages and rsort towns with lights blazing. Even the buoys and lighthouses were in full operation, as well as radio stations to provide navigation assistance.73
There was . . . no evidence that the Americans were switching over to wartime conditions. . . . [Ship captains] chatted . . . over [the radio] and . . . the coastal defense stations sent out . . . details of rescue work in progress, of where and when aircraft would be patrolling and the schedules of anti-submarine vessels.74
With regard to the southern banks, the war had a number of related impacts. Barbara Garrity-Blake notes, for example, that the opening of the Cherry Point Navy Air Station offered jobs with steady pay and benefits to Harkers Island residents.75
The war brought numerous changes to the Core Banks. Cape Lookout Bight became a shelter for convoys going to Europe, and troops from the 193rd Field Artillery were assigned to defend it, now protected by a submarine net. Emplacements for heavy guns followed soon. The Portsmouth Coast Guard Station was reactivated and coast watch personnel stationed at Core Banks and Cape Lookout stations as well. More than 400 acres near the Cape Lookout Coast Guard station were appropriated for wartime purposes. Local lore has it that the “Coca-Cola house” in Cape Lookout village was the scene of Saturday night dances for troops.76
At war’s end, the southern banks slowly returned more or less to their pre-war state. Military personnel departed, and most of the Cape Lookout property they had used passed back to Coast Guard control.77 The buildings that comprised the military base were dismantled for salvage.78 On top of a sand dune along the main road that once served the military camp in Cape Lookout Village, the remains of a machinegun nest stood a half-century later as a silent reminder of the 360,000 North Carolina troops who had served in the war, and of the thousands who lost their lives.79