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How many local service members died in World War I and World War II?

Ben Steelman
Local girls serve up some refreshments to the boys at Bluethenthal field during World War II. Photo from the collection of Hannah Block

Local girls serve up some refreshments to the boys at Bluethenthal field during World War II. Photo from the collection of Hannah Block

If you’re talking about New Hanover County, the answer for World War I is simple. The local World War I Memorial — the one that was on the campus of New Hanover High School as of August, but which is scheduled to be move to Wilmington’s Riverwalk in time for Veterans’ Day 2014 — lists 37 names of Wilmington-area residents.

Included in that roster is Arthur Bluethenthal (1891-1918), who died in action while serving as a pilot with the Lafayette Flying Corps, part of the French armed forces. Bluethenthal was the first Tar Heel to die in World War I. Wilmington International Airport was originally named Bluethenthal Field in his honor, and a portrait of Bluethenthal still hangs in the airport lobby.

For World War II, things are a little trickier. National Archives records tally casualties separately, with the U.S. Army and Army Air Force dead in one roster and the Navy, Coast Guard and U.S. Marine Corps dead in another, according to Jennifer Daugherty, local history librarian with the New Hanover County Public Library.

The Army and Army Air Force list carried 94 names from New Hanover County: 49 killed in action, 7 who died of wounds after battle, 35 who died in service of non-combat causes (including illness and injury) and 3 with cause of death unspecified.

The Navy-Marine-Coast Guard roster lists 35 World War II dead from New Hanover County, with no breakdown as to cause. These include one service member who died as a prisoner of war.

For World War II, then, the toll for New Hanover County amounts to 129 dead — a considerable sacrifice, considering that New Hanover’s population in the 1940 Census was just 47.935.

A complication is how one defines a local casualty. Do they count if they were born in New Hanover County, or if their civilian residence was here at the time of their death? An illustration of this is William D. Halyburton Jr., who was born in Canton, N.C., and was a seminary student at Davidson College at the time of his death in action on May 10, 1945, in Okinawa. A Navy corpsman attached to a Marine rifle company, Halyburton died while tending wounded comrades and  shielding them with his body. He was later awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.

Not everyone might count Halyburton as a county resident, but he graduated from New Hanover High School, which seems good enough for area residents who have “adopted” him. The city of Wilmington’s Halyburton Park is named in his memory.


Did an Army pilot attack a German submarine during World War II off Wrightsville Beach?

What’s the history behind the huge concrete World War II target at the southern end of Fort Fisher?

Did German U-boat sailors see a movie in Southport during World War II?

What is the history of Liberty ships being built in Wilmington during World War II?

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