Yankees Reoccupy the Fort
(published in the Fall ’95 Ramparts)
by Paul Branch, Fort Macon Ranger/Historian
DECEMBER 19, 1941, seemed like any other winter day to Mrs. Virginia B. Humphrey, the caretaker of Fort Macon State Park, until a knock came at her door.
Upon opening it, she found four Army officers standing on the doorstep, dressed smartly in their “pinks and greens” dress uniforms.
One of them stepped forward and introduced himself as Lt. Col. Henry G. Fowler, of the 244th Coast Artillery Regiment. He and his companions had come down from Camp Pendleton in Virginia Beach, he explained, for the purpose of making a preliminary reconnaissance of the Morehead City area and Fort Macon State Park.
It was the Army’s intention to occupy Fort Macon again for military purposes in the war emergency and they were there to select sites for artillery in the park as well as establish quarters for troops.
Mrs. Humphrey must have been taken aback. Fort Macon had been a state park for more than 17 years since 1924, and for the 2l years prior to that date, it had been obsolete. But here it was not two weeks since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, with the official entrance of the United States into World War 11 made the following day, and the Army was back in need of the old 19th century fort once again.
She was told that the need of guarding the state port, the new U.S. Navy Section Base begun in Morehead City the previous month, and the shipping off shore, made the occupation of the park a necessity.
Lt. Col. Fowler concluded his reconnaissance of the park and returned to Fort Monroe, Va. to report to Brig. Gen. Rollin L. Tilton, commandcr of the Chesapeake Bay Sector. After receiving Col. Fowler’s report, Gen. Tilton lost no time. Movement orders were issued to First Battalion, 244th Coast Artillery, to proceed to Morehead City to occupy Fort Macon State Park and Bogue Banks for local defense.
The Army had to make some modifications to the fort. These included running in phone lines and electrical power, stuccoing rain leaks in the casemates and outfitting them with wooden floors.
Other repairs included installation of a drainage system and removing the big entrance doors in the sally port.
Tragically, some irreplaceable items of the fort were destroyed during this work. The fort’s original zinc gutter pipes were torn out of the parade ground walls and replaced with terra cotta pipes. Two ovens in the fort, one of them an enormous brick Dutch oven that had been used from the earliest days of the fort’s existence to bake bread for the garrison soldiers, were callously demolished and removed to make storage space, despite repeated pleas from the state that they be saved.
The First Batallion, 244th Coast Artillery numbered more than 500 men and consisted of an administrative Headquarters Battery and two gun batteries (A and B) that were armed with four 155mm guns each. When the movement orders came on Dec. 20, the battalion packed up all its gear except for the eight big 155’s and the tractors that pullcd them. They would have to come by rail. Once ready, the battalion then headed off on an all-night ride in a military truck convoy and on the morning of December 21 came chugging into the Morehead City area. It turned off at 28th Street to the Atlantic Beach Bridge and crossed over to Bogue Banks. At the intersection of the causeway and the Fort Macon Road, part of the convoy, Battery A, turned right to establish a camp in the sands dunes two miles west of Atlantic Beach. Headquarters and Battery B turned left and proceeded three miles until the road suddenly ended at a parking lot at Beaufort Inlet. The trucks pulled to a stop one by one and someone shouted, “We’re here!” Here? There was little to be seen. The men started climbing out of the trucks and some began strolling around through the dunes. At last,someone stumbled onto the old fort itself nestled down unseen in the brush-covered hill. The fort and surrounding area would be their home for the next nine months.
Troops occupying the fort constituted the First Battalion, 244th Coast Artillery, which was formerly a New York National Guard unit. These were typical young men from the boroughs of New York City with accents that must have seemed as out of place to Carteret County citizens as the local brogue must have sounded to them. And the varied spectrum of unusual names of these men must have been a curiosity to the local folks, as such names like Urbanski, Sczyerek, Chjonacki and Comacchio, which reflected their Russian, Italian and Polish descent.
The area took on a different tone when the battalion’s 155mm guns arrived by rail within a couple of days. Lt. Joseph D. Sebes, of Battery B, recalled that they were unloaded off the train at the Port terminal and pulled through Morehead City by their tractors. Because of their weight, however, they had to be taken across the creaky Atlantic Beach Bridge one at a time. Battery A’s four guns were set up in sandbag beach emplacements west of Atlantic Beach. Battery B’s four guns were similarly placed among the sand dunes a short distance southwest of Fort Macon. Live ammunition was brought up from the Ordinance Depot at Charleston, S.C., and the guns were test fired and operational on Dec.24.
It was at this time an unusual incident took place. Just after arriving at Fort Macon and setting up quarters in the fort, a fire was built by some of the men in the fireplace of one of the rooms. However, someone found a couple of old Civil War cannonballs, which had been recovered around the fort, and unthinkingly placed them in the fireplace to serve as andirons. One of the cannonballs was a live shell, which quickly exploded in the fire In a room full of soldiers. Pvt. George Eastep remembered the blast went over him as he lay on his cot,but caught his bedding on fire. Shrapnel rattled against the opposite wall. One man was blown through a doorway into the adjoining room. By some miracle no one was killed. A couple of men had minor injuries but Pvt. Harry Chait had burns that required him to be hospitalized briefly. The entire incident, which was later mentioned in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” newspaper column has been remembered ever since as the “last shot of the Civil War,” because the 244th Coast Artillery originally was the Ninth New York National Guard and its men were “Northerners.” That included Pvt. Chait, injured by an old Confederate cannonball.
Every night detachments of soldiers had to patrol the entire length of the beach to look for enemy landing parties or raiders. One night a rowboat with two men came ashore. The soldiers questioned them and decided they might be enemies because of their broken English with a foreign-sounding accent. The two men were taken in for questioning but proved to be only local fishermen. The “foreign sounding” down east accent was just as unfamiliar to the soldiers as the New York-New Jersey accents of the soldiers were to the fishermen.
Once the defenses were established, life now settled down to the monotony of garrison duty. Men living in the fort perhaps fared better than the others, because the fort’s casemates provided some shelter from the weather. Although these men had metal cots and iron heat stoves, life in the fort was far from ideal.
The casemates were damp. Rats and mice were ever-present. It took awhile before civilian laborers were able to fit all the casemates with wooden floors and temporary windows to shut out the icy winter winds.
The layout of the fort was established so that headquarters offices, plotting room and infirmary occupied the three eastern wings, and the soldiers’ quarters took up the two western wings. A post canteen and guardhouse were established in the two casemates leading off the sally port.
The soldiers of Battery B, in front of the fort, lived in tents west of the present park office. For all the soldiers, whether inside or outside of the fort, field conditions prevailed. Food was prepared from portable field kitchens, and soldiers ate out of their mess kits. Drinking water came from Lister bags with spigots. Sanitary facilities were in the form of large metal cans as latrines. Of course, mosquito netting was a must for sleeping, and protective headgear was similarly required for those soldiers sent out each night to patrol the beaches.
Although soldiers remained on a constant semi-alert status,there was much free time for swimming, fishing, reading and other pastimes. This lifestyle was not unlike that of other soldiers who had served at Fort Macon from the earliest times. However, these soldiers usually had to stay on the reservation.
Enlisted men found passes to leave the reservation difficult to obtain, and even if they could get them, they were not usually allowed to leave the island. Consequently, the few amusements offered at that time by Atlantic Beach were about all a soldier could expect to find. Alfred Cooper’s Idle-Hour bowling alley, the old Pavilion and the Money Isle Cafe were favorite haunts of soldiers lucky enough to get a pass.
Officers, of course, had more freedom. Later, as the immediacy of the war subsided, married personnel were sometimes granted authorization to obtain living quarters with their families off the reservation. Throughout all of this, many of the soldiers liked what they found in Carteret County, taking local girls as wives and returning to the area after the war.
The men of the 244th Coast Artilery were to occupy Fort Macon for nine months before being sent overseas and replaced by other units. In the months after their initial arrival at the fort in December 1941, things gradually improved for them. Barracks buildings, mess hall, latrines and other buildings were built outside the fort and in the sand dunes near the gun positions.
To improve conditions, electricity was wired into the fort, temporary doors and windows shut out the cold, and more freedom was granted to leave the post and visit the towns.
Thus it was at Fort Macon during the last week and a half of December 1941, when World War II finally made its presence felt in Carteret County.