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by Allison Thompson
The story of the top-secret military operation that took place in the 1940s on Topsail Island that changed the history of aviation and warfare and continues to draw visitors each year to Topsail Island.
Driving along Topsail Island’s coastal roads, you might spot a tall, white concrete tower overlooking the ocean. If you look closely, you’ll find not one, but eight towers overlooking the glimmering Atlantic, relics of a secret operation that helped launch the US into space and into history. Operation Bumblebee which took place in the mid ’40s, was a top-secret missile testing operation that gave the US its first strategic surface-to-air missiles and introduced a new technology that helped produce the SR-71 Blackbird and the space shuttle. Today, the story of Operation Bumblebee and the remains of the project draw visitors and history buffs alike to the tranquil shores of Topsail Island.
The Secret Operation Begins
At the end of WWII, the US government was looking for a new kind of missile. The years of fighting a war on two fronts was over and soldiers were coming home. Soon, the factories at home would stop producing bullets and fighter planes at a breakneck pace and women were retiring from the workforce. However, for the minds behind plastics, radar, and the atom bomb, peacetime did not mark the end of their research. The US knew it was only a matter of time before they were involved in another international conflict and this time, they would be ready. Thus, Operation Bumblebee was born.
This secret operation was named after the bumblebee, who should be unable to fly and yet takes off anyway, just like the missiles they hoped to create. They enlisted the help of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, who created a fuse early in the war that saved soldiers from swooping kamikazes that detonated the missiles when they got close to a target.
Camp Davis Connection
Thanks to its proximity to Camp Davis, Topsail Island was chosen as the missile testing site for Operation Bumblebee in 1942. In those days, Topsail was a 26-mile barrier island accessible only by boat. Only the occasional fisherman or pleasure boater would land on its shores for a picnic on the sand. Lieutenant Ted Stanwick, however, saw the island as an opportunity to build and test the experimental missiles away from prying eyes. To test the missiles, the Navy pulled out all the stops to build cutting edge facilities that were completed in only one year. On the south end of the island, the Assembly Building was constructed for the storage and assembly of the experimental missiles. Eight Observational Towers made out of thick concrete and built to withstand an explosion were placed along the coastline to collect data on the tests. Each tower was equipped with precise instruments that photographed and recorded each missile fired. They also built the Control Tower just across from the Assembly Building, a bunker, and a launch platform that serves as the patio of the Jolly Rodger Motel.
Operation Bumblebee was responsible for bringing water and electricity to the island from Camp Davis, as well as roads and the first bridge connecting it to the mainland. For the years the island served as a missile testing site, it became a boomtown that housed hundreds of personnel.
The operation was eventually ended once it became clear that conditions were too unstable to continue testing. Between unpredictable storms and the growing interest in the island by civilians, they decided to move Operation Bumblebee to a more secure location in New Mexico.
The Flying Stovepipe
Three missiles were developed over the years of testing on Topsail Island. Created from the tailpipe of the Thunderbolt airplane, the men called the missiles flying stovepipes since they were almost entirely hollow on the inside. The Terrier, a medium-range antiaircraft missile designed to take down bombers, was quickly installed on Navy ships once the guidance system was perfected. In its years of use, the Terrier was considered one of the most successful surface-to-air missiles the Navy had in its arsenal. The Talos, a long-range antiaircraft missile, was created as the big gun of the Navy. Weighing in at almost four tons, the Talos was fit only for the largest and heaviest ships in the Navy’s armada. Although it saw limited use by the Navy due to its large size, the Talos saw action in Vietnam before it was retired to make way for a lighter and more affordable replacement. The Tartar, a short-range antiaircraft missile, was designed to help defend ships from low-flying aircraft that the Terrier could not hit. Originally, it was created as the ideal weapon for post-WWII ships too small to carry the Talos, but it saw use on Navy ships of all sizes. The government had originally started Operation Bumblebee as a way to dip their toe in and test the possibilities of guided missiles. In the end, Operation Bumblebee produced the first tactical supersonic missiles which helped launch the US into the 21st century.
Operation Bumblebee, Past, and Future
Through the years of testing, Operation Bumblebee stumbled on something much more important than a simple guided missile: the ramjet engine. Essentially, a ramjet engine keeps a missile in flight by using the air to propel it forward. This technology, however, found other uses in the pursuit of flight. The stealth aircraft, the SR-71 Blackbird, uses a ramjet engine to sustain flight. It still holds the record for being the fastest jet aircraft in the world, reaching Mach 3.4 or over three times the speed of sound.
Most notably, the booster rockets developed in Operation Bumblebee paved the way to creating the space shuttle. The missiles tested on Topsail Island required large booster rockets, almost ten times larger than any existing at the time. When the US started building the space shuttle, they used the lessons learned in constructing the Talos boosters to create the much larger solid rocket boosters found on either side of the orange external fuel tank. These rocket boosters are essential to allowing the space shuttle to take off.
Today, almost all of the Observational Towers stand as a testament to Topsail’s landmark history in aviation. The Control Tower and the other seven remaining towers (one was torn down after a series of deaths) can be seen up and down the coast of Topsail Island. Some have been cleverly converted into houses and others stand alone, proud relics of a time when America first set out to conquer the skies, The launch platform, and the bunker can be found in south Topsail Island, converted into the Jolly Rodger Motel’s patio and storage room, respectively. Topsail Beach itself still retains some of the 1940’s charm from its time as a top-secret military base.
However, the most eye-catching structure is the Assembly Building, which still stands today as a museum. Concerned citizens banded together to preserve the building and the Missiles and More Museum opened in 1995. The museum has information on different elements of local history, from pirates to local ecology, and of course, features an exhibit on Operation Bumblebee. For more information, visit the Missiles and More Museum to get a better look at the secret operation that called the island home.