Secret History of Martha's Vineyard During World War II (2023)

In early 1943, as Allied forces pushed their way into Sicily and the tide of war began to change in the Pacific, the American Navy began a small, seemingly insignificant stealth operation on a small Island eight miles off the coast of Massachusetts.

“The airfield on the central plain of Martha’s Vineyard is beginning to shape up . . . which has brought life and a strange new pattern to a domain where only the hawks, rabbits and wildflowers have dwelt for many a generation,” the Vineyard Gazette reported on April 16, 1943.

The story went on to add that the U.S. Naval Auxiliary Air Facility, as it came to be known, was surrounded by enough barbed wire to “stretch the length of the Vineyard two or three times,” providing secrecy for a nearly 700-man Naval training facility carved out of a scrub oak wilderness in the state forest.

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“It is an island within an Island,” the story concluded.

But now, with the recent discovery of World War II-era bomber buried beneath the Cape Pogue seafloor for the past 73 years, the clandestine history of the Island’s involvement in World War II has come to the surface as well.

The state of Massachusetts leased the forestland that is today the Martha’s Vineyard Airport to the Navy for the duration of the war, allowing a total of 21 fighter, torpedo, scouting, composite and carrier squadrons to perform target and proficiency practice on the Island between 1944 and 1946. While the lease price was only $1, the cost in lives lost during those exercises was far greater — and something the Navy wanted to keep quiet — as many of the young men who came to the Vineyard to train for aerial combat in Europe and the Pacific never left.

Tom Dunlop, an Edgartown journalist who helped research the SB2C Helldiver that will soon be pulled out of Cape Pogue Bay for positive identification, said from his reading of the Gazette records of plane crashes, an estimated 35 to 40 men died while training during a 16-month period in the middle of the war.

“It was mayhem out there,” Mr. Dunlop said. “They either got lost in the fog, or there were collisions, or they just weren’t ready to do the maneuvers they were called upon to do.”

Despite press restrictions that were in place during wartime, the Gazette recorded details from the crashes, including the names of those who died and their place of birth.

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“There were voluntary press restrictions, you couldn’t report maneuvers,” Mr. Dunlop said. “But you couldn’t hide it because people saw. The stories were quick-pick. So the Vineyard got a pretty clear picture of the price that was being paid, even if they didn’t know what it exactly was going on.”

A Dec. 24, 1943 story describes the limitations.

“Restrictions . . . have prevented the publication of any material regarding the types of planes at the Martha’s Vineyard Naval Auxiliary Air Facility, the activities which are held, or the purposes for which it is designed,” it said.

But the paper wrote about the fatalities nonetheless, with dozens of head lines spelling the details: “Fliers Lost,” “Heroism at Noman’s,” “Pilot Falls to His Death,” “Planes Collide at Sea,” and “Plane Disappears.” Nearly all of them included names, rank, and biographical information about the men who perished.

The fliers, generally age 20 or younger — men in name only — came to train on the Vineyard because of its remoteness, small population, and similarity to islands in the Mediterranean and the North Pacific. The Island’s specialty was nighttime carrier takeoffs and landings, with planes often leaving from the Quonset Naval Air Station in Rhode Island, dropping practice bombs at Little Neck, Katama Bay, Gay Head, Noman’s Land, or other isolated, seldom-visited corners of the Island, and then returning to the Naval Auxiliary Air Station.

For those who survived, the Vineyard posting was nothing short of paradise.

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“I’m in heaven!” recalled World War II ace Howard Henrickson in an interview with Martha’s Vineyard Museum oral historian Linsey Lee. “Couldn’t ask for a better duty. We loved the freedom here. We took full advantage of . . . the summer months.” Mr. Henrickson would go on to earn dozens of medals for his service in the European theatre during the war. Some, tragically, weren’t so lucky. A 1945 story in the Gazette details a two-day period that saw two plane crashes and six deaths, with all the men under the age of 21 and fliers of two of the 68 NACTULANT, or Night Attack Combat Training Unit-Atlantic, stationed on the Island. “The planes in both instances were en gaged in training flights at night, and extensive searches failed to find wreckage or bodies of the men,” the story reported. “These fatalities, coming on the heels of other tragedies in recent weeks, were taken by the Vineyard public to reflect the hazardous types of training activities carried on from the Island station, hazards being accepted as inseparable from preparation for modern warfare.”

Although the night sky veiled many of the exercises from public scrutiny, savvy Islanders, with whispers that spread like wildfire, found out about the practice bombs — especially after a three-pound bomb was accidentally dropped on the corner of Morse and North Water streets in heart of Edgartown. The incident was chronicled by the Gazette in 1945:

“The bomb went off with the noise of a giant firecracker, according to Mr. Robbins, who was in a position to judge, since it came down not far from his house. His first thoughts included possible trouble with his oil burner, and after a check revealed that all right, he continued his investigation outside, finding the remains of the bomb which had made quite a depression in the concrete sidewalk.”

Others Island civilians, like Chappaquiddick bay scalloper Eddie Belisle, felt they owed the servicemen their silence even though he spent his childhood viewing the bombings — a free fireworks show in the middle of February. In an interview with Ms. Lee, Mr. Belisle described the secret, dangerous exercises around Shear Pen Pond at Cape Pogue.

“There’s so much unexploded ordnance there, you’d die,” Mr. Belisle said. “But it’s like this — ‘Go away — don’t tell anybody — don’t talk about it.’”

He continued:

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“So we used to go down at night when they were bombing, because they used practice chutes, parachutes, and they’d shoot the thing up and then light the thing up and light the sky up; then the guy would go down. They used it for dive bombing is what they did. And they put four in the ground. Four dive bombs. Four physical airplanes in the ground.”

Mr. Belisle described one of the planes he saw crash as an SB2C — in his words, a “terrible airplane.”

“They hauled the parts up for, Christ, 20 years, the guys scalloping. Pieces of it, all the time. We went diving for it, Dickie Brown and I. We dove for like I think a week down there and never found anything.”

Decades later, those pieces are finally starting to come together. and something has finally been found. After pulling up a machine gun and propeller, much like the scallopers decades before, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers believes it has discovered an SBC2 Helldiver that went down in Cape Pogue in 1946, resulting in the deaths of its pilot and radioman, and representing the first fatalities on Martha’s Vineyard after the war ended.

Much of the identification research came from the Gazette archives.

Mr. Dunlop believes it’s this history — not the other, later crash on Chappaquiddick involving Sen. Ted Kennedy — that established the Vineyard as the destination it has since become.

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“This is when we really found ourselves on the map,” Mr. Dunlop said. “There were plenty of servicemen who fell in love with Vineyard women who married them and stayed. Others later came back with their families. The modern era on the Vineyard in terms of the summer season, with summer residents, happens with that war.”

No one knows what the Army Corps will bring up from the bottom of Cape Pogue in the coming weeks. But after seven decades of secrecy, it seems the mystery is only fitting.

FAQs

What is so special about Martha's Vineyard history? ›

The Vineyard was home to one of the earliest known deaf communities in the United States; consequently, a sign language, the Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, emerged on the island among both deaf and hearing islanders.

What is the story behind Martha's Vineyard? ›

The indigenous Wampanoag Indians called it Noepe, which meant “land amid the streams.” British explorer Bartholomew Gosnold crossed the Atlantic in 1602 and landed at a place he called Cape Cod because of the fish in the vicinity. He would name the nearby island Martha's Vineyard after his daughter.

Who were the first settlers on Martha's Vineyard? ›

Originally inhabited by the Wampanoag people, The Vineyard was purchased in 1641 by Englishman Thomas Mayhew. At the time, the island's population consisted solely of European and Native American people until enslaved West Africans arrived in the 1600s, working on the farms of European settlers.

What do locals call Martha's Vineyard? ›

"As is their yearly tradition, the Obamas are on summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard, or, as it's more commonly known to locals and visitors, 'The Martha,'" the article, written by Dayna Evans, states.

Why is it called the inkwell on Martha's Vineyard? ›

The” Inkwell” or Town Beach in Oak Bluffs is the name of the popular beach frequented by African Americans beginning in the late nineteenth century. The strand was pejoratively called “The Inkwell” by nearby whites in reference to the skin color of the beach-goers.

Who does Martha's Vineyard belong to? ›

Martha's Vineyard, island of glacial origin off the southeastern coast of Massachusetts, U.S., 4 miles (6 km) across Vineyard Sound from the mainland (Cape Cod). It accounts for most of the territory and population of Dukes county, Massachusetts.

Were there slaves on Marthas Vineyard? ›

In conclusion, Martha's Vineyard has never been unfamiliar with African Americans. In 1776, before slavery was abolished, there were over sixty slaves and freemen on the island mostly for domestic and maritime duties.

Why is Martha's Vineyard named Martha? ›

A Brief History.

Believe it or not, the Island got its name from the many wild vines that still cover the Island today. The Island has had several names, but was named Martha's Vineyard after the daughter of explorer Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602.

Was there ever a Vineyard on Martha's Vineyard? ›

True, vineyards and wineries haven't been a significant part of the island's agriculture (Martha's Vineyard has had exactly one wine-producing vineyard, which closed in 2008 after 37 years of production) but there are still plenty of ways to fill your wine glass on the island, including some very awesome festivals.

What is the Black section of Martha's Vineyard? ›

In the Oak Bluffs area of Martha's Vineyard, the Inkwell, as it's fondly known, has long been a summer destination for Black families; the area was even listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide for vacation-bound African-American families popular from the '40s to '60s.

How did deer get to Martha's Vineyard? ›

Luce of the sloop Neptune, bound for Holmes Hole, found one swimming across Buzzards Bay toward Naushon, then three miles distant. Feeling pity on it, he rescued the animal and brought it to the Vineyard under his care. A similar tale is reportedly responsible for the return of Nantucket's extirpated deer.

Where do celebrities stay on Martha's Vineyard? ›

🤩 Where do the celebrities stay in Martha's Vineyard? Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey have been spotted at Harbor View Hotel and Blue Heron Farm.

What does Chappy mean Martha's Vineyard? ›

'Chappy' is short for Chappaquiddick, not what happens to your lips when you've been out in the sun for too long. Chappaquiddick is a small island that lies off the eastern tip of Martha's Vineyard and is part of Edgartown.

Which is bigger Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket? ›

Martha's Vineyard is Larger than Nantucket

Martha's Vineyard is much bigger, with 6 towns and is 23 miles long and 9 miles wide.

How cold does it get in Martha's Vineyard? ›

The cold season lasts for 3.3 months, from December 10 to March 20, with an average daily high temperature below 46°F. The coldest month of the year in Martha's Vineyard Island is January, with an average low of 25°F and high of 39°F.

What are the polar bears in Martha's Vineyard? ›

Polar Bears Of Martha's Vineyard Uphold Legacy With Tradition

Is Oak Bluffs a real place? ›

The Town of Oak Bluffs is a residential, resort community located on the northeast shore of the island of Martha's Vineyard.

Can you walk everywhere in Martha's Vineyard? ›

All three of the main port towns (Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown) are easily walkable. And since both Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs have ferries that service the towns May - October (Vineyard Haven, year round), your own two feet might just be all the transportation you need for your visit!

How many blacks live on Martha's Vineyard? ›

Of the 15,966 full-time residents who identified themselves by one race in the census, 511 are African American, less than four per cent of the Island's full-time population, but a 42 per cent increase over the 2000 census, compared with a 6.6 per cent increase in the white population.

What is the average income in Martha's Vineyard? ›

Martha's Vineyard pays an average salary of $387,267 and salaries range from a low of $341,125 to a high of $439,675.

Why is it called Edgartown? ›

The oldest settlement on the island, Edgartown dates from 1642 and was incorporated in 1671 and named for Edgar, son of James II of England; the town had previously been called Nunnepog (Algonquian for “Fresh Pond”). In the 18th century Edgartown was the prosperous home port of many whaling vessels.

What percent of Martha's Vineyard is Black? ›

Martha's Vineyard always was, and still is, a mostly White community— the population was 5,341 according to the 2020 United States Census, and only 12 percent of the population comprises people of color; even in Oak Bluffs, less than five percent of the population is Black.

Is Martha's Vineyard historically Black? ›

People of African descent first arrived at Martha's Vineyard in the 1600s as enslaved West Africans who worked on the farms of European settlers. The Oak Bluffs harbor drew freed slaves, laborers and sailors in the 18th century, and white locals sold them land.

Was Martha's Vineyard part of the Underground Railroad? ›

Massachusetts was the 1st state to abolish slavery. Before it had become to so many slaves, Martha's Vineyard was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

How many people live on Martha's Vineyard year round? ›

What is the population of Martha's Vineyard? According to the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, about 17,000 people live there year-round, but the population explodes to nearly 200,000 in the summer, the height of tourist season.

What is Chappaquiddick island known for? ›

Chappaquiddick is mainly defined by its diverse land and water ecologies with expansive salt marshes, ponds, red cedar woods, grassy meadows, and coastal wildlife including sandpipers, piping plovers, blue heron, osprey, and oysters.

Can anyone go to Martha's Vineyard? ›

Martha's Vineyard welcomes visitors throughout the year. Come in summer and enjoy our world class beaches, cultural events, fresh seafood, farm fresh produce and laid back lifestyle.

Who's Martha in Martha's Vineyard? ›

An Infant Martha

The most popular and very believable account is that the island was named by the British explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, after his infant daughter – Martha. Gosnold came to Cuttyhunk (one of the Elizabeth Islands between the Vineyard and the mainland), in 1602 and built a small fort and trading post.

Why is Martha's Vineyard important in deaf history? ›

In the history of deaf culture, Martha's Vineyard holds a special place. For more than 200 years, the island was home to one of the largest deaf communities in the country. But islanders never treated deafness as a disability. Instead, they created a sign language that everyone used: hearing and deaf.

Is there a bridge to Martha's Vineyard? ›

But, in reality, getting to Martha's Vineyard is pretty darn easy — and there are more ways than one! First, you should know it's really an Island – there are no tunnels or bridges connecting the Vineyard to the mainland. So you'll need to take a ferry, or fly here.

Was there ever a Vineyard on Martha's Vineyard? ›

True, vineyards and wineries haven't been a significant part of the island's agriculture (Martha's Vineyard has had exactly one wine-producing vineyard, which closed in 2008 after 37 years of production) but there are still plenty of ways to fill your wine glass on the island, including some very awesome festivals.

Is Martha's Vineyard named after Martha Washington? ›

In 1602 the island was discovered by an English explorer, Bartholomew Gosnold, who named the island Martha's Vineyard after his daughter Martha and the plentiful vines of wild grapes found along the island's shores. Today, the island is a popular vacation escape from nearby cities of Boston, New York, and Washington.

What is unique about the town of Chilmark? ›

Chilmark has the highest point on Martha's Vineyard, at the 311-foot (95 m) summit of Peaked Hill. The town has several sanctuaries and preserves, the largest of which being the Menemsha Hills Reservation just northeast of the village which shares that name.

Can anyone go to Martha's Vineyard? ›

Martha's Vineyard welcomes visitors throughout the year. Come in summer and enjoy our world class beaches, cultural events, fresh seafood, farm fresh produce and laid back lifestyle.

Why are there no vineyards on Marthas Vineyard? ›

Truth be told, Martha's Vineyard isn't an ideal place for farming grapes. With sandy soil, unpredictable weather, and high deer populations, grape production is a very difficult task - but how, then, did it get the name?

Which is bigger Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket? ›

Martha's Vineyard is Larger than Nantucket

Martha's Vineyard is much bigger, with 6 towns and is 23 miles long and 9 miles wide.

How did deer get to Martha's Vineyard? ›

Luce of the sloop Neptune, bound for Holmes Hole, found one swimming across Buzzards Bay toward Naushon, then three miles distant. Feeling pity on it, he rescued the animal and brought it to the Vineyard under his care. A similar tale is reportedly responsible for the return of Nantucket's extirpated deer.

Why is it called Edgartown? ›

The oldest settlement on the island, Edgartown dates from 1642 and was incorporated in 1671 and named for Edgar, son of James II of England; the town had previously been called Nunnepog (Algonquian for “Fresh Pond”). In the 18th century Edgartown was the prosperous home port of many whaling vessels.

What happened to Martha Washington after George died? ›

After George Washington died in 1799, Martha assured a final privacy by burning their letters; she died of “severe fever” on May 22, 1802. Both lie buried at Mount Vernon, where Washington himself had planned an unpretentious tomb for them.

Did Martha Washington have any children? ›

Martha Washington

What is the highest point on Martha's Vineyard? ›

The rise of land known as Peaked Hill is the island's summit. The highest point in the rise, 311 feet above sea level, has quietly reposed for years; its 308' cousin, located almost a quarter of a mile away, is renowned on the island as a World War II military lookout and garrison.

How long is the Chilmark Road Race? ›

The Course

The Start is 3.1 miles east of the Chilmark Town Hall on Middle Road. It's very hilly from 1.5 to 2.6 miles. The Finish Line is at Beetlebung Corner next to the Town Hall.

Is Menemsha beach open? ›

BEACH OPEN 9 A.M. - 7 P.M.

How much does a house cost in Martha's Vineyard? ›

The average sale price of a home in Martha's Vineyard. The average sale price per square foot in Martha's Vineyard is $995, up 34.6% since last year.…
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GreatSchools Rating.
7/10 Oak Bluffs Elementary School Public • PreK-8435 Students3 reviews
NR Chilmark Elementary School Public • K-560 StudentsN/A
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How long is the ferry ride to get to Martha's Vineyard? ›

If you are traveling to Martha's Vineyard, the trip takes only 45 minutes from Woods Hole.

Can you walk everywhere in Martha's Vineyard? ›

All three of the main port towns (Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown) are easily walkable. And since both Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs have ferries that service the towns May - October (Vineyard Haven, year round), your own two feet might just be all the transportation you need for your visit!

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