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What is the history behind Camp Davis and Holly Ridge?

Ben Steelman

Holly Ridge, in southern Onslow County on what is now U.S. 17, was established around 1890 as a fuel stop for the Atlantic Coast Line railroad. As late as 1940, the unincorporated community had a population of about 28, with two stores, seven houses and a 40-by-40 foot train station.

All that changed abruptly, though, in November 1940 when the U.S. War Department announced plans to build a major anti-aircraft artillery training center at the site.

(Washington’s decision was based on a 1939 survey of coastal North Carolina by Col. George Gillette, head of the Army Corps of Engineers office in Wilmington. Gillette’s survey also led the Navy Department to build a major new Marine Corps base at what would become Camp Lejeune. Ironically, Gillette had grown up in the small Onslow County community of Marines — a settlement that was wiped off the map by Camp Lejieune’s rapid wartime expansion.)

By Dec. 14, 1940, the U.S. government had announced $16.8 million in contracts to build the new base. First construction began on Dec. 16, 1940. By February 1941, at its height, 21,000 civilian workers were on the payroll for the base — a number that would sharply drop in the next few months as the first wave of construction was complete. The first contingent of troops arrived on April 6, 1941.

In July 1941, the new base was formally named for the late Maj. Gen. Richmond Pearson Davis, a North Carolina native who had commanded an artillery brigade in World War I and later commanded the Army’s old IV Corps area, headquartered in Atlanta.

From May 1941 until early 1942, Camp Davis was temporary headquarters for the Army’s Barrage Balloon School (later moved to Tennessee). In March 1942, the Anti-Aircraft Artillery School opened and in July 1943 the first Officers Candidate School class opened on base.

At its height, the base housed more than 20,000 soldiers, with satellite bases at Maple Hill and at Fort Fisher. More than 3,000 buildings eventually stood on Camp Davis. Most were two-story, wooden-frame barracks, but the base also boasted an 800-bed hospital, four movie theaters and separate recreation centers for white and “colored” troops. Camp Davis had its own newspaper, the AA Barrage, and an intra- and intermural athletic program; its “Blue Brigade” football team defeated Wake Forest College’s varsity squad in a memorable game on Sept. 25, 1944.

A mini-city, Camp Davis could boast 30 miles of paved streets, its own airfield with two 5,000-foot runways, its own water plant and four storage tanks with a capacity of 95,000 gallons of water. Celebrities ranging from Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall to heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis paid visits to the troops there. When the charms of on-base life faded, a regular bus line carried GIs on leave to Wilmington, where a number of wartime romances led to weddings.

The town of Holly Ridge — incorporated in 1941 — became a mini-boomtown as well. By 1943, the town had a population of around 1,500, with dozens of shops, hotels, a bank, a temporary public school and a Rotary Club.

As author David A. Stallman noted in his book “Women of the Wild Blue,” a number of WASPs — members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots — served at Camp Davis, beginning in the summer of 1943. The civilian volunteers flew potentially hazardous missions, towing airborne targets for practive firiing from the ground. The Army also experimented with rocket targets at Camp Davis in the autumn of 1943.

A small contingent of German prisoners of war were confined on base, beginning in March 1944.

On September 2, 1944, the Army announced plans to close Camp Davis, and dismantling began that fall. On Jan. 15, 1945, however, Camp Davis was reactivated as an Army Air Force redistribution and convalescent center, continuing in that function until July 1945. In June 1946, the U.S. Navy took over the abandoned facilities as part of “Operation Bumblebee,” its early experimental ram-jet tests.

Dismantling of the base was largely completed in 1947 and 1948. (Pilferers would spend years digging up old copper plumbing.) Today, very few traces of the Army base remain. In 1954, however, the U.S. Marine Corps leased the old runways and part of the surrounding land from International Paper Co. and used the old airfield for helicopter training in conjunction with its New River air station. In 1997, the Marines resurfaced Camp Davis’ old Runway 18/36 with concrete; speculation held the facility would be used in conjunction with New River’s V-22 Ospreys. In 2002, the Corps announced that Wing Support Squadron 272 “conducted pre-deployment training aboard Marine Corps Training Area Camp Davis.”

The questioner mentioned rumors that the Marines plan to relocate their main recruit depot from Parris Island, S.C., to the Camp Davis area. That doesn’t seem likely. For one thing, the Marines have been using Parris Island for recruit training since 1915, making the facility a virtual shrine to the Corps and its values. Also, more speculation has focused on the possible closing of the smaller Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, which sits on potentially valuable real estate near the San Diego harbor and airport. In 2005, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission asked for a written explanation why the Pentagon did not close the San Diego depot and consolidate it with Parris Island. That move, however, has been vocally opposed by Californiia congressmen.

As for Holly Ridge, its population in the 2000 Census was 831 — a little more than half the number of civilians who lived there in 1943. Onslow County’s Dixon High School, Dixon Middle School and Dixon Elementary School are located nearby.

More details and period photographs of Camp Davis in World War II can be found in “A History of Camp Davis” by David A. Stallman, published for the base’s 50th anniversary in 1990, and “Greetings from Camp Davis” by Clifford Tyndall, published in 2006. Both are available at the New Hanover County Public Library.

User-contributed question by:
Sharon Smith

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7 Responses to “ What is the history behind Camp Davis and Holly Ridge?”

  1. On September 27, 2009 at 12:07 pm Bill wrote:

    You forgot mention the drag strip that was located there in the early to mid 50’s that used one of those runways.
    When the Wilmington boys used to compete against the Marines from LeJune.

  2. On March 25, 2013 at 12:41 pm BARBARA BOWDEN wrote:


  3. On May 2, 2013 at 11:31 pm Robbin C. McInturff wrote:

    Hi! I am looking for information about Jesse Leroy Hines, my father, who was a civilian fireman on the base in 1945 and who dated my mother, Edith F. Hubler, a WAC. I am the result of that union. My father didn’t know me, and I would very much like information about him, or a photograph. He was born and raised, and is buried in, Holly Ridge (Stump Sound Baptist Church graveyard).

  4. On July 8, 2013 at 7:09 pm Susie wrote:

    Hi.. In response to a qrestion asked on the site by robbin C. McIntoff, I am kin to the father she is requesting information on….Jesse Leroy Hines.. I would like to get incormation to her but it did not show how to on this site.. If you can help me to know how to respond, I would like to talk to her…. Susie Hines ritter

  5. On July 8, 2013 at 8:39 pm Yvonne wrote:

    My Mother still lives in Holly Ridge. She has all the info you need. He was my Grandfathers first cousin and brought him home from Cali when he was sick.

  6. On July 23, 2013 at 12:33 pm Steve Marshburn Sr wrote:

    My grandfather Alva Leslie Marshburn was a carpenter at Camp Davis. I would like to know if there are any known photographs of him in the picture and of the building he worked in. He met Lillian Davis, his 2nd wife, there. I am told Lillian worked in the Laundry there. Whatever anyone can help me with would be appreciated.

  7. On May 16, 2017 at 9:42 am Pat Vargas wrote:

    If you like Camp Davis you should see the B&W 1943 movie (“There’s Something About A Soldier” that shows that camp in great detail circa 1943.

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