February 11, 2008
The story behind 'Taffy of Torpedo Junction,' and
the Buxton girl who was the real-life Taffy
BY IRENE NOLAN
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
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
"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
"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 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
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
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.
"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
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
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
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."
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
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
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.)