Camp Davis/Burgaw/Fort Fisher
   In late December 1940, nearly one year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor catapulted the United States into World War II, construction began on a new military facility at the tiny village of Holly Ridge, about 30 miles northeast of Wilmington on U.S. Highway 17. Within five months, the new base — named Camp Davis — sprang to life, and its first military cadre arrived in April 1941. By August, the post was swarming with some 20,000 officers and men. Camp Davis, home to one of the U.S. Army's seven antiaircraft artillery training centers, was attached to the First Army, Fourth Corps Area.

Hell hole! The biggest joke we had going were "combat mosquitoes" that were at the airport. They pumped 50 gallons of gas in them before they found out it was a mosquito!

– Cpl. Theodore "Ted" Litwin
445th AAA Battalion

The only town we went to was Boom Town [Holly Ridge]. Boom, you're in; and Boom, you're out! That's how big it was!

– Pvt. Santo Orlando
599th AAA (AW) Battalion, (C Battery)

   For a brief period, Camp Davis enjoyed the distinction of having all three of the principal elements of coastal artillery under one command: antiaircraft, seacoast defense, and barrage balloon training. Davis was also unique in that its firing ranges were not located on the main reservation. Instead, the facility employed five remote training sites for antiaircraft gunnery and automatic weapons practice. These ranges were dispersed along the state's southern coast at Sears Point, New Topsail Inlet, Maple Hill, Holly Shelter, and Fort Fisher.

   "Seeking isolation from interference to insure uninterrupted training," asserted Col. Adam E. Potts, "the camp proper is located in the great Holly Shelter pocosin whose massive silence is now broken by the din of ack-ack, while the shores near Sears Landing echo the cannonade of larger calibers. Nor is this the first time that the noise of war has broken the peace of these lowlands, still haunted by the memories of Indians and pirates, slavers and Spanish marauders, Regulators and Taxmasters, Green and Cornwallis, and climaxed by the greatest naval bombardment in the world's history at Fort Fisher. Now a new chapter is written here, as men bivouac on these same trails to prepare for global service."

   As the reservation expanded, the Fort Fisher site — located 50 miles south of the main base — became the primary firing range for Camp Davis. And as Fisher's importance grew, so did its facilities.

   Original specifications called for a host of features that would make the remote firing range a self-contained post. These included 48 frame buildings, 316 tent frames, showers and latrines, mess halls, warehouses, radio and meteorological stations, a post exchange, photo lab, recreation hall, outdoor theater, guardhouse, infirmary, and an administration building. In addition to these facilities, the site featured a 10,000-gallon water storage tank, a motor pool, a large parade ground, and three steel observation towers along the beach.

   The main highway in the area, U.S. 421, bisected the sandy ruins of the land front of historic Fort Fisher. New firing installations were erected along the beach, between the highway and the Atlantic Ocean — not unlike Fisher's oceanside batteries during the Civil War. These included, among others, batteries of 40-millimeter automatic cannons and 50-caliber machine guns. In addition, the site's utilities, living quarters, and other features sprang up west of the shore installations, between the highway and the Cape Fear River. The area surrounding the old Civil War fort was soon dotted with the trappings of a modern military facility, and expansion would continue throughout its tenure as a firing range.

   At an isolated sector on Federal Point, an antimechanized target range was constructed in the summer of 1942. Here, antiaircraft gunners at Fort Fisher received versatility training and learned to be effective against tanks and other armored vehicles of modern warfare. Ammunition bunkers were also dug along the highway north of Battery Buchanan — the massive four-gun bastion below Fort Fisher that had commanded New Inlet during the Civil War. Buchanan's remains were damaged as a result of military construction.

   The crowning addition to these improvements was the construction of a large airstrip at Fort Fisher — an endeavor that destroyed a sizable portion of the once-formidable "land front" of the 80-year-old bastion. In these unstable times, national defense took precedence over historic preservation. Nevertheless, most of the new trainees were aware of the area's significance, and Camp Davis's post literature highlighted Fisher's historic past.

   By the time antiaircraft training operations ceased at Fort Fisher in 1944, the facility had grown to include an 80-seat cafeteria, a 350-bed hospital and dental clinic, and covered an area of several hundred acres. The post had become an integral site for activities associated with Camp Davis's Antiaircraft Artillery Training Center, and additional units from other ground forces also saw duty here. This important auxiliary post of Camp Davis was maintained by the Army Service Forces (ASF) through the Fourth Service Command, and the necessary complement of ASF personnel and equipment were stationed at Fisher.

   Training at the Fort Fisher range began in October 1941. "As of yore, when the most powerful guns of the day were blasting away at Fort Fisher," noted one of the camp's brochures, "the famed Strato-gun of AA is now blasting at targets from the same ground." Almost eight decades earlier, African-American troops had served on Federal Point as part of the Union expeditionary force sent to capture Fort Fisher. With the arrival of the 54th Coast Artillery in 1941, black soldiers were once again in the area for military service — along the very sand mounds and beaches that once marked the Confederate stronghold. The 54th — the army's only black 155-millimeter antiaircraft artillery unit — brought 24 "one-five-fives" to Fort Fisher for their two-month training session. The unit also trained with other weapons, including machine guns.

   That December, news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, shook the nation to its core. On the day following the December 7 catastrophe, with overwhelming support from Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, forcing Roosevelt to end America's official neutrality on the war then raging in Europe.

   As the nation prepared for war, Camp Davis bustled with activity, and training at its remote firing ranges escalated. As more emphasis was placed on antiaircraft artillery training, the barrage balloon school was transferred to a post in Tennessee.

   The training schedule was vigorous — six days a week — and the air over coastal North Carolina was loud with military activity. Planes towing target sleeves on long cables roared back and forth above the beaches of Fort Fisher and Camp Davis's other firing ranges, while antiaircraft gunners below pumped streams of shells at the soaring targets.

   Two towing squadrons and a base squadron were stationed at Camp Davis Army Airfield. These aircraft flew thousands of miles each week — both day and night — in missions along the coast. At night the planes gave the searchlight battalions — the "Moonlight Cavalry" — practice in picking up enemy raiders in the darkness. One such battalion attached to Camp Davis was the 225th AAA Searchlight Battalion (Semi-mobile), which trained for a short period at Burgaw (40 miles west of the main base) before departing for duty overseas.

You have searchlight-aided night firing, so you could pick out the sleeves, and tracers arch out over the ocean. It was sort of a beautiful sight. In fact, I got married while I was home on furlough. My wife came down and lived at Carolina Beach for several months, just before we were alerted for shipment overseas ... Now they could sit down on Carolina Beach and watch the 40s and 50s being shot out over the ocean. It was a really beautiful sight.

– Staff Sgt. Herman Ledger
599th AAA (AW) Battalion, (C Battery)

   As training intensified at Fort Fisher, many of Camp Davis's visitors ventured to the sandy post to observe the reservation's primary firing point. The year 1943 proved to be its busiest, and included a visit from a British antiaircraft battery that arrived to conduct exercises with American gunners.

   The nation's war effort was in full swing, and 1943 brought a significant change in the use of its resources. The army needed more pilots, and thanks to the strong-willed efforts of pilot Jacqueline Cochran, it now had a group of talented women to serve in national defense. The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) arrived at Camp Davis on July 24, 1943 — in their first assignment beyond ferrying duty. On August 1, the WASPs were put to work piloting A-24s and A-25s, and took on the duty of towing targets for Camp Davis's antiaircraft artillery training. In addition to target duty (both day and night), the women stationed at Davis flew radar deception and tracking missions. The WASPs went on to fly missions from a number of bases across the United States.

   By the time the range closed in 1944, at least 43 different antiaircraft battalions, coast artillery regiments, and engineer, signal corps, ordnance, and air warning units had trained at Fort Fisher.

And we trained . . . I get a kick out of this . . . we trained the 82nd Airborne . . . on their heavy weapons. And heavy weapons to them was 50 caliber machine guns. What a bunch that was! I could write two books about them guys.

– Cpl. Theodore "Ted" Litwin
445th AAA Battalion

   The harsh conditions on Federal Point had not changed in the long years since the Civil War, and trainees and other personnel were forced to coexist with the ubiquitous sand and mosquitoes — the same problems faced by Fisher's original garrison. It was "a forlorn spit of sand and scrub growth pinched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River," asserted a member of the 558th AAA Battalion, "a quagmire of sand, sand, and more sand. It was strictly a no-nonsense place designed to put grit and fire in the bowels and brains of its trainees." In the summer months, however, the beach atmosphere and constant ocean breezes appealed to many of the troops at the sandy post. For some, the surroundings inspired a festive attitude. Indeed, one veteran remembered that his entire battalion — the 535th — was once reprimanded and denied weekend leave due to sloppiness and lack of discipline.

We had a lot of fun on that beach! I hear today it's all eroded.

– Pvt. Santo Orlando
599th AAA (AW) Battalion, (C Battery)

   Fort Fisher lacked the elaborate recreational facilities found at Camp Davis, but by the spring of 1943 it boasted a full schedule of activities. In August, the new post theater opened with a screening of Stormy Weather, starring Lena Horne. There were also plays and musical variety shows, most of which were performed by the soldiers themselves. Professional performances, sponsored by the United Services Organization (USO) were an added treat, and were often joined by "home-grown" talent, including the Fort Fisher Swing Band and other groups.

   Many of the post's trainees were from interior regions of the United States, and had never before seen a beach — let alone tried to live near one. The adjustment was difficult, and more than a few soldiers balked at the notion of dining on fried clams and oysters. To acclimate the men to their new environment, the post offered swimming lessons, advice on how to avoid sunburn, and beach safety instructions.

   Sports were also popular at Fisher, and went a long way toward boosting morale. The trainees enjoyed games of volleyball, horseshoes, and golf; but boxing was by far the most popular. Throngs of spectators gathered for the matches, held indoors or outdoors according to the season. The fervor reached its peak in January 1944, when boxing champ Joe Louis arrived for a visit.

   The soldiers also enjoyed the Fort Fisher station because of its proximity to Wilmington, and recreational opportunities at nearby Carolina Beach. The war transformed Wilmington into a boomtown — its population soared and its businesses flourished. And not surprisingly, the bustle of wartime activity and throngs of military men conspired to erode existing moral restrictions. Agnes Meyer, a Washington Post correspondent on assignment in Wilmington in April 1943, complained that "the state of things" in Wilmington "is pathetic if not indecent ... I would not be a worker in Wilmington if you gave me the whole city."

   Camp Davis and its satellite ranges closed in October 1944 — with nearly one full year of war yet to be waged in both theaters of conflict. In summarizing the post's accomplishments, the Coast Artillery Journal asserted that Camp Davis would "live in every shot fired at Axis planes; in high morale and combat efficiency ... and forever will live in the hearts of all World War II antiaircraft artillerymen."

Source: Fort Fisher World War II Files, Research Branch, North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh.

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