When the army descended on Wilmington NC
Wilbur D. Jones Jr.
Without a doubt: World War II Wilmington was a military town.
Among the surge of military uniforms, none stood out like khaki.
And soldiers from one of its sources, Camp Davis, descended en masse over the weekend. Soldiers from Fort Fisher and Bluethenthal Field Army Air Base then piled up. A crowded madhouse. Their resource for indulging was in Wilmington to supply.
Neck to neck, they nearly requisitioned downtown streets, restaurants, cinemas, bars, USO facilities and beaches. (Not so sure about the churches, but the downtown main lines have opened up.) Long waits, long queues around the block.
Their common public face: young people. Noisy. Arrogant. The scammers. Crazy girl, embellished with the signature wolf whistle.
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The people of Wilmington wondered if the nearly deserted Davis could survive a German attack. Or worse, here, since they left their combat equipment there.
Of course, the outnumbered Camp Lejeune Marines and Navy and Coast Guard sailors added a force multiplier. Plus war workers, transients and vagrants. The population has grown, straining public facilities. Routine tracks moved slowly, including convoys of troops and materiel cluttering our limited and stressed roads.
Would Wilmington burst at the seams, sink or both?
Wait. Didn’t we know there was a war?
Of males and bodies
Wilmington, shocked by the culture, understood. Why hang around the camp and the booming little village of Holly Ridge where Highways 17 and 50 intersect, over an hour by bus north?
Whatever inconvenience the soldiers might cause, they brought us two much-loved commodities: money and bodies to socialize with our women. Wilmington reaped its share of each, obviously socializing, and the trade flourished. We settled in with hospitality, doors open and cash registers ringing.
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Mothers with sons in uniform prepared meals and brought in strangers they would never see again. And OKed teenage girls to this day. Everything for the war effort.
Mutual cooperation on Highway 17 flourished. The Davis newspaper acknowledged the good relations.
“The heart of Wilmington has repeatedly been found in the right place, a feeling of gratitude in everyone’s hearts and minds, ten years later. ” Ten? And indefinitely?
Actress Betty Grable, America’s “pinup queen,” visited Wilmington in 1943 before entertaining Davis. In July 1943, a Davis Army-wide musical performance at Thalian Hall, “Strictly GI,” raised $ 62,000 in war bonds. It would have surpassed the New York triumph of Irving Berlin’s blockbuster, “This is the Army”.
The War Bonds rallies featured camp displays of soldiers, vehicles, equipment, and weapons, including Germans, at the Front Street Post Office. A real tactile and tactile paradise for us boys and our next war games.
Guadalcanal and Front Street
With the five armed forces stationed here, pride, jealousy, alcohol or women inevitably sparked rivalries.
As battles raged in Guadalcanal, North Africa and Italy, versions of Wilmington erupted downtown. Fists, knives, broken beer bottles. Soldiers versus Marines or sailors, or “lazy” shipyard workers.
Limited accommodation affected Davis’ staff choosing to reside here, especially officers. The army has advised new arrivals to leave families unless they pre-organize adequate quarters. Car and bus traffic to and from Davis flooded both lanes of Highway 17.
Local authorities never fully balanced the supply of housing with demand, which also affected war workers. New social housing has helped.
Some owners have circumvented the agreements by renting unheated beach cabins to military couples during the cold months, evicting them for the summer. Note: Culturally, Wrightsville was officers’ beach, Carolina enlisted it.
Residents have rented rooms in their homes to military personnel and shipyards, easing shortages. Patriotic. For the war effort. But also for extra money.
While my sister Elizabeth was in college in 1941-43, my parents rented her room to officers from Davis. The cover of my book “A Sentimental Journey” shows our favorite, Lieutenant McGee.
The men of the armed forces in town, mainly officers, offered the prospect of confrontation of fate. (I haven’t heard much about locals marrying war workers. Not “country-club-worthy?”) Davis led the way.
My sister hooked her nearly 60-year-old future husband, a new lieutenant to Davis, through a USO referral from Second Street and Orange Street. Love at first sight, they proclaimed. Quick engagement, another wartime product.
In 1943, 350 officers and men of the British Royal Artillery visited Davis and Wilmington on their training tour. Locals greeted them for dinner, and the girls of eligible age went crazy, “delighted at their first sight of British Tommies,” StarNews tweeted. In return, the same goes for the Tommies.
In December, they left following another Front Street parade. From City Hall, British Ambassador Lord Halifax (“the great, playful, impeccably dressed diplomat”) praised the cooperation of the two nations.
Escaping the hangovers of the Depression and the news of the war, Wilmington followed Davis’ football team, the “Fighting AA’s” or “Blue Brigade”. Their 1942 record of 4-3-2 included games at Wilmington Legion Stadium against Appalachian State, Catawba and Presbyterian.
“Team members have volunteered to play the game knowing they will not receive any additional privileges,” officials said.
At 8-2-0, the 1943 team won the unofficial state military championship, with home victories over NC State, Wake Forest and Fort Bragg. The list of 45 players contained only four officers. Villanova All-America tackle John Mellus led the defense. Fullback Lt. Norm Standlee (Stanford, Chicago Bears) led the backfield.
‘Oh what a night’
Southeastern North Carolina provided a steady stream of dance partners for enlisted officers and social services at Davis, Lejeune and other bases. USO Wilmington artist Hannah Block has always kept “a stable of girls” with “social graces” (she says) ready to travel.
My neighbor Emma Mitchell remembered the commissioning ceremonies for officer candidates.
“They had us line up the girls on the balcony with the OCS candidates online below,” Mitchell said. Then they teamed up.
StarNews covered the 500 women at the Davis Gala in February 1944. “On the dance floors, the khaki uniforms and the bright colors of the loose evening dresses moved in rhythm. The soldiers and their guests crowded into the soda fountains. Buses were waiting for the girls in evening dresses to go home. The men dispersed to their barracks, and the gala affair ended.
“Oh, what a night it must have been.”
Davis’ final dance drew 1,000 people to Farnsworth Hall on October 21, 1944. The army subsequently closed the camp and khaki left town.
A native of Wilmington, military historian, author and retired sea captain, Wilbur Jones grew up here during World War II. He designed and led the 12-and-a-half-year national project designating Wilmington as America’s first World War II heritage city. See www.wilburjones.com.