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Home North Carolina Pender County City of Topsail Beach Historical Markers Missile Tests

Missile Tests

Anderson Boulevard at Flake Avenue, Topsail Beach, NC, USA
  North Carolina State Historical Marker
    North Carolina State
Historical Marker
    Marker Text:
"U.S. Navy successfully tested ramjet engines in rocket flights, 1946-48. Observation towers line Topsail Island; Assembly Building 2 blocks west."
The rocket experiments conducted on Topsail Island in 1942 long remained shrouded in mystery. The operations proceeded in secrecy; the related documents for many years were classified. Recent research by David Stallman has revealed the role the site played in the development of rocket technology. Stallman acquired related artifacts, documents, and films from The Johns Hopkins University.

During World War II, Sears Landing on Topsail Island served as an anti-aircraft firing point for troops at Camp Davis. The Army closed the camp late in 1944. In 1946 the Navy moved about 500 individuals onto the base and converted Sears Landing into the U.S. Naval Ordnance Testing Facility to conduct test firings of ramjet-powered missiles. Partners with the Navy in the project were the Applied Physics Laboratory of The John Hopkins University and the Kellex Corporation, a civilian contractor. Within months they had constructed an assembly building, control tower, eight observation towers (thirty-five feet tall on concrete platforms), pontoon bridge, launching platform, and bombproof shelter. Their mission was to develop a jet-powered missile that could destroy an air target up to twenty miles away. The experiments built upon earlier work by the Navy at coastal facilities in New Jersey and Delaware.

The program was dubbed “Operation Bumblebee,” since the seemingly impossible aerodynamic challenges faced resembled those of a bumblebee in flight. An estimated 200 rockets were launched over the course of eighteen months. The tests provided an impetus to the development of jet aircraft engine technology and insights into rocketry incorporated later in the space program. In 1948 the Navy closed up shop at Topsail Island and shifted operations to White Sands, New Mexico, and Cape Canaveral, Florida, to take advantage of better weather conditions. Seven of the eight towers remain; some are used as private houses and one as part of a fishing pier. The launching platform was later the patio of the Jolly Roger Motel. The Assembly Building, once a building supply store and later a nightclub, today houses a museum devoted to the rocket experiments and to local history.

David A. Stallman, Operation Bumblebee, 1946-1948, Topsail Island, North Carolina (1992)
David A. Stallman, A History of Camp Davis (1990)
Edward F. Turberg, “After You’ve Gone: Camp Davis, Topsail Island, and Their Place in History,” Carolina Comments (May 1994): 85-91
National Register of Historic Places nomination (1993)
Sheila Turnage, “Operation Bumblebee,” Our State (March 1995): 33-3
(Raleigh) News and Observer, July 20, 1984