WWII Comes to the Fort
ON DECEMBER 21, 1941 THINGS STARTED TO CRANK UP…
(published in the Fall ’95 Ramparts)
by Paul Branch, Fort Macon Ranger/Historian
When the federal government gave Fort Macon to North Carolina in 1924, probably few people believed that it would ever be necessary to use the fort for war again. However, because of the importance of the Beaufort-Morehead City Harbor and the strategic location of the old fort in relation to the harbor, it indeed became necessary to occupy it once more as the United States was thrust into World War II in December 1941.
Although the United States was separated from its enemies by hundreds of miles of ocean, the threat of coastal raids was entirely real. Germany possessed not only a fleet of submarines, but also a formidable surface navy, both capable of the long-range operations necessary to bring the war right to our own beaches and harbors. Within easy range of a submarine deck gun or a warship just offshore was the State Port Terminal at Morehead City, a Navy Section Base on the west side of Morehead City, and a soon-to-be established anchorage for local ship convoys in the area between Cape Lookout and Beaufort Inlet. These items of local strategic importance required protection from the possibility of coastal raids and nuisance attacks.
For this reason, Army officers from the 3rd Coast Artillery District, Fort Monroe, Virginia, contacted state officials in Raleigh on Dec. 17,1941, and told them that it would be necessary to occupy Fort Macon for military defense.
It took a few days to sink in that a 100- year-old brick fort would be once more used for coastal defense. The state division of parks had to close down and turn over a fully functioning park, with all its buildings and facilities, to the federal government. Also, an agreement had to be adopted for the fort’s protection as well as provisions that the fort be returned to the state once the emergency had ended.
On December 21, 1941 a steady stream of noisy, dusty, olive-colored Army vehicles crammed with men, supplies and equipment, moved past the park and headed down to the fort and the Coast Guard Station. Elements of the 244th Coast Artillery had arrived from Camp Pendleton, Virginia, to occupy the fort.
Intense activity highlighted the next several days. More soldiers and vehicles arrived, defensive areas established, cooking areas and sanitary facilities set up inside and outside the fort. Most of the park buildings were taken over for Army use.
The battalion consisted of an administrative headquarters battery and two gun batteries (A and B). When at full strength, each battery numbered about 180 men. The whole battalion, with headquarters staff and support services included, numbered about 500 to 600 men.
The power punch of Batteries A and B were four Ml9l8 155-millimeter (6.1- inch) guns each. These were mobile weapons towed into position by tractors and capable of shooting their 96-pound projectiles nearly 11 miles.
The defense complex set up by the battalion was known officially as Harbor Defenses of Beaufort Inlet. Battalion headquarters were established in the Coast Guard Station next to the fort upon arrival, and headquarters also moved inside the fort.
Battery B moved its four guns into position in the sand dunes on the ocean side just down from the fort and behind the present park office. Gun positions were hollowed out between dunes, fortified with sand bags and partially concealed with camouflage netting. Ammunition magazines were established in the rear, and 30-calibre machine gun emplacements guarded the flanks of the position.
Two 60-inch diameter search-lights on wood platforms were established past the park bathhouse area, and two base end stations, (60-foot steel observation towers supported by guy wires), were placed 3,000 yards apart on opposite sides of the inlet. These latter were used to obtain sightings on targets for the guns.
Battery A took a similar position in the sand dunes about two miles west of Atlantic Beach, beyond the present-day Holiday lnn.
While these operational activities were taking place in and around Ft. Macon, the State of North Carolina officially turned Fort Macon State Park over to the United States on January 1, 1942, through a written lease arrangement subject to renewal after 6 months and annually thereafter.
This lease called for the Army to make no permanent damage to the fort, public facilities or vegetation, and specified that at the termination of the war emergency, the fort and park would be returned to the state.
In August the First Battalion of the 244th Coast Artillery at Fort Macon received orders to ship out overseas and left from Morehead City by rail in the second week of that month. As the battalion was leaving, advance elements of its replacement unit, the 54th Coast Artillery began to arrive at Morehead City. This new battalion consisted of white officers and black enlisted men.
Unfortunately, these were times when black equality had not yet been accepted and when local white residents found out about the racial status of the new battalion, they protested to the Army. The result was that the new battalion was rerouted to another duty station before it had even fully arrived here. In its place came another white battalion of coast artillery.
The new replacement unit was the Fourth Battalion, 2nd Coast Artillery. Similar in organization to its predecessor, its headquarters battery occupied the fort. Battery K was the gun position in front of the fort, and Battery H was the defense at Cape Lookout.
By the summer of 1942, the harbor defense had become somewhat more sophisticated. The four 155mm guns in front of the fort were replaced by two six-inch fixed mount Navy guns installed on two 30-foot diameter concrete pads. Just behind them, a concrete observation bunker with a plotting room was built on a sand dune near the present park office. Remains of this bunker still stand on the dune, easily visible from the beach near the rock jetty at Fort Macon State Park.
A few Army boats docked at the Coast Guard station and worked with Navy sub-chasers and Coast Guard cutters which docked at the Navy section base, then located at Camp Glenn.
Other improvements made during the rest of l942 and into 1943 included a wooden command post tower built on top of the fort, manned by Army and Navy personnel, and wooden barracks and maintenance buildings north of the fort and west of the present park office. The new buildings meant that soldiers could at last have a bit of comfort and stop eating out of mess kits. The opening of a new mess hall was a major event on the post, with the soldiers being served their first, and last, steak dinner during their stay at Fort Macon.
In the Spring of 1944, First Battalion, 246th Coast Artillery replaced the 2nd Coast Artillery at Fort Macon and Cape Lookout, manning the defenses until both were deactivated by the Army in November, 1944.
The Army remained in possession of Fort Macon State Park through 1945 and most of 1946, removing barracks buildings, weapons, searchlights and other installations before turning it back to the state. The fort was never quite the same after Army use, and the state sought compensation for the damages which had inevitably occurred after three years of occupation.
In the end, the U.S. Government’s lease on Fort Macon State park terminated at midnight, October 1, 1946, and the park reverted to state control. As compensation for damages, the state was paid the sum of $11,450, and allowed to keep a number of miscellaneous items such as pumps, motors, a sewage system and a concrete dock at the Coast Guard station that the goverment was willing to leave behind.
Thus, Fort Macon had been through yet another war, and it is sincerely hoped that World War ll will be its last.