North Carolina's best kept military secret

Published May 30, 2014

By Tom Campbell

by Tom Campbell, Executive Producer and Moderator, NC SPIN, May 29, 2014.

Memorial Day is the time for remembrances but unless you were around at the time or a student of history you will neither remember nor know one of North Carolina’s best kept and most fascinating military secrets: the story of Camp Davis, built practically overnight in the woods of Onslow County, then almost as quickly abandoned and dismantled.

With World War II imminent, in December 1940, the U.S. Government awarded $16.8 million in contracts for building one of the first military installations in preparation for that war. By February 1941, some 21,000 civilian employees were hard at work on the thousands of acres of leased land and about 90 days later, in April, the first contingent of troops arrived.

Modern warfare had taken to the air and heavy-duty artillery was needed to shoot down enemy bombers. Camp Davis’ main function was to train anti-aircraft artillery units. It was named for Major General Richmond Pearson Davis, a North Carolina native who had commanded an anti-aircraft brigade in World War I.

When completed, Camp Davis contained more than 3,000 buildings along 30 miles of paved roads, including an 800 patient hospital, four movie theatres, many chapels, gymnasiums and the world’s largest wooden laundry facility for the more than 25,000 troops stationed there. A fleet of buses made as many as 50 trips per day to and from Wilmington for troop recreation and relaxation.

Two 5,000-foot runways were constructed and Camp Davis was the birthplace of the WASPs, Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. Male pilots were needed to fly missions overseas so women aviators were trained to fly the planes dragging drones for anti-aircraft target practice. As victory became obvious the base was decommissioned, serving as a redistribution and convalescent center until July 1945. Buildings were sold, moved or demolished. It is said that “Victory Village” at UNC Chapel Hill, used some of them to house married GI’s attending college on the GI Bill after the war.

But this fascinating story doesn’t end here. In June 1946, the post was turned over to the Navy for “Operation Bumblebee,” the secret guided-missile ramjet rocket tests launched from nearby Topsail Island. Local lore has it that Onslow County might have become the current Cape Canaveral or Kennedy Space Center had more land been available for firing and tracking these rockets. Several of the concrete block bunkers used for observation posts and firing remain today and The Missiles and More Museum on the island tells more of the story.

Two brick columns today are the only reminders of what was once the main entrance to Camp Davis on Highway 17 at Holly Ridge. The paved roads, fire hydrants and some building foundations still remain but the site is now blocked to traffic.

Many thousands of young men and women trained at Camp Davis and were deployed from the sandy spits of Onslow. While their post is but a memory many chronicled their time here and their stories can be found online. Camp Davis remains a testament to both how quickly we can respond and to the spirit of those willing to serve on our behalf. It is a story worth remembering.