The Home Front: Wartime Stories

BY Chris Russell

With German U-boats stalking the East Coast New Hanover County was on a war footing during the early 1940s. Defending the home front meant spotters watched the skies for enemy planes and air raid wardens supervised drills. Lighting dim-outs and total blackouts prevented Wilmington and the beach towns from being seen by sea or air. Three area residents share their WWII memories.

Phyllis Millard age 87

When the siren sounded everyone had to stay indoors; it would sound again when it was safe to go outside. For a 13-year-old girl the blackouts in Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach were just a part of life.

“The neighborhood kids would gang at my house if they were out when the siren went off ” Phyllis Rogers Millard recalls. “We would have drills about once a week. Everyone had to go inside and cover the windows lights were out and we could only use lanterns that shone down on the floor.”

Although the drills made the older folks nervous the kids would pass the time telling ghost stories ” ’cause it was so dark.”

One night in particular the drill lasted so long she knew something major was happening.

“I remember when they had a complete blackout even the shipyard lights were out ” she says. “I looked out my bedroom window [at 15th and Ann streets] toward the shipyard and everything was black.”

Her mother told her a U-boat had been spotted close in off Wrightsville Beach.

“Momma said they had not been seen that close in before ” Millard says.

She later found out a U-boat torpedoed a ship and sank it. It likely was the SS John D. Gill an oil tanker torpedoed in March 1942. The tanker burned for 24 hours and was seen from Wrightsville to Southport.

A few days after the major blackout she rode over the Wrightsville Beach bridge with her parents and little brother in her dad’s Tidewater Power Company truck. They were stopped by the man at the bridge booth because the public was not being permitted onto the island without good reason. They were allowed across and she was horrified by what greeted them.

“I felt like our beach had blown up ” she says. “I saw clumps of oil on the beach where it washed up not a whole lot of it but it was awful.”

In those days she spent much of her playtime on Wrightsville Beach with her cousins and aunts Suzy Dock and Lillian Huggins whom she says lived in what is now known as the Ewing-Bordeaux Cottage on North Lumina.

“People down here at the beach covered all lights and had darkened shades a deep green ” Millard says. “If you had an automobile over here they had to paint or tape the top of the headlights so they would only reflect down on the road.”

Her mother Virginia Rogers was an airplane spotter who worked out of Bluethenthal Field (now Wilmington International). She was sent to several other towers in the area including at Wrightsville Beach.

“Close to where the Blockade Runner is now there was a tower about five stories and there were places to spot on big hotels ” Millard says.

Her father Stephen “Monk” Rogers also volunteered for the war effort as a warden.

“His helmet was like a hard hat that had a tiny light under it so he could see to walk. He checked on houses and helped people get home ” she recalls.

Another wartime memory involves the use of ration stamps.

“Daddy had a [small store] at 820 Orange on the corner of Ninth ” she says. “People would come in and give stamps to get cigarettes shoes or gas. We had to put them in a book. One time a lady Mrs. Penny said ‘Monk I gotta get some shoes for the kids to go to school in.’ She gave him gas stamps and maybe something else for her kids’ shoes.”

The ration stamps were issued by the government.

“If it wasn’t time for more stamps you would have to wait for gas ” she says.

Her neighborhood near Robert Strange Park was home to a German prisoner of war camp. She and her friends would go and talk to the captured soldiers.

“They didn’t speak English but you could make signs and gestures like apple and we’d give them an apple if we had one to spare ” she says.

She remembers them being nice and her mom telling her they didn’t want to go back to Germany.

Millard recalls playing with all the kids in the neighborhood a segregated one that was integrated during playtime.

“Meadowlark Lemon’s family lived right behind us. His momma had a lot of kids. She was always out using the wash tub ” she says. “My brother and I played on their porch and they came to pet our goats. Everybody played with our rabbits and goats.”

They also played rocks (jacks) and kick the can. “Mash cans” was invented as a way to make play of the requirement to recycle cans. They would walk around on the cans until they were flattened.

Recycling in vogue now was a requirement during wartime.

“We saved cans naturally ” Millard says. “We would stack newspapers and tie them together. We even saved paper off chewing gum or cigarettes aluminum paper. Daddy had a list of what to save and he told us to get the silver paper that lined cigarette packs. He had the list up in his store. And if you were cooking you were supposed to save lard and turn it in in a can too.”

Silvey Robinson age 93

Newlywed Silvey Robinson recalls how ordinary the air raid drills became typically occurring at noon on any given day. That’s why the sound of sirens going off late at night in July 1943 was especially alarming.

“All a sudden they went off around 11 or 12 at night ” she says. “To have the siren go off at night was so exceptional during all the years of the war. I remember some in my household went to peek out the window but they couldn’t see anything.”

The nighttime alert was followed by a quickly circulating story about an attack near Fort Fisher.

“They sighted a German sub or sighted the men coming ashore down near Kure Beach near the Ethyl-Dow chemical plant ” Robinson says.

An Army pilot spotted a submarine about 5 miles offshore just as it surfaced and fired five shells at the plant triggering the alert. But like many stories at the time of raiding parties and spies the account of Germans coming ashore likely wasn’t quite accurate. During the war news blackouts could make information difficult to come by and rumor often became solidified as fact.

Robinson was a 19-year-old zoology major when she dropped out of The Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina known as WC in September 1941 to marry her beau Cecil Robinson before he had to leave for duty.

“I exchanged a BS for an MRS ” she says. “So many of us had been dating our special person a number of years they were called up and we married. At that time married women were not allowed in college.”

Like many wartime brides she lived with her parents in their home on Wolcott Avenue in Wilmington while her husband was deployed overseas. Because she did not have children she was expected to do her part to help the war effort. She worked in the accounting department at the shipyard in a nearly all-female labor force for three years. She carpooled to the shipyard in her 1940 Chevrolet coupe.

“I worked with IBM machines on the second shift from 3-11 p.m. ” she says. “You know those were the forerunners to computers.”

One of the strongest emotions the Wilmington resident recalls from that era was the immense sense of patriotism displayed by her fellow countrymen immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“It truly brought the war to us — our country had been attacked! It was no longer something that was happening to other people it was happening to us ” she says. “It brought the country together. We had a common goal.”

While she was home working at the shipyard her husband was serving in Panama.

“In May [1941] they sent people to guard the Panama Canal ” she says. “I think our government was surprised [Japan] didn’t bomb the canal entrance. That would have destroyed our ability to get ships into the Pacific.”

Asked if there was a climate of hate toward the Germans or Japanese during the war she hesitated.

“Not as much the Germans but the Japanese brought war to us ” she says. “That was the reason for the internment of the Japanese Americans on the Pacific Coast. Not a physical fear as much as fear of their loyalties.”

Robinson never saw the German prisoner of war camp in Wilmington but she did see the young men working on farms in the area.

“I would go horseback riding on Greenville Loop Road and I saw them working farms in that area and they flirted just like Americans did ” she says with amusement. “I ignored them.”

Another light-hearted memory of the time involved regular Sunday trips to visit her in-laws on Wrightsville Beach (her brothers-in-law owned Lumina Pavilion). On the return bus ride in the evening someone would start up a song and everyone would chime in.

“We would sing Cole Porter songs like ‘Night and Day’ and another song called ‘Marie’ [by Tommy Dorsey] ” she says. “‘Marie the dawn is breaking.’ It was relaxing.”

She laughs after singing the nostalgic lyrics.

“I’m not much of a singer or not very musical ” she says.

Ron Phelps age 83

Ask someone what it was like to live in the United States during WWII in the early 1940s and one of the first things he or she will say is that everything was rationed. These days it is hard to imagine not going to the nearest gas station filling up and buying a candy bar for the road. But Ron Phelps who was 9 in 1941 recalls all the shortages.

“Fuel tires sugar meat … and you couldn’t get chocolate it was all sent overseas ” he says. “We did hunger for candies and things; gas was rationed so you had to change how you lived. You might normally ride around Sunday afternoon with your family but you didn’t do a whole lot of that because of rationing. Every car had a sticker A B C with A the most common. A minister might have a C sticker because he needed to go around to his congregation or for funerals.”

The requirement to have homes businesses and vehicles blacked out during air raid drills made some childhood activities like bonfires on the beach out of the question.

“As young boys we went down on the beach at night ” he says. “We were not allowed to build fires or have flashlights things like that nothing that would alert enemy ships offshore to zero in on Wrightsville Beach. And the military and Coast Guard patrolled to make sure people were complying.”

Blackout drills happened at varying times and people quickly stopped what they were doing to wait them out.

“The point was to obliterate all light during the blackout drills ” Phelps says. “I remember specifically coming home on a city bus from downtown. The driver simply pulled off on the side of the road and turned off all the lights on the bus.”

When the sirens started going off people acted instantly to extinguish all lights.

“There was a network of sirens they were ear splitting very loud and would immediately grab your attention ” Phelps says. “There’s no way you could say you didn’t hear it!”

The drills were carried out in schools as well.

“When I was attending Forest Hills we brought blankets to school for the raids. We took them to an auditorium or some central point and just sat quiet until it was over ” Phelps says.

He has vivid memories of the German prisoners who were interred in Wilmington.

“Across from where I lived on Wilshire was Mr. John Leeuwenburg’s dairy. He was a Dutch dairyman ” Phelps says. “I would see a flatbed truck bringing them into the farm 10-12 prisoners with POW sewn on their backs.”

The prisoners were not chained and Phelps does not recall seeing an armed guard. He heard the farmer speak with the prisoners Dutch or German he wasn’t sure which.

“One was a great mechanic ” he says. “Mr. Leeuwenburg used him to repair and operate machinery. I think they must have liked how he would have a cookout for them; some of the prisoners wanted to stay.”

None of them spoke English but Phelps and the farmer’s son Johnny “halfway became friends with those German prisoners but they were the enemy. They were Hitler’s people ” he says.

Phelps lived in the Highwood Park area of Wilmington. Despite the war and the shortages he and his friends found things to enjoy.

“We would go to the YMCA on Third and Market or the Bijou movie theater on Front Street ” he says. “You could get in for 9 cents if you were under 12 years old. And that included a comedy a serial (weekly series) and the Movietone news.”

He would find glass bottles and sell them for 2 cents each. If he collected five bottles he had movie fare. Glass wasn’t the only thing that was recycled.

“I remember going around and getting all the scrap metal you could find ” Phelps says. “They wanted it and they would buy it from you. You went into woods abandoned lots wherever you could find metal. Even tires you could sell that stuff for a little extra money. There was even this thing called vulcanizing. You would repair those tires to keep you going.”