One If By Land and Two If By Sea: Mabel Trask Remembers the Axis Invasion

BY Bill Walsh

The lights went out on brightly bedecked Lumina during World War II on order of naval authorities who feared that outlined against the glowing building Allied ships would make easy targets for the German submarines prowling the nearby waters.

Not so we learned after the war. In a 1984 interview German Commander Erich Cremer said that those waters were “a shallow grave ” that protected the area from the coastal U-boat activity that raised anxieties elsewhere on the Atlantic shore.

Don’t tell that to Mabel Trask who celebrated her 91st birthday in August and whose memories of life on Wrightsville Beach during the war remain vivid 60-plus years later.

“When I was down there during the war they fired on a German submarine ” she says of the American soldiers dug in along the beach. “Another time a German soldier spent the night on my front porch. I came out carrying [her daughter] and I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t know how to speak English but indicated that he wanted to know where Wrightsville Beach was.”

“That very likely could have been a German soldier from one of the U-boats that operated off the shore ” noted local World War II historian Wilbur Jones. “At least one of the U-boats came close to Fort Fisher and some spies were apprehended there.” There were three nearby prisoner of war camps Jones added.

During the war the Trask children got to know some of the soldiers stationed on the island very well. “Little Raiford my oldest son went on the beach and gave all my ham away to the soldiers ” Mrs. Trask recalled with a laugh recently from her gracious family home in Landfall. That was only one especially memorable giveaway among many others. Her son was particularly generous when it came to the family’s ration books passing them out to the soldiers with apparent abandon. “When they left the beach later on after the war the soldiers left me this big can of peaches ” in thanks she remembers.

“There was quite a crowd of soldiers along the jetty down there in the foxholes. They were there to watch out for German submarines ” Mrs. Trask describes. “We had blackouts all the way down the beach.” The Trask summer home was near the southern tip of the island.

“We had that house forever ” she says “and stayed there every summer” — including during the war and high water from hurricanes. “Hazel was the worst ” she notes though Bertha and Fran weren’t any picnic either. “The water came over the sand dunes and into the basement during Hazel. They had jetties about every two blocks but they are covered up now.”

In the winter months the prominent Wilmington family lived “out in the country ” off Castle Hayne Road but summertime living stretched from early May to early November a long season conveniently punctuated by the corn crop which ripened in late June or early July. Fresh corn which her husband Wilmington developer and UNCW benefactor Raiford Trask grew himself was coupled with shrimp and served up to a group of his closest male friends at a private party at Lumina every year. What started as a gathering of about 20 grew to more than 800 guests in the party’s final years.

Summer living at the beach was a family affair on a grand scale. Mrs. Trask came from a modestly large family of five; her husband was one of 11 children. He helped one of those brothers build an identical beach home right next door.

“All the Trasks used to come up from Beaufort and it would just be all cousins on the southern end of the beach ” Mrs. Trask recalls. “One year probably about 60 years ago one of the cousins had polio and had to be quarantined and so the children went out on the beach and drew a line in the sand because they couldn’t get together that summer. We would have to yell to each other’s porches because we couldn’t get close to them.”

Certainly the Trask family had automobiles long before the war though Mrs. Trask did not become famous for the switch she carried above the visor of the station wagon until later. All the children her own and their friends were the very picture of good behavior on the many occasions when she served as chauffeur — cognizant of the consequences of doing otherwise no doubt though the switch originally found its way into the vehicle to ward off the pony’s nips on those days when “Little Boy” — inexplicably after the passage of so many years — rode as a passenger in the back of the vehicle.

In an earlier day “We rode the trolley all the way from the fountain at Princess Street all the way around to 17th Street then you went down to Park Avenue and met [the Wrightsville Beach trolley] there. The trolley went right fast and stopped at every corner ” on its way to the beach Mrs. Trask recalls.

It has changed no question but Wrightsville Beach “will always be special ” Mrs. Trask says. “It’s like it’s the only beach there is.”

“For many many years the only reason we would latch our door on Wrightsville Beach was because the wind blew the screen door open. We never locked the doors in winter when we weren’t there or summer when we were.” That started changing about 20 years ago she figures.

The change began in tandem one suspects with the growth of the University of North Carolina Wilmington in which her family played so large a role and with the growth of Wilmington in general to which the family has also made significant contribution.

Lumina’s lights have long since been permanently extinguished. It matters not. Wrightsville Beach is its own attraction drawing people in bright lights and blackouts in war and in peace. It’s like it’s the only beach there is.