MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
In 1941, the federal government used eminent domain, the power of appropriating property for public use, to build a military base for amphibious landing training. As a result, many people were evicted from their homes and forced to move elsewhere.
In 1989, a few of these original landowners and their descendants came together for the first time aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, sharing stories and reminiscing about the past. Since then, the reunion has continued to grow in size and popularity and is now an annual event, held on the first Sunday of October.
This year was no exception. Former landowners and family members – some who spanned more than five generations – traveled from across the nation to attend the landowners annual reunion at Courthouse Bay aboard the base, Oct. 3.
As guests exchanged hugs and socialized, they looked at old photographs, scrapbooks and newspaper clippings, some of which dated back to the early 1900s.
Charlotte Dexter, a daughter of a former landowner and the event coordinator, said the reunion was a good way for those who experienced similar hardships to reconnect and reminisce about their homeland.
“We’re trying to preserve history here,” said Dexter. “It’s a unique history; these civilians made a great sacrifice.”
Dexter and her two sisters, Emily Dexter Ezzell and Mary Dexter Mobley, said that while the reunion itself was a joyous occasion, the reason for the occasion was bittersweet. They vividly remembered countless people who were carried off their property by Marines and left on the outskirts of Camp Lejeune’s boundaries.
“It was a hard time for people because there wasn’t a lot of lead time to get out, and people had to find a place to go – a new place to settle down again,” said Dexter. “Several generations had lived here and they just pulled up their roots. The government surveyed the land, appraised everything and came up to people who owned property. But they didn’t get enough to go out and buy a comparable place. The Marines came in, loaded up these families and would take them to the end of the base live property line.”
Ezzell, the eldest of the three sisters, recalled the time when she, her grandparents, parents and younger sister moved to New Hanover County, N.C., from their house in what is now Camp Lejeune’s Courthouse Bay area. Before they moved into their small house, they had to seek an alternate shelter.
“When (my grandparents) drove out of here, the day they had to leave, they didn’t know where they were going to spend the night,” recollected Ezzell.
Sarah Elizabeth Taylor, a 94-year-old native of Jacksonville, N.C., also remembered her humble abode in Wilmington, N.C.
“It was a little one-room utility house that had been used to raise chickens, but it had a chimney, running water and a sink,” said Taylor. “We moved in with a bed, a stove and a table, and we lived there until we found a house to rent.”
In spite of their living conditions and the striking difference between modern-day Camp Lejeune and the previous farm lands of Taylor’s childhood, Taylor said she still has feelings of nostalgia whenever she visits the military base.
“I just feel a connection to the base,” said Taylor. “My husband and I were both born and raised here, and we moved out in 1941.”
William Barry Hurst, a former landowner, served as the chief of police in Jacksonville for nearly two decades, back in the 1930s. Hurst and his siblings inherited beach-front property, which was appropriately named Hurst Beach.
After the government declared eminent domain, they paid Hurst about $1,000 and claimed it. It is now all part of today’s Onslow Beach, one of Camp Lejeune’s main training areas for amphibious landings.
Hurst’s son, Gerald, a retired Air Force colonel, currently lives in Jacksonville, N.C., and attended the reunion. He said each visit he makes to Camp Lejeune brings back a flood of childhood memories.
“I remember going to the beach and playing,” said the younger Hurst. “There was a big sand dune, which is still there, ironically. I used to slide down and have a good time.”
He added, “This whole area was essentially farming country. There was a lot of hunting, fishing, oyster beds. The memory that I have is that there were a couple of hunting lodges where people from up north would come down and hunt. It was plush, and there was one of the most beautiful rivers that you could find anywhere.”
Whether these landowners or descendants choose to remember pleasant memories or harbor bitter sentiments, Dexter said they were ultimately resilient, overcame the odds and readjusted to a new lifestyle.
“People eventually put down roots; they resettled,” explained Dexter. “It was hard, but eventually they made a new life for themselves as best as they could.”
Although these former landowners and descendants have since created new homes and inevitably new lifestyles, Dexter said her parents, like so many other residents, forever considered Jacksonville home.
“I never remember hearing (my parents) refer to our new place, where we eventually settled in New Hanover County, as ‘home,’” said Dexter. “If we were away for part of the day, they’d say, ‘we’ve got to go back to the house.’ (Camp Lejeune) was always home.”