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As we observe Pearl Harbor Day, we remember North Carolina’s role in World War II. Our state boasts a large military presence today, most of which developed during the war. None of our historical sagas, however, is more fascinating than that of Camp Davis, located in present-day Holly Ridge. After authorization in late 1940 and in anticipation for America’s entry into the war, construction began in December 1940 at perhaps the fastest pace of any major military installation in history.
47,000 acres were leased in 119 tracts of land from private owners and contracts totaling $16.8 million were let for construction. By April 1941, 32 miles of paved roads were constructed, 26 miles of sewer lines laid, 45 miles of electric power lines strung, 830 street lights installed and 978 buildings completed by some 13,000 workers; most grabbed a few hours of sleep in their cars, tents or on the ground, because there was no housing within miles of Holly Ridge. By May, there were 13,000 troops inhabiting the new camp, nicknamed “Boomtown.”At its peak, more than 100,000 were stationed at Camp Davis.
The camp was named after Maj. Gen. Richmond Pearson Davis, a Statesville native who graduated from West Point and, in WWI, commanded the 151st Field Artillery in France. Later, Davis was chief of artillery for the Ninth Corps.
The “overnight city” was laid out along the lines similar to those prescribed for Washington, D.C. More than 3,000 buildings were ultimately constructed at the main base, nearby Topsail Island and a satellite facility at Fort Fisher. It reportedly had the largest laundry and dry cleaners on one floor in the country, occupying one city block. There were nine chapels, each with an electric organ and capable of seating 350 people at a time. The hospital had 56 buildings attached to the main unit, capable of treating 2,000 patients with the latest X-ray machines and most modern laboratories and operating rooms found anywhere. There were five fire stations and 16 wells capable of delivering 2 million gallons of water per day. Two recreation halls and four theaters were scattered around the post. Buses made 30 round trips per day shuttling troops between Camp Davis and Wilmington, the nearest city of any size.
The use of airplanes in war was first initiated in World War I. To combat the bombs and strafing from the air, antiaircraft artillery was essential and Camp Davis was the first to test weaponry and train troops how to locate and shoot down enemy planes. The first carbon-arc spotlights, dubbed the “moonlight cavalry,” were employed at Camp Davis. Large radar antennas were constructed to detect enemy planes. At its peak, 1,800 second lieutenants graduated from the officer candidate school each month, the first such school in the nation.
After detection, 90-, 50- and 40-millimeter guns could achieve up to 90 degrees of elevation in order to shoot down planes. Targets were pulled behind planes for gunners to practice in combat-like situations. As fighter pilots were in such demand as the war ensued, Camp Davis was also the site where the first women pilots or WASPS were introduced and trained to pull the targets behind planes.
On Sept. 30, 1944 the roar of antiaircraft guns was silenced and training was suspended as the war was winding down. Boomtown became Ghost Town. The post was used as a separation center for troops returning from war. Some 700 buildings were declared surplus and either auctioned off or dismantled. Victory Village at UNC Chapel Hill used some of the buildings to house veterans returning for college on the GI Bill.
But in June of 1946, Camp Davis was reactivated for its final role. The Navy sent 500 people to the site for “Operation Bumblebee,” a project developing America’s rocket and missile capacity. Topsail Island would have become what we now know as Cape Canaveral except there wasn’t enough space to accommodate the testing and control centers needed. Even so, some 200 “flying stovepipe” rockets were fired from the site, tracked from the concrete bunkers built strategically on the island that were previously used to visualize the accuracy of antiaircraft guns. Some still exist. The ramjet engine, now the standard for air travel, was perfected at Camp Davis.
The buildings are gone now and all that remains are miles of paved streets and the isolated airstrip at the back of the property. The tracts were returned to the families from which they were conscripted and gates now prevent passersby from viewing what remains, a remarkable tribute to our nation’s ability to dream big dreams and achieve them in little time.
Sadly, it is gone from memory by all but a few still alive, but this fascinating story deserves remembering. There is a museum on Topsail Island and books that relive the story of this great legacy in North Carolina that was Camp Davis.
Author’s Note: The above was excerpted from a talk I prepared on Camp Davis back in 2000. I remain enthralled by the story and have many pictures and narratives of the men and women who served there.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina state treasurer and is creator/host of “N.C. Spin,” a weekly statewide television discussion that airs on the UNC-TV main channel Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. and on the UNC North Carolina Channel Fridays at 10 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 10 a.m. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.