MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
The floor boards creaked under his bare feet as he rolled out of bed, squinting his eyes at the spring sunshine. Making his way into the kitchen, he was met by the worried expression of his wife, holding out a letter that came by the morning post. It read “Enclosed is a check for $25 as just compensation for land condemned by the United States.”
It was mid-1941, and this was the letter that nearly 500 families received, informing them that their property was to be used for what is now Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. They had two choices: take the money and move, or fight for better compensation, but still move.
“The houses were appraised at full market value, which still wasn’t enough for many families,” said Cole Smith, descendant of the families in which Smith Road aboard the base is named after. “However, after they were paid and the news that the Marines were coming, the market values shot up due to the expectant boomtown that was to come. A lot of the displaced families couldn’t afford to stay in town.”
However, 70 years later, many descendants of those original families are back in town, more specifically aboard the base at the Courthouse Bay Bachelor Officers’ Quarters for the 70th Former Landowners Association reunion, Oct. 2.
Approximately 130 children, grandchildren and a few great-grandchildren met at the BOQ for their annual, informal assembly to share stories, newspaper clippings and a wide variety of photographs which depicted tobacco fields and antique gas stations where firing ranges or buildings now reside.
“Although it was nothing official at the time, the association began shortly after the families moved out of the area,” said Charlotte Dexter, coordinator of the Former Landowners Association reunion. “It was a support group to help one another in a time of need. Some didn’t have anywhere to go, so everyone helped out in any way they could.”
Dexter also affirms that the association was never made in any light of hatred for the Marine Corps for encroaching on their land or the Department of the Navy for voting that particular area of land be annexed as government property. Through the generations, they have always been grateful for the Marines’ presence; the families packed up and planted roots elsewhere.
“No real aggression toward the inevitability of relocating was present, however the compensation was never adequate,” said Smith. “You were lucky if your house was appraised at a couple hundred dollars, and land was sold at two dollars an acre. Families were hardly given enough to restart elsewhere – some lived without a roof over their heads, just all their household belongings outside.”
Henry and Florence McAlister, an elderly couple who were forced to relocate, lived outside in the open while constructing their house from old lumber. James Mills, a soldier in the Army’s Medical Corps, returned from overseas combat in 1945 to find a Marine barracks where his father’s house used to stand.
“Back then it was a support system, but nowadays we get together to meet old friends and ensure the history doesn’t die out with the passing of the generations,” said Dexter. “There are children here, not even in their teen years, learning about their family and how they are a part of the base’s history.”
There are no speeches, no formal dinner or a rigid schedule of events. The men and women who represent their ancestors who once owned land on what is now MCB Camp Lejeune have the single wish of not letting their history and hardships die. Although they may not have been the first Marines to occupy Marine Barracks New River, they were nevertheless instrumental in the base’s forthcoming legacy.