Oral History – Ray Rothrock – Part 3: ‘Fort Fisher’

by Ann Hertzler

The buildings at Ft. Fisher Army Base were not originally for families. It was an Army Base with barracks, a few office buildings and a very large Mess Hall. The buildings were pre-fabricated somewhere else, the 8 by 8 foot sections brought in by trucks and put together. Even the roof was in sections; they just had to put the tar paper and shingles on to complete the installation. After the War, the base closed.

Families bought the buildings and housing and had them moved all over the beaches, mostly on Kure Beach, then Hanby and Wilmington Beach. From 3 blocks south of the traffic light in Kure Beach, today you can see the buildings still standing that were moved from the Ft. Fisher Army Base. Some were primary homes and many were utilized as second homes or beach homes. They were inexpensive to buy and did not cost very much to move.

The airstrip is the section right past the Civil War Museum where it parallels the highway. Just before you turn into the Ft. Fisher Aquarium, you can see where the airstrip was. Ray remembers the Army being there but does not recall seeing any military airplanes. After the base closed, Punky Kure and others would use the short airstrip for their airplanes to spot Menhaden fish for the boats netting them along the coast.

The Ft. Fisher Army Base began where the concrete columns are today and went to the end of U.S. 421, just past where the Ft. Fisher/Southport Ferry is today. His Dad and fishing partner, D.P. Lilly eventually built the boat ramp and docks at the end of the road. Going down U.S. 421, on the left side or ocean side were several bunkers where the Army stored their ammunition. One of the bunkers was where the Hermit claimed his home to be. Ray went into the Navy in 1955 which was before the Hermit came to KB.

There were a large number of soldiers at Ft. Fisher during WW II. It was like an advanced training base for the Army officers and enlisted men. They would bring companies, brigades and large groups of Army personnel along with all their tanks, trucks and other equipment out of Ft. Bragg and Ft. Benning for additional training before sending them overseas.

Ray went into the U.S. Navy on August 12, 1955, just days before Hurricanes Connie and Diane hit the area. He served 22 and a half years, retired, worked in Norfolk for another 8 years for the Department of the Navy before deciding to come home, buy half his Dad’s Charter Fishing Business, and enjoy the ocean even more than he had when he grew up at Kure Beach.

When Ray went into the Navy, there had been very little of the Army Base sold. The Army may have turned all of it back over to the owner, the Orr Brothers. A portion of the base became Ft. Fisher Air Force Base in the mid 50’s. The Air Force built a long range radar site, Air Force GCI (Ground Controlled Intercept) Base to deal with the Russian long range aircraft flying in and out of Cuba prior to the Cuba Missile Crisis in 1962.

Ray recalls, close to where they first lived in Kure Beach in 1943 and 44, a German man and his wife were arrested for going on the beach at night, sending signals to the German Submarines when they surfaced close to the shore. During the day, when people were swimming and on the beach, the Army would come up the beach strand and run everyone out of the water and off the beach when they sighted German Submarines. They never found any weapons on the beach. They would have “blackouts” and everyone would have to turn all lights off and pull the dark colored shades down when the sirens sounded the alarm.

There is a U.S. ship off of Carolina/Kure Beach, about 23 miles that was sunk March 13, 1942 by torpedoes from a German Submarine. It was the SS John D. Gill, a tanker traveling from Atreco, TX to Philadelphia after a stop in Charleston because a German Submarine was spotted following them. Once they thought it was safe, the Gill left Charleston and continued on to Philadelphia only to be sunk off our coast. It was said you could see it burning from Kure Beach for a couple of days before it went down. Twenty three of the 49 crew members survived the sinking. The Coast Guard has put a buoy on the site and today it is a very popular diving and fishing site.