Separated from the mainland until the 1940s and reachable only by those few locals who knew how to hop, skip and jump their way across the marsh during low tide, it’s easy to think there is little history on Topsail Island. But nothing could be farther from the truth.
Almost as abundant as its seafood, the history of Topsail Island is rich and flavorful. From pirates to missile launch tests, this remote island has been home to many in the last 50 years, some more colorful than others. One place, however, has information on them all – the Missiles and More Museum in Topsail Beach, home to the Historical Society of Topsail.
It was the US Army who first came to the beach. In less than six months during World War II, the government constructed Camp Davis at Holly Ridge on the mainland, bringing the modest community with a population of less than 50 to a max of 110,000 in just a few short years. Troops could conduct artillery training under the shroud of safety provided by the barren island. But the growth, and the Army’s presence, was short lived. By the end of the war, much of the base was dismantled and the troops were transferred. But the island’s potential was noted and it didn’t take long until the US Navy had the ideal use for the site.
Operation Bumblebee, a missile test project coordinated with the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, sealed Topsail’s name in the history books. Some 200 missiles were launched during the program, some of which are on display at the Missiles and More Museum. The Assembly Building, which houses the museum, was exactly what its name says – the place where the missiles were constructed. Other structures were built on the island as well, including roads, a pontoon bridge and observation towers. The control tower is located between the Assembly Building and the launch pad, now the patio for the Jolly Roger Motel. Searching for the remaining towers, four of which have been incorporated into home construction, can be a fun game for the family and a great way to get the kids interested in history.
Now protected by the Historical Society of Topsail, the Missiles and More Museum is on the National Register of Historic Places and has a great collection of artifacts and photos left from the Navy’s beach vacation. The site is open from 2-5pm, Monday through Saturday, May through September, with reduced shoulder season hours. Admission is free. For additional details, call 910-328-8663 or visit missilesandmoremuseum.org.
If the museum only whets your appetite for military history, a short drive south will take you right to the deck of the Battleship North Carolina, now a museum in its own right. Moored across the Cape Fear River from downtown Wilmington, the ship allows visitors to have a true feel for what seaman experienced aboard the ship. From the barber shop and dining hall to sleeping quarters and medical clinic, guests are allowed to mosey through the ship at their own pace, staying as long or as little as they like.
Commissioned on April 9, 1941, the battleship was the first of 10 to join the US fleet during World War II. At just over 728 feet in length, the ship was armed with nine 16-inch 5 caliber guns in three turret and 20 5-inch 8 caliber guns in 10 twin mounts. Through her career, the vessel was involved in nine shore bombardments and destroyed at least 2 enemy aircraft.
She was retired in 1947, however, when word spread through the state in 1958 that the battleship would be scrapped, a successful bid by the state’s residents helped save the ship and bring her to her home state.
The site was dedicated on April 29, 1962 as the state’s official memorial to World War II. Because of its memorial status, the ship is open for guests 365 days a year, however, hours vary depending on the season. Tickets are $14 for adults, 10 for seniors and military, $6 for children 6-11. In addition to self-guided tours, special events and behind-the-scenes tours are held throughout the year. To learn more, or to schedule a visit, call 910-251-5797 or visit www.battleshipnc.com.