February 11, 2008


The story behind 'Taffy of Torpedo Junction,' and
the Buxton girl who was the real-life Taffy



BY IRENE NOLAN


A new generation of youngsters will be able to read about Taffy Willis, the high-spirited 13-year-old tomboy with a freckled face and a head of red-gold hair who battled Nazi spies on Hatteras Island during World War II with the help of her pony, Sailor, and her dog, Brandy.

"Taffy of Torpedo Junction," which a Raleigh newspaper columnist recently called "perhaps the best piece of children's literature ever produced in the state," is back on bookstore shelves after it went out of print and was rescued by another publisher because of a blizzard of fan mail.

And no one is more tickled by this turn of events than Carol White Dillon of Buxton, whose childhood on Hatteras during the war was the author's inspiration for the fictional Taffy.
 
Young Carol didn't catch any Nazis on Hatteras, though her mother Maude White, the Buxton postmistress, did help catch one.  But in early 1942 when German U-boats were waging war on Allied shipping within sight of the Outer Banks, Carol was a 13-year-old tomboy with copper-red hair that she tied back with a ribbon to ride the sandy trails of Buxton on her Ocracoke pony, Ivy, with her hound dog, Boozie.
 
Carol White's seventh-grade teacher was Nell Wise, a young woman from Stumpy Point, who boarded with Maude and Estus White, who was then on the local school board.

Some years later, after the war had ended, after Nell Wise had married a Coast Guardsman by the name of Bob Wechter and left Buxton, and Carol White had grown up, graduated from college and married a New Yorker by the name of Bill Dillon, her former teacher told her, "I'm going to write a book about you."

The book that Nell Wise Wechter wrote, "Taffy of Torpedo Junction," was first published in 1957.   "Taffy" was Wechter's first book — and some think her best.  It won an American Association of University Women award for best children's book by a North Carolina author the year it was published.  Wechter went on to write other books and to become a widely admired author, storyteller, teacher, historian, and journalist before she died in 1989.

Last year, "Taffy's" original publisher, John F. Blair in Winston-Salem, decided there was no longer a market for the book.  The publisher offered the page negatives to Wechter's daughter, Marcia Wechter Kass, of Lakeland, Fla.
 
Kass wasn't ready to give up on her mother's work and contacted Raleigh News and Observer columnist Dennis Rogers, who was a friend and admirer of her mother.  Rogers wrote a column lamenting the loss of "Taffy."

"In a world where Roseanne is considered entertainment and rap is considered music," he wrote, "there must always be room for the adventures of a tousled 13-year-old from North Carolina."

His readers apparently agreed.  At his urging, they wrote letters, expressing their support for "Taffy."  Other writers took up the cause and an Associated Press story appeared in newspapers around the country.

"It started a whirlwind," Kass says from her Florida home.  "I began hearing from people all over the United States.  I got hundreds of letters and calls."

The flap over the demise of "Taffy" was noticed by editors at the University of North Carolina Press in Chapel Hill.  They were impressed by the outpouring of interest from "Taffy" admirers, including Terry Sanford, the former North Carolina governor, U.S. senator, and Duke University president.  The UNC Press decided to take a chance and reprint "Taffy of Torpedo Junction."
 

TORPEDO JUNCTION

Torpedo Junction was the name given to the area just off the coast of the Outer Banks, where German submarines regularly patrolled in the early years of World War II, stalking and destroying Allied shipping.  Outer Bankers could attest to this activity even before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.  But after Pearl Harbor, the Germans stepped up their activity off the North Carolina Coast.

The Battle of Torpedo Junction began in earnest on Jan. 18, 1942, and continued for at least the next six months.  During that time, according to Ben Dixon MacNeill in "The Hatterasman," 108 ships were sunk off Cape Hatteras.  North Carolina author, Bland Simpson, in a foreword to the new edition of "Taffy," puts the number of ships sunk at 87.  Most, but not all, were tankers and cargo ships, but passenger vessels were not immune.

According to MacNeill, 1,056 men, women, and children lost their lives during the Battle of Torpedo Junction.  Many of the bodies were forever lost in the Graveyard of the Atlantic, but others washed up on beaches on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.  Many of these were buried by the islanders — four British sailors are buried in a cemetery in Ocracoke village.  Several sailors are buried just off the Park Service Road to Cape Point behind the old Coast Guard Station, now a Park Service headquarters.

Older Hatteras Islanders have many stories to tell about those times.  They remember lifeboats — and bodies — washed up on the beach.  Oil from the tankers covered some beaches.  Explosions punctuated daily life in the villages, and burning ships lit the night skies.  Island fishermen tell of German submarines surfacing near their fishing boats and Nazi sailors asking for food or candy.

The Coast Guard stations all along Hatteras and Ocracoke were activated, and Coast Guardsmen patrolled the beaches — on foot and later on horseback.  The Navy had a major presence on the islands, including a hospital on Ocracoke.  Allied ships regularly pulled into safe harbor in such places as Ocracoke Inlet during the night to escape the marauding German subs.

By late in 1942, the Americans had gotten the upper hand on the German submarines and the war off the Outer Banks quieted down.


THE BOOK

"Taffy of Torpedo Junction" begins just before Pearl Harbor.  The German subs are already causing trouble off Hatteras Island, and the Coast Guard is patrolling the beaches.  Danger hangs heavy in the air.

Taffy Willis is a 13-year-old island girl, independent and high spirited, who lives with her beloved Gramp in a shack on the beach near Cape Point.  Gramp is a fisherman, who is raising Taffy after the death of her parents when their fishing boat capsized in a sudden storm off the Cape.

Taffy and her pony ride the sandy roads of Buxton and explore the dunes and beaches.  She and her friends, Malene and Kenny Jens, son of a Coast Guardsman, roast crabs on the sound shore at sunset.  Despite admonishments to stay off the beach from Kenny's father, Big Jens, Taffy and her dog Brandy manage to capture a German spy who has come ashore on the beach near Gramp's shack, and she also manages to get pulled into the intrigue that is going on at a mysterious, boarded-up house on the edge of the woods.

Bland Simpson, author and University of North Carolina professor, has written a new foreword for this new edition of "Taffy of Torpedo Junction."

He writes that the novel "seems as fresh and straight-ahead today" as it did when he first heard it.  He recalls his fourth grade teacher, Miss Audrey Austin, reading the newly published book aloud to his fourth grade class in Elizabeth City.

"Miss Austin believed that, as young Carolinians, we ought to know what had gone on during the war on the Outer Banks.  From the first page, where we found ourselves on a sandy trail through the island woods, we knew 'Taffy' was our story.  Yes, Taffy was ours, all right, and she and her dangerous adventure were as good as real."


Simpson goes on to write that "the girls at J.C. Sawyer Elementary School all idolized her, and the boys all fell in love."

"Yet, as full of history and sense of place and social portraiture as it is," Simpson writes, "'Taffy' is a novel, a good story first and foremost, a literary gift from a teacher, intended for young readers, each of whom would naturally yearn to be as bold a soldier as the bareback-riding heroine, who would be crazily curious as to what she was on the trail of, and who would pull for her through it all."

The history and the sense of place that Nell Wise Wechter conveys in the novel makes it not only an exciting story for youngsters but an interesting one for adults also.
However, despite everything "Taffy of Torpedo Junction" has going for it, the original publisher says it couldn't be sold to today's young readers.

In an Associated Press story last year, a spokesman for John F. Blair Publisher said that Taffy had been out of print for several years when the hardcover edition sold out.  In 1990, Blair printed 3,000 paperback copies to see if the story might appeal to a new generation of readers.  It took five years to sell the 3,000 copies, convincing Blair to give up on "Taffy."



THE AUTHOR


Raleigh newspaper columnist Dennis Rogers called Nell Wise Wechter "the charm, grit, and lore of the Outer Banks in one woman."


"She traced  her heritage to the Roanoke voyages that settled America," he wrote, "and her heart and speech never strayed from the waters of her youth near the fishing village of Stumpy Point."

"She was an Outer Banker through and through," says her daughter Marcia Kass. 

Wechter's father was a commercial fisherman in the village of Stumpy Point on the Dare County mainland.
 
Kass says her mother started out as a journalist, writing for the old Dare County Times and the Hyde County Herald.  She was also a stringer for newspapers in Raleigh and Greensboro.

She attended East Carolina University in the 1930s, though she didn't get a degree until the 1950s.  Then she went on to earn two master's degrees.
 
After her teaching stint in Buxton, Nell Wise married Bob Wechter, who was born in Germany but grew up in Wisconsin.  He was stationed at various Coast Guard stations on the Outer Banks during the war, and the couple married in 1943 in Elizabeth City. 
Wechter retired from the Coast Guard on a disability after the war and the family moved back to Stumpy Point, where they lived until they moved to Greensboro in about 1950.

"She had a great thirst for knowledge," Marcia Kass says of her mother.  "She took history very personally.  She lived through some interesting times."

Kass adds that her mother also had a great wit and sense of humor.

Carol Dillon says Wechter was "the best teacher by far that I ever had."

"She was a very smart woman," Dillon remembers.  "She was an intellectual, very bright."


Nell Wise Wechter taught school for most of her life — 30 or 35 years, her daughter says.   She won the Freedoms Foundation's National Teaching Medal and the Franklin McNutt Award for superior teaching of the American Way of Life.  She also wrote a number of other books, all of which are now out of print.  Her other children's books include "Betsy Dowdy's Ride," "Swamp Girl," and "Teach's Light."  In addition, she wrote books based on local history, including "Some Whisper of Our Name" about Outer Banks place names and "The Mighty Midgetts of Chicamacomico."

If "Taffy of Torpedo Junction" does well in its new printing, Marcia Kass says she might think about trying to find a new publisher for some of her mother's other books, especially the children's books.

And earlier this year, Kass got quite a surprise when she was getting ready to move and sorting through some of her mother's old papers.  She found a manuscript she never knew existed — a sequel to "Taffy" that is apparently about half finished.
  
Kass doesn't want to say what the story in the sequel involves.  If "Taffy" sells well, she may do something with the new-found manuscript, maybe even completing it herself.


A REAL-LIFE TAFFY

In her opening page of "Taffy," Nell Wise Wechter wrote, "This story is based on many events that actually happened, and the line between fact and fiction is rather thin at times."

The characters, she says, are fictional.  Gramp Morgan and Sal Oden never existed.  And she wrote that Taffy and her island friends "exemplify the daring courage of all the teen-age youngsters who lived in the Outer Banks of North Carolina during the dark days of World War II."
 
However, certain characters were based on real people.  Marcia Kass says the author herself was the model for the schoolteacher, Miss White.  Big Jens, the Coast Guardsman, was based on the author's German-born husband.  And Carol White Dillon was without a doubt the inspiration for the heroine, Taffy.

Carol White Dillon, 67, was 13 years old when the Battle of Torpedo Junction began in 1942. 

"I was a tomboy," she says.  Since there were few girls her age near where her family lived in Buxton, most of her buddies were boys, including James Rollinson, Jack Gray, and her cousin Lindy Miller.

"My mother worked.  My father worked.  And I ran around like a little hellion," Dillon says with a laugh.

She rode her pony, Ivy, bareback and was usually accompanied by her hound dog, Boozie, one of her father's hunting dogs.

"I used to ride on the beach," she remembers, "and I would see the lifeboats from the torpedoed ships."

She says she had been told that some of the lifeboats had bodies in them — survivors who were machine-gunned by the Germans.  But that is a sight that Dillon never saw herself.

The scene in "Taffy" in which the children in school are startled by explosions rocking their classroom and rattling the windows is one that really happened more than once.

"In the beginning, they torpedoed the ships in the daytime and it would rattle those windows so hard that we thought they would come out," Dillon says.  "They were those tall windows that went from the ceiling to the floor, and they would really rattle."

Dillon remembers burning ships on the horizon, black-out curtains, and oil on the beach.  And she remembers quite vividly one adventure with her cousin Lindy on a moonlit beach.

"It was bright, like day, that night," Dillon says.  "And we wanted to go swimming.  We went down to the beach at the lighthouse.  Someone yelled, 'Halt!'  My cousin ran, but I stopped."

Dillon was terrified that her cousin would be shot for running, but he wasn't.  Instead, the Coast Guardsman on patrol gave the two a lecture they didn't forget.

"He hollered at us and told us never to do that again, and believe me we didn't."
Young Carol and her friends didn't apprehend any German spies, but Dillon says her mother did help round one up.  

Maude White was the postmistress in Buxton and she became suspicious when a local German man kept coming in to insure and mail large boxes.

"I remember him coming in," she says, "because the boxes were those big wooden ones."

Dillon says her mother became suspicious and contacted the FBI. She says the man was arrested and that the FBI determined the boxes he was mailing contained detailed maps.

Despite that close call, Dillon doesn't remember that she and her friends were fearful during the siege of the German submarines.

"We didn't at the time realize we were in any danger," she says.  "Kids back then weren't afraid because there really wasn't anything to be afraid of.  This was a very safe place.  The only things I remember being stolen were watermelons and chickens."

Dillon adds that islanders knew that Germans were coming ashore, "but only to infiltrate."

"And," she says, "I don't think many infiltrated from here because you couldn't get off the island then."

Carol Dillon thinks that the new printing of "Taffy" will appeal to today's youngster and will sell.

"It's a good story," she says. "It's based on the truth.  The times she wrote about.  All that is true."



(Postscript:  More recent research, such as the documentary "War Zone: World War II on the Outer Banks," by Kevin Duffus sheds light on the war years on Hatteras.  According to Duffus, in just six months beginning in January, 1942, German U-boats sank or damaged 397 Allied ships.  Nearly 5,000 people, including many civilians, were burned to death, crushed, drowned or vanished into the sea. You can read more about the Battle for Torpedo Junction in a story by Duffus on the Island History page.)

 


(Editor's note:  This article is reprinted from the October, 1996, edition of The Island Breeze.)

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