By Zack Hill, The Raleigh Telegram
TOPSAIL ISLAND, NC – The military presence in North Carolina is no secret to any of the state’s residents, but there are some significant armed forces events that have flown under the radar of the average North Carolinian’s historical awareness.
One of those is Operation Bumblebee, a series of top secret Navy ordinance and propulsion tests that ran in conjunction with the Johns Hopkins University Physics Lab that took place on the island in the years immediately after World War II. The operation was named after the buzzing insect that appears aerodynamically incapable of flight but flies anyway, much like the rockets being tested that seemed to be more the stuff of science fiction that fact.
After the British troop ship HMT Rohna was sank in 1943 by a Henschel Hs 293 guided German missile resulting in the loss of 1,015 American troops, American Navy leadership did not have to be told that supersonic missiles would represent the future of warfare on the water.
Although Topsail Island is today known for its beautiful beaches and the quaint communities of North Topsail Beach, Surf City and Topsail Beach, at one point, the entire island was used for top secret rocket launches by the United States Navy.
The Topsail Island site was one of three Operation Bumblebee sites along the Eastern seaboard, and went into operation in March 1947. Lieutenant Commander Tad Stanwick was in charge of about 500 Navy sailors and Marines during the operation. Over the next 18 months, an estimated 200 rockets were fired, some as long as 13 feet.
The rocket trials on Topsail Island were integral in developing ramjet missiles, which later evolved into the modern jet aircraft engines while also providing a foundation for America’s space flight programs. Some well known aircraft that have used ramjet engines include the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.
Besides being a top secret United States Government military project, Operation Bumblebee may be a little less known than some of N.C.’s other major military moments because, at the time, Topsail Island was uninhabited.
Rose Peters, director of the Topsail Island Missiles and More Museum, said that the island was completely undeveloped at the time and was completely occupied by the military, unlike today.
“They were assembling missiles here and using the entire island to test,” Peters said. “People could not have been safe.”
The operation ended in 1948 when it was determined that a new site was needed and the testing was eventually sent out to more sparsely populated areas in the western deserts including the White Sands missile testing range.
Peters said that the Topsail Historical Society, which operates the museum, has done as much as possible to preserve the remnants of Operation Bumblebee since “there aren’t a lot of missile programs with many buildings left.”
Unlike the other sites on the Atlantic coast used for missile testing, many of the buildings used during the project are still standing at Topsail, including the Assembly Building, Facility Control Tower and Observation Tower No. 2, along with four other structures.
Today, visitors can venture along the island to see the towers and tour the Assembly Building, now home of the Missiles and More Museum, which houses artifacts from Operation Bumblebee along with other Topsail Island-related historical exhibits. Some of the study three and four story concrete observation towers have been turned into homes, while others remain pretty much as they were in the 1940′s.
Peters said that most residents and visitors to Topsail Island are unaware of the towers’ purpose and are both surprised and fascinated by the story when they hear it.
“Once you find out what the towers are, the whole thing connects,” Peters said.
Looking at one of the sixty year old towers, it’s not hard to envision the island’s past as a launching pad for the United States missile program. From the humble beginnings on Topsail Island to eventually landing on the moon, North Carolina tourists now gather for fun where some serious work by the military took place only a few decades ago.
The Missiles and More Museum is open Monday-Saturday 2-5 p.m. during the summer. The phone number is 910-328-8663. ::
Article Posted: Tuesday, May 29th, 2012.