Topsail Beach, home to a variety of history and the The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital, is also home to a very small collection of permanent, year-round residents, a number somewhere around 500. The attractions found in Topsail Beach include public beach access areas, a bike path, a roller rink, a miniature golf course, a handful of restaurants and shops, all of which are more for the amusement of the tourists, many of whom make annual pilgrimages to visit the island’s rich history and the sea turtles who live here.
Some unusual sights along the Topsail beach strand catch the eye. What was that lone 30-foot tall white tower that looks to be made of concrete block, now aged and crumbling, standing on the side of the road? It has very unusual design features for a beach condo, you think as you drive by the structure. The question fades out of your mind, unresolved, then flares up again when you pass another one.
The year was 1946 and while World War II had just ended, the Cold War had just begun. In its search for a remote spot to test missiles, the U.S. Government settled on Topsail Island, at that time known generally as “the sand spit.” Named such because it was comprised of a long, narrow finger of land that could be reached only by boat and was inhabited by only a handful of ramshackle fishing shacks, Topsail Beach was perfect for a top-secret classified military operation.
Eight concrete-block towers were built as missile observation points, and the Assembly Building was constructed to build the missiles. The partners in this venture were the U.S. Navy and Johns Hopkins Research Laboratories, but the missile-testing program was relatively short-lived – it packed up and moved out in 1948.
Operation Bumblebee was the code name because, according to an exhibit in The Missiles and More Museum, “a bumblebee cannot fly because of the shape and weight of his body in relation to the total wing area. But, the bumblebee doesn’t know this so he goes ahead and flies anyway.” Missiles also apparently suffer under similar delusions. The buzz at the time was that Topsail Island was to jet flight development what Kitty Hawk was to propeller flight.
Strange and vague similarities exist between the Missile Assembly Building and the The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital. The two facilities are located about a block apart and, whatever emerges through their doors as a finished product is (or was) trundled by hand or by cart from the sound side over to the beach and then sent off to sea on a wing and a prayer to its uncertain fate, under the intense scrutiny of a sea of spectators.