Oral History: Remembrances of Life on Federal Point, 1940 -1959

by:  Howard Hewett,  Jones Creek, TX – October, 2015 – (Part 1 of 2)

Howard Hewett

Howard Hewett

[In this article, I combined several short stories that were originally intended for my grandchildren in my ‘Howard’s Ramblings’ series.]

Fort Fisher during World War II

The Fort Fisher area was used as a military training base during World War II.

The main highway in the area was U.S. 421. The Hewett house was located on the Atlantic side of the road, one block north of the Fort Fisher Gates. (see photos)

The highway ran maybe 75 yards parallel to sand dunes on the ocean side until it reached the historic ruins of Fort Fisher. At this point (currently The Riggins), the road curved out closer to the Atlantic and was located east of the old civil war main battery and then crossed in front of the Civil War Memorial. From there the road ran south to Federal Point ending at the Buchanan Battery.

In early 1941, the Army started anti-aircraft training along the beach and down on the sandy flats by the bay. The arriving trainees were faced with the some harsh conditions on Federal Point, as were those who were in Fort Fisher’s original Civil War garrison. A member of the 558th AAA Battalion stated the area was “a forlorn spit of sand and scrub growth pinched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River; 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. They had to learn to coexist with the ubiquitous sand and mosquitoes to survive on Federal Point.” I will share a story later about our Federal Point mosquitoes.

There were barracks, mess halls, recreational facilities, warehouses, radio and meteorological stations, a post exchange, photo lab, outdoor theater, guardhouse, an administration building and infirmary. Passageways made of cinder block and concrete connected some of these buildings while boardwalks connected others. By the time training operations ceased in 1944, the base covered an area of several hundred acres and had grown to include an 80-seat cafeteria, a 350-bed hospital and a dental clinic.

My early remembrances are just snapshots of what I actually saw during 1941-1944 because I was only two to five years old; what I recall are just flashes of events. Of course, there was evidence of the army being there long after they left the area.

Gun Emplacements Along the Beach
Starting just in front of our house and running south along the beach almost to the historical grounds of Old Fort Fisher were gun emplacements.

I later read that most were 40-millimeter automatic cannons and 50-caliber machine guns. I recall that some of the gun bunkers were quite large. There were at least three large guns between our house and the two large houses just south of the gates. (Reference: Federation Point Historical Preservation Society, Oral History, Earl Page-Part 3, “Blue Top Cottages”)

Actually, there was a 50-caliber machine gun nest just outside of our yard and a 40-millimeter anti-aircraft battery with a searchlight within 30 yards of the edge of our yard on the south side. Thinking back on it now, it seem strange to me why the gun emplacements were located outside of the gates and they were located so close to our residence.

I do not remember how long the 50-caliber gun emplacement was located in the edge of the yard. I do have some recollection of the noise and the searchlights at night.  The searchlights were used to help locate the targets. There were also blackouts from time to time.  I never asked Dad about how he was able to sleep in the early days of shift work at Ethyl Dow.

Target sleeves on long cables were towed up and down the beach by airplanes for the gunners to develop their gunnery skills.   South of Old Historical Fort Fisher was a target range for gunnery practice on stationery and well as moving ground targets.  This mechanized target range enabled gunners to receive versatility training and learn to be effective against tanks and other armored vehicles.

After the Army left, there was evidence that the target sleds were pulled across the target range by a cable hooked to pulleys so a bulldozer could pull the target from a safe distance. The targets were rigged so it could be pulled both ways. The mechanized target range was located slightly north of the training facilities’ ammunition bunkers and the “Rocks” were located a little farther south of the bunkers.

Being Staked Out on the Beach  

When I was very young, no more the two or three, my mother was a “Fisher Woman” extraordinaire. Mother and Clara Danner loved to surf fish on the beach in front of the house for blues, trout and Virginia mullets.

The problem that arose was what to do with the new kid on the block. Mother’s solution was to tie a rope around my ankle and connect it to a stake so I could play at the water’s edge; occasionally, I was washed back and forth by wave action. I know this story is true because I heard it from several relatives later in life. Today, they’d probably arrest a mother for child endangerment; although the treatment had no ill effect on me.  Mother’s solution resulted in creating a water bug. Being around water was part of my developmental process and fostered my appreciation and love for the Atlantic Ocean. I became an excellent swimmer and could work magic with my belly board.

Pig for a Pet

Dad and his pet pig “Poli” Dec. 26, 1932

Dad and his pet pig “Poli”
Dec. 26, 1932

After my father Curtis’ death in 1995, a photo surfaced of my dad and his pet pig. A description on the back confirmed that he not only had a pet pig, but he had named it. That Dad had a pig does shed light on the fact that in later years we were also allowed to have a pet pig.  This occurred sometime before the Army closed the base.

Now this was not an ordinary pig; our pig thought he was a dog. He was put in a pen at night, but during the day he would follow us around. Being a city girl, mother was a little embarrassed when the pig would follow us down road when she went visiting the neighbors. She would tell us to make the pig go home.

The service guys from Fort Fisher would pass by in their Army jeeps and would honk their horns, hoot and holler and bang on the doors. To mother’s chagrin, some would “oink, oink” at us as they drove by.

This story did not have a happy ending for the pig. Mother survived all the embarrassment, but unfortunately the pig got too large to handle and, of course, he eventually ended up on the dinner table. Those experiences were all part of growing up.

Remembrances after the Army departed
After the war some of the barracks and buildings were sold as surplus. Some of these became beach homes at Kure and Wilmington beaches and some were used in place.

I recall that one of the warehouses was taken over by a seafood processing plant. My grandmother worked there while it was open. Their specialty was devil crabs. I remember the boiling vats along with the distinctive odor of crabs and spices. The picking and processing room was a screened-in porch. Since there was no air conditioning, the product was moved to refrigeration as quickly as possible.

The Baptist Assembly
The Baptist Seaside Assembly took up residence in some of the buildings left by the Army, which became the summer headquarters for the North Carolina State Baptist Convention in 1948. They used some of the buildings and barracks for an administration building, assembly hall and dormitories. I was quite familiar with the facilities.

My step-grandfather, J. N. Todd, was the caretaker of the buildings for a short time while the Baptist Assembly was active at Fort Fisher. I stayed a number of nights with him and my grandmother. It was one spooky place at night for a 10-year-old. An opportunity to see the hospital morgue at one time did not help control my young imagination.

The Joys of Growing Up
Farmall.Tom-Punk-Jackie-Codo BoysOne of the pleasures I recall in the late forties was when Uncle Crawford Lewis gave my cousin Joe Hewett a set of soap derby wheels.

We made a two-seat cart that required one to steer with his feet and one to act a brake-man. Our first project was to add a mast and a sail to the cart. The best condition for this adventure was when the wind was blowing out of the northeast.  Highway 421 ran south and was a two lane narrow road, which did not allow for any tacking. With a strong wind, it was a wild ride down south. On some occasions, our cart would start coming apart due to the stress and we would have to abort the run. There were several designs changes before we could make a complete run.

With all the terrain being relatively flat on Federal Point, it was hard to find a good incline. My step-grandfather saved the day by allowing us to use the cinder block corridor that ran from the old Army hospital to the Baptist Assembly’s Administration building and assembly hall, which was approximately 100 yards away. The corridor was approximately eight feet wide and ten feet in height. It was basically a concrete cinder block structure with the windows missing. The original windows were spaced about every twenty feet.

As best as I can recall, the slope of the corridor was approximately two feet in 100 yards. This was a perfect place to use our cart especially for a couple of flatlanders. Traveling down this corridor while gaining speed with the sunlight filtering through the window gave a couple of 10-year-olds the illusion of traveling at a high rate of speed. We would spend hours riding our cart down the corridor. But, all good things must come to an end. As I described earlier, the administration building was at the end of our run so it was imperative that our brakes worked properly. When, as one might have predicted, our braking mechanism failed, we ended up going through a set of double doors into the Assembly Hall. The impact of the door did cause us to stop before hitting the exterior wall on the other side of the room. We were fortunate that the double doors did not have a center post. But, nevertheless, we had several cuts and bruises. This ended our favorite escapade down the corridor. We were admonished by my step-grandfather and were required to help with the repairs.

Money in the Sand at Fort Fisher

I am sure this event took place before 1952. The military was using some parts of Fort Fisher acreage for training again. The timing suggests that the activity may have been in preparation for or in response to the Korean War. Most of the World War II barracks had been sold to private citizens for homes and commercial offices so the Army set up temporary structures for barracks that had three-foot walls with canvas tent structures mounted on top. The floors were compact red dirt that was hauled in from somewhere in North Carolina.

I recall seeing these tent barracks many times over a period of a couple of years. Dad had a contract with the Army that gave him the rights to mess hall garbage. We would pick up the garbage every second day after the evening mess and would haul several 55-gallon drums to the pigpens on the River Farm. I have no remembrance of the number of pigs raised and or the numbers sold commercially, but I think Dad did well during this period.  I do remember going to the stockyard in Wilmington on more than one occasion.

When the Army left and things returned to normal, Dad, Grandmother and I were out one day looking for blackberries or wild peaches. We came across the location of the tent barracks and to our surprise, there was money setting on a little red dirty pedestal. Every time it rained more coins were washed to the surface. The denominations were varied in quantity but there were quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. Our take may have been as much as dollar to dollar and a half at first. What developed over the next several months was a routine that became a family outing.

This speaks well of how easy it was to entertain a family in early 1950’s. After a good rain, we would load up the old beach buggy (a stripped-down 1938 Ford frame with exposed engine, radiator and firewall/windshield with wood deck designed to carry nets and a small boat) and head out to search for money left behind. Our take varied on each outing, but we found enough money to make the event like a big treasure hunt.

We finally stopped going when our reward and excitement of the search dwindled. I recall Dad would say, “Well, we found enough money to purchase a loaf of bread.”  In retrospect, I think you could buy loaf of bread for 12 cents in those days, so on average our take was not very much, but the outing was what is was all about.

Providing for the Family

Sugar Cane Boiling Pot

Sugar cane vat comparable to one used during the Hewett’s fall hog killing.

As noted in earlier writings, the family fished, farmed and raised livestock. Dad always had pigs that the family would slaughter and butcher on cold fall days.

This yearly event was a family affair with all hands on deck. Uncle Crawford Lewis and my Dad were the primary orchestrators of the slaughter and did all of the heavy lifting.

After the pigs were shot in the head and their throats slit, the pigs were hung in a nearby large oak to allow proper bleeding.  From there they were placed in scalding water in a vat until the hair could be scraped off. The pig was removed to a workbench to complete the cleaning process. Sometimes more than one trip to the vat of scalding hot water was necessary.

Once the pigskin was almost pure white, it was hung again to remove the internal organs. The pigs were allowed to cool to the daily ambient temperature. If the weather was cold enough, the butchering process could take several days. The meat was either salted down and placed in box to cure or smoked in a smokehouse. A portion was made into sausage.

One of the by-products was “crackling,” a fried fat that was added to corn beard which gave the bread a bacon taste. Lye was added to the oil from the fat. This became grandmother’s laundry soap.

Read … Part 2