By Bryan Mims
Thunder peals from a clear blue sky over the Neuse River and its labyrinthine tributaries. It rolls over the cul-de-sacs, playgrounds and parking lots of Havelock, raining down from a source faster than the speed of sound itself. At City Park, swingsets and slides are counterpointed by the hangars and red-on-white-checkered storage towers a half-mile away. “Pardon our noise,” reads a sign at the sprawling air station with the serene name of Cherry Point. “It’s the sound of freedom.”
The thunder is most likely from an AV-8B Harrier II jet, which has long been Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point’s go-to aircraft. But production of the AV-8B, once manufactured by McDonnell Douglas and now supported by Boeing, ended in 2003; over the next decade, the noise will increasingly emanate from an F-35 Lightning II, a new generation of fighter jet from Lockheed Martin. At roughly $100 million per plane, the F-35 has short takeoffs, can land vertically and is able to hover. Cherry Point is expected to house 94 of the jets, the largest fleet anywhere in the country. Moreover, the base will be home to a $43 million vertical lift fan-repair facility for the F-35, the only one of its kind in the world.
But a few tweets in December 2016 came as a thunderbolt. That’s when then-President-elect Donald Trump decreed on Twitter that the cost of the F-35 was “out of control” and vowed to corral it. The mayor of Havelock, a city that is inextricably bound to Cherry Point, felt the afterburn. Will Lewis called a news conference to announce that any reduction in the number of F-35s coming to the air station would have a chilling effect. Not getting F-35s, he said, could shrink the workforce at Cherry Point. After Trump’s criticism, Lockheed Martin trimmed the cost of the program by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Today, the jets are still heading to Cherry Point, according to Lewis. “We need to get some new infrastructure built, some new hangars and stuff like that. But things are moving along at the right speed. Everything looks good.”
Jet thunder isn’t just the sound of freedom, it’s the sound of ka-ching for Havelock, a city of more than 20,000 people nestled in the Croatan National Forest. The air station rolls out across 13,164 acres and is home to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, employing upward of 7,700 Marines and civilians. Another tenant is the Fleet Readiness Center East. With a workforce of about 4,000, Lewis says it’s North Carolina’s largest industrial employer east of Interstate 95 (“Up, up and away,” November 2016). All told, Cherry Point, the world’s largest Marine Corps air station, puts more than 14,300 people to work and pumps $2.2 billion into the region’s economy.
Such a large economic footprint makes Havelock the archetypal military community: neighborhoods of young families with out-of-state license plates in the driveways; consignment shops, barbershops, tattoo parlors and a military surplus outlet; pedestrians in battledress uniforms; a Navy Federal Credit Union; and, most poignant of all, a memorial to sacrifice and heroism.
Outside city hall stands the 9/11 Memorial Plaza, its centerpiece a steel beam from New York City’s World Trade Center. On a circular, low-rise wall are the hours and minutes when the four airliners struck on September 11, 2001 — 8:46 a.m., 9:03 a.m., 9:37 a.m., 10:03 a.m. — along with a concrete fragment from the Pentagon and a rock from Shanksville, Pa.
It’s a moving place to be still and contemplate the ironclad sense of duty among those who wear fatigues and fly supersonic jets. A few feet away, a fighter plane is motionless in midair, perched on a pedestal with a half-circle of American flags beyond its wingtips, its needle nose aimed skyward. A visit to this memorial to one of our nation’s darkest hours imparts a newfound sense of gratitude for military towns such as Havelock.
“I think we were destined to become a military community from the very beginning,” says Sue Cline, a 36-year resident and an administrative assistant at the Havelock Chamber of Commerce. She stands in the mini-museum at the Havelock Tourism & Event Center, where displays include a model of a Civil War fort that belonged to Union troops until a South Carolina cavalry unit showed up and burned it to the ground. Undeterred, the Yankees would soon reclaim Havelock, never again yielding it to the Confederates.
The railroad came through this part of Craven County in the late 1850s, just before the Civil War when Havelock was known as Slocum’s Creek. But locals sought a new name for their railroad whistle-stop, and they found inspiration in a British war hero, Major General Sir Henry Havelock. He gained worldwide acclaim for his exploits in the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
Cherry Point came along in 1941, when U.S. Rep. Graham Barden of New Bern relentlessly lobbied the Navy and Marine Corps to build an air base on the south side of the Neuse River.
His efforts proved fruitful: Not only did the Marine Corps establish Cherry Point but also Camp Lejeune near Jacksonville. Turning 8,000 acres of pine forests and swamps — where malaria still posed a threat — into an air base was considered one of the most ambitious construction programs of World War II. Soon after work began, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, lending an urgency to completing the project. Havelock’s population swelled: By one estimate, the town had only 100 residents in 1940; by 1960, its population had rocketed to more than 18,000.
Cline and her husband, a former Navy man fresh out of Fresno State with an engineering degree, arrived in Havelock in 1982. He worked for more than 30 years as an engineer at the air station. It’s like that in Havelock: Marines, sailors and civilians take jobs at Cherry Point, work a few years (or decades), retire and stay in the area. After all, Morehead City and the Crystal Coast beaches are within 30 miles, and the historic riverfront city of New Bern is a 20-minute drive up U.S. 70.
But it’s also like this in Havelock: Marines churning through a revolving door, dictated by reassignment orders and never staying long enough to put down roots. “It’s a unique demographic, because you’ve got people coming in and out every three years, and they’re coming from a wide area,” says Bruce Fortin, the chamber’s executive director. “How do you serve all those people? I don’t know what the 100% answer is, but you stay in contact with them and get feedback.”
Fortin, a retired Marine, stuck around, giving his school-age kids some stability. “It’s a great community to raise kids. I think most people would tell you that.” His office is in the tourism center, which houses a free exhibit that displays pictures of planes, models of planes, parts of planes and, outside, entire planes on loan from the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico, Va. The center also hosts banquets, balls and weddings.
Another party goes on every October at the Walter B. Jones Park in the middle of town: the Havelock Chili Festival, with its chili, chicken-wing and salsa cook-off. And on even-numbered years, Cherry Point hosts a popular three-day air show — more than 200,000 attended in 2016. This year’s show featuring the U.S. Navy Blue Angels is scheduled for May 4-6.
All that thunder is the sound of freedom, prowess and patriotism. As long as the thunder rolls, Havelock booms.