One day in the spring of 2000, Ocean Isle Beach’s building inspector, Larry Cook, discovered a corroded piece of history and legend that had emerged from the sands of the island’s east end just a few blocks west of The Winds Resort. What he found were the remains of a World War II Navy fighter temporarily exposed by the waves and shifting sands along the beach.
“I knew it was there from folklore,” Mr. Cook said. “It was rumored to have been there and sure enough she came up.”
The wreck of the propeller-driven plane had been spotted intermittently over the years, but it had never surfaced long enough to attract the attention that surrounded it that week.
“The previous building inspector told me it was there,” Cook said. “He’d heard some kids had dug down five feet and found a wing. Yesterday we found a machine gun. It wasn’t even low tide. People were just digging around it like a treasure hunt.”
The area was roped off and an ordnance disposal team from Pope Air Force Base was sent to check for any remaining live ammunition. None was found.
The plane was first thought to be an F-6F Hellcat but was later identified as an Army Air Corps P-47D Thunderbolt after further excavation and inspection exposed the plane’s numbers on the wings.
Air Corps flight records show that Lt. Robert Boyd, based during the war at Bluethenthal Field, now the Wilmington airport, went down on June 29, 1944, at 1615 hours when he failed to switch to his auxiliary fuels tanks and literally ran out of gas.
Lt. Boyd landed on the beach with his wheels in the up position but was not injured in the crash, although he probably suffered a bruised ego when his fellow fliers heard about the incident.
While the plane’s recent emergence has drawn crowds of curious onlookers to the beach, the rediscovery has also provided several longtime residents, who had seen parts of it intermittently exposed over the years, a chance to view the whole thing.
Eldridge Stanley of the Brick Landing area first spotted the plane back in 1944 as an eleven-year-old, he said, when the barrel-shaped plane plunged out of the sky, skipped across the ocean, and skidded onto the then uninhabited beach.
“It kicked up a lot of spray because that propeller was still turning when it hit the waterway,” Mr. Stanley said.
He recalled it was one of two military aircraft that crashed onto the beach as he and his brother stood outside their grand- father’s fishing shack on a clear, late summer morning.
“There was always two,” said Mr. Stanley, who retired from the Army Corps of En-gineers after years of recovering downed jets from Pamlico Sound. “They patrolled the beach every day. It got to be where we would watch for them.”
Some days the pilots would fly low enough as they patrolled to wave at the two boys. Mr. Stanley speculates that the planes were possibly searching for German submarines known to prowl the Eastern seaboard during the war.
“All of a sudden this one veered off,” he said. “We thought it was going to land on the beach strand. . . . You know how a rock skips? Well, that’s just the way she skipped.”
The other plane crashed only minutes later near Shallotte Inlet and Mr. Stanley, who was fishing on Ocean Isle Beach at the time, witnessed both crashes. The second aircraft was recovered by a barge sent up from the Charleston Naval Shipyard in South Carolina, he said.
The first, however, was not as easy to recover and was left where it went down. Due to the strange coincidence of the dual crashes, Mr. Stanley said, rumor was that sabotage was involved but it remained a matter of local speculation.
Both pilots emerged from their wrecks unscathed. Mr. Stanley remembers that the men met back at his grandfather’s fishing shack to wait for the Coast Guard to pick them up.
When the wreck reemerged, Ocean Isle Beach town manager Greg Taylor went through weeks of phone calls and e-mails back and forth from Army and Air Force contacts to determine who had salvage rights to the plane. It was finally decided that the town had ownership but had nowhere to keep it safe and preserved. In the end the town donated the remains of the plane to the Carolina History of Aviation Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, where it was transported for preservation.
Records indicate that more than 15,000 P-47D Thunderbolts were built. Only 60 of the aircraft are still intact, with about a dozen of those in condition to be flown though not the one that met its untimely demise decades ago on Ocean Isle Beach.
The excerpt you are reading is from the book “Tales of the Silver Coast” by author and illustrator Miller Pope and author Jacqueline DeGroot.
The Coast of North Carolina was fraught with activity during World War II as planes, battleships, submarines, and armies protected our shores. One such plane, the Thunderbolt P-47D, ran out of fuel and crashed on the beaches of Ocean Isle.
Ocean Isle, for the most part, was unpopulated at the time, and the place wreckage became buried by the sand, remaining there for decades. It wasn’t until the summer of 2000 when a particularly bad storm unearthed the wing of the plane.
Town officials roped off the remains of the plane and over time carefully had it excavated. It was moved to Charlotte, North Carolina to an outdoor aviation museum where it is paired with a non-wrecked version of the same plane.