City and military have a shared history
On Jan. 27, 1849, Jacksonville became an official city. At that time, the city was not much more than a courthouse and a route through which residents raised tobacco and hogs, or threshed for oysters along the New River. It was, for all intents and purposes, a sleepy southern town.
That is, until the Civil War. In addition to a raid on the city led by Lt. William “Albemarle” Cushing in 1862 (leading to the little known three day Battle of the New River), the emancipation of slaves led to vast changes to the way of living, and like many small cities, Jacksonville was not immune to these changes.
For the next 100 years, not much happened — at least, not that’s on record. A fire in 1902 destroyed many city records, meaning that the identities of even the mayors before that time were lost to history. That did not stop a retired Marine lieutenant colonel from digging up connections among Onslow County, Jacksonville and Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.
“You can’t kick over a rock anywhere in Onslow County without finding history,” said L.J. “Kim” Kimball, the man who wrote the book on Camp Lejeune and Onslow County.
His roots in the region go back six generations, something he was not aware of until his retirement from the Marine Corps in 1991.
“They can’t call me a carpetbagger,” Kimball said of being a northern transplant.
As a battalion commander, Kimball had become fascinated with the history of Camp Lejeune after a friend, a base historian, turned him on to the subject.
Discovering more of the area’s history became Kimball’s passion for the better part of two decades. The Vietnam Veteran, who spent 30 years in the service, served as the consulting historian on a 2006 book called “Semper Fidelis: A Brief History of Onslow County, North Carolina, and Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune.”
He paints a clear picture of how the mostly agrarian city of just more than 800 people became the site of MCB Camp Lejeune.
In the 1940s, it became apparent, due to the rapid expansion of the Marine Corps, that Quantico, Virginia, would not be a large enough base of operations to house the Corps. As such, Maj. Gen. Thomas Holcomb tasked Maj. John C. McQueen with surveying land to find suitable training ground.
McQueen and Capt. Verne McCall, his pilot, traveled the Southeast — from Corpus Christi, Texas to Norfolk, Virginia — for the perfect place for a Marine Corps base. Most of the land they surveyed was either too developed or did not have the proper geography for a military installation — except for one.
Jacksonville, as it existed in 1941, was not a hotbed of industry. As Kimball puts it, “Jacksonville was a courthouse. It was a laid back rural area which provided basic services to residents. … People subsisted and they were happy.”
Harriotte B. Smith, who has a library bearing her name on Camp Lejeune, described it a bit differently in 1941. She dubbed the area “God’s forgotten acres” when speaking to the Washington Post.
That lack of development and the sheer amount of uninhabited land, however, was what made Jacksonville and Onslow County the perfect location for an amphibious military training facility. Not only did the waterways and inlets grant access to supply lines, but Onslow Beach was the only beach front that could land multiple divisions at once.
“It wouldn’t make sense to land your Marines in Atlantic City,” Kimball said with a smile.
Moving inland, that same “forgotten” acreage proved perfect for marksmanship training facilities that kept with the Marine decree of “every man a rifleman.”
The climate was also perfect.
“Nobody in that time was much worried about air conditioning and the warmer winters reduced the cost to heat,” Kimball said.
Coupled with the ports at Morehead City and Wilmington, everything about the location fit the eyes of the Marine Corps.
That’s where things get strange. Some of Kimball’s favorite parts of the history of the area are what he calls “little Easter eggs.”
For instance, the town of Marines — yes, that was the actual name of the area — actually predates the Marine Corps in Onslow County. Founded in the 1850s by patriarch Zorobabel Marines, the town served as an area of interest for many years before the construction of MCB Camp Lejeune. Upon being annexed by the federal government, the town of Marines’ post office was serving roughly 100 people.
And then there’s The Right Honorable Arthur J. Onslow. Kimball makes it very clear that Onslow was not a sir. However, as a man of means and nobility, the Onslow County founder did have a family motto — Semper Fidelis or always faithful.
“Of all the coincidences … a perfect location with that kind of history,” Kimball said.
With the construction of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune — and nearby Marine Corps Air Station New River — Jacksonville was no longer a sleepy, southern town.
“Jacksonville grew like mushrooms when the Marines set up shop,” Kimball said.
The town, which at the time had no hospital, recreation centers and few homes, had to adapt its businesses to its new neighbors. Restaurants came, as did bars and tattoo parlors. The four blocks around Court Street would expand to the New River, giving birth to the first mall in Eastern North Carolina. The New River Mall drew attention from the surrounding area at large, not just Marines. Business took off, leading to more housing for those who wanted to live off base.
In 1966, Jacksonville schools were integrated.
“That’s recent history to me,” said Kimball. However, even with the end of segregation, there was still unspoken discrimination among the town’s residents.
“Businesses would keep their doors shut, and black people were not permitted to live in certain apartments,” said Kimball. “The Marine Corps helped put a stop to that. Orders came down that, if black people could not live in those areas then the white Marines would not either. That changed the minds of many business owners.”
The Marine Corps had become an important part of the community, with Marines being a key component to town businesses. A Marine Corps fire company helped save downtown Jacksonville during a 1955 fire. Despite that, some residents were not too keen on the military presence in their town, Kimball said. However, he believes he can pinpoint when that changed.
“In October of 1983, following the bombing of Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, the citizens of Jacksonville looked around them,” Kimball said. “They realized that … their Sunday school teachers and basketball coaches … they said, ‘these are Marines.’ After that it was no longer us and them. It was we.”
In 1990, the city of Jacksonville officially annexed MCB Camp Lejeune. The population more than doubled, leading to larger revenue shares and federal grants for development. The small town of 873 people and the military branch smaller than the metropolitan New York police department had grown hand in hand.
Now at 80,000 residents and counting, Jacksonville partners with Marines more than ever. When Marine Corps vehicles took to the streets to rescue those threatened during Hurricane Florence, or when the city dedicated a memorial in honor of the service members both passing through or here to stay, the symbiosis has never been more apparent, Kimball said.
Kimball said plenty of resources are available for those who want to learn more about the history of Jacksonville as well as Camp Lejeune. One of those is the Carolina Museum of the Marine, for which Kimball is a strong proponent. It can be visited online at www.museumofthemarine.org/.
“We will tell the history of Lejeune,” said Kimball.
As for independent research, Kimball has tried and true advice.
“If you’re looking for a new idea, check an old book,” he said.