Marines Arrived in New Bern 75 Years Ago

Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point (Photo: Cpl. Tyler J. Bolken)
Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point (Photo: Cpl. Tyler J. Bolken)

Seventy-five years ago, in August 1941, Cherry Point was mostly a morass of swamp with engineers wandering about, wondering how they were ever going to make airplanes land there without them sinking out of sight.

But that didn't stop Marines from arriving in New Bern -- by parachute, truck and plane, filling the streets and setting up camp around the nearby county airport.

"The people here didn't know if we were Boy Scouts or what," Michael Ragan, one of those Marines, recalls. "They knew about the Army and Navy, but they'd never heard of Marines."

Ragan, a 95-year-old New Bern resident and founder, with his wife, of the New Bern and Havelock Dairy Queens, was an mechanic with the Quantico-based first Marine aircraft regiment, keeping its small fleet of biplanes in the air in the months before Dec. 7 when a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would bring America into World War II.

"We used to pull maneuvers," he said, referring to visits the unit would make to various towns for public awareness. "We came down here and put on an air show."

They stayed, he said, "just long enough to meet with people, and to meet a couple of females, and marry one."

The woman was Grace Powers, a "floor walker," he said, working at Kress's department store. They would marry at San Diego in 1945 when Ragan would return from the war.

Ragan's romantic tendencies were noted in a local column -- with his surname misspelled -- in the Sun Journal: "Pvt. Regan likes to drown his sorrow in a soda at the Corner Drug Store," it jokes. "Maybe he has reasons for the soda and the walk down to the dock in the afternoon before the second show. The scenery there is beautiful at that time of day, and so quiet and comfortable, isn't it, Regan?"

While the men entered New Bern on Aug. 12, they had actually arrived in the area a couple of days earlier, on the weekend of the 9th, setting up a camp around the local airport that was quickly named Camp Mitchell in honor of Col. R.J. Mitchell, head of Marine aviation in Washington, D.C.

Seventy airplanes arrived, and the camp was open to civilians to see what the military flew. It was a sign of things to come. On Aug. 18, 1941, the air base that would become Cherry Point became official, with construction that would result in the opening of its runways to its first planes in the spring of 1942. Ever since, Cherry Point has been at the forefront of Marine Corps aviation and a celebration of the occasion is scheduled for next week on the base.

Those early airplanes flew in exercises for the next several days in August of 1941, with paratroopers from the second battalion of parachute troops, according to a news item of the day.

Ragan and his fellow mechanics arrived by bus on the 12th.

The town opened up to entertain and support the Marines. Stanley Hall on Pollock Street was opened to them, with "two showers, two dressing rooms, reading room with books and magazines, and a Victrola for dancing."

Table tennis, badminton and volleyball were added to the hall's activities, and a "service men and their dates only" sign put up.

Meanwhile, residents were called on to serve as drivers for the visiting servicemen.

It turned out to be a kind of dry run for the real war that was soon coming: New Bern would be a center of USO activity throughout the war, providing homes and entertainment for soldiers and even hosting a prisoner of war camp for several years.

Although they were gone in a little over a week, Ragan found himself returning frequently to woo Grace Powers. He said he was at the Queen Anne Hotel on Dec. 7, 1941.

"The shore patrol was policing the place," he said. "They came in the hotel and told the desk clerk that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. When they told me, I said, 'I ain't worried about it. It'll be settled before you know it.'"

But Ragan wound up serving in the Pacific Theater throughout the war, taking part in such military actions as Guadalcanal.

"There's so much history that I did," he said, but he refused to go into details about the actual war, he said, because "it would be bragging."

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Marine Corps Military Bases