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Topsail Island's Experimental Missile Testing Program

We look back at Operation Bumblebee, a highly classified missile testing program on Topsail Island during the late 1940's. 

This week, Boeing Company was involved with a successful ballistic missile test over the Pacific Ocean.  The missile intercept system was designed to detect a missile in flight and use an interceptor vehicle to collide with the missile before it reaches its target. Did you know that the technology that makes today’s defense systems possible was first developed on Topsail Island more than 70 years ago?

Tucked away on the south end of the 26-mile long barrier island is a museum that tells the story of Topsail Island; from the Native Americans who called it home, pirates who plundered merchant ships off the coast to Camp Davis, a former anti-aircraft base in Holly Ridge.  One of the more unusual items on display is part a barnacle crusted spent solid fuel rocket in a five foot glass aquarium.

“This missile was found by a young couple that were walking the beach, and it was in 1995.  It’s the booster part of the rocket, where the fuel is.”

Director of the Missiles And More Museum Rose Peters says it dates back to the Cold War era, when Topsail Island was undeveloped and the government used the island as a proving ground for some of the first United States missile efforts.   

“Operation Bumblebee was highly classified. It started on the island in 1946 and they were only here two years, from 1946 to 1948.  The two components of Operation Bumblebee, the military part was the Navy, the civilian part was John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.”

Unlike initial missile testing sites in New Jersey and Delaware, Topsail’s remoteness and expansiveness made it ideal for developing experimental ramjet propulsion systems for supersonic missiles.  In March 1947, it became the permanent facility for testing cobra and stovepipe missiles ranging up to thirteen feet in length.   More than 580 Navy, Marine Corps and scientists were assigned to Operation Bumblebee.  A concrete launch pad was constructed, along with a control tower, a bombproof shelter and eight observation towers – some of which are still standing today.  Another facility was constructed to build and store the rockets.  It’s now the location of the Missiles and More Museum.

“They built the building that we are standing in right now, that’s called the Assembly Building. The purpose of the building was to actually assemble the missiles from start to finish.  That includes putting fuel into the missile and anything else that was needed.”

The Assembly Building was reinforced with 10 inch thick concrete walls extending five feet above the interior floor of the structure.  That way if there was an explosion, the force of the blast would be contained within the building and directed up, not out. 

“We also have exposed copper electrodes in the building which were used to bleed off any static electricity that may be in the building, because again, there’s live fuel in this building.  And we’ve exposed four of them during a renovation, however, there are 64 of those copper electrodes in this building.”

There were also four lightning rods in each corner of the Assembly Building, a preventative measure for a very delicate operation.

“When the missile was assembled, they would take it out to the porch, there is a porch which is still existing on the building and they would have a crude wooden crate.  And they would put the missile on the crate and take it across the street to the launching pad.”

Then they were loaded into rocket launchers built from wood and steel that cradled the missile on a frame aimed toward the north end of Topsail Island.  The first missiles were launched in the fall of 1946.  During these tests, scientists and technicians viewed the launches up close from inside the bombproof shelter, through a 4 inch by 3 foot window.  At the same time, members of the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory photographed the event from atop observation towers positioned along the entire length of the island.

“They were doing different testing, the main testing was mileage.  How much distance they could get out of a missile.  There was never a target, they never aimed at a target.  Once they took off, they would do a distance, velocity, various testing they were doing.  Once the missile did its distance, most of them go into the ocean.”

The last missile firing occurred on November 15th, 1947. During Operation Bumblebee, more than 200 missile launched.  After the 18 month project, Peters says the data went to other research facilities across the country.

“Cape Canaveral, which is now the Kennedy Space Center. It also went to White Sands, New Mexico and Death Valley in California.  So a lot of the data applied to more testing that was going on, so we’re very, very proud that this is one of the first.”

30 years after the program ended, a Johns-Hopkins Staff Member Irving B. Irving stated in an interview that Operation Bumblebee “produced vital information on guidance systems, aerodynamics, solid propellants, booster configurations and other related scientific data.”  It’s their research on ramjet rockets collected on Topsail Island that eventually led to the development of more sophisticated tactical missiles, like the Talos on display near the entrance to the Missiles and More Museum.

“That was not assembled in this building, but the data that they collected applied to the Talos, the Talos, the Terrier and the Tartar missiles were used on Carrier ships which they needed more than 26 miles testing but they did learn a lot from the data that was collected here.”

Over the past 70 years, the landscape of Topsail Beach has changed significantly from an uninhabited barrier island to a popular summer vacation spot.  The largest artifacts from Topsail’s missile history is the remaining eight concrete observation towers, most of them repurposed as beach homes.  Some are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  

Peters says new artifacts are still being recovered from time to time, as bits and pieces of rockets have been found washed up along Topsail Island.  One such item is on display at the museum, a metal cone shaped piece that’s about 15 inches long from a cobra missile recovered after Hurricane Fran.  The 75 foot by 100 foot launching platform now serves as part of the patio for the Jolly Roger Inn, three blocks away from the museum. 

The Missiles and More Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 2 to 5.  For more information, go to http://missilesandmoremuseum.org


Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.