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Portside: Saving a piece of Thunderbolt history

  • One of the crash rescue boats stationed in Thunderbolt during World War II (Photo courtesy Bill Gardner)

During the Civil War, the city of Savannah was protected by a number of forts and water batteries, most notably Fort Jackson and Fort Pulaski on the Savannah River.

But there’s another Civil War-era fort that’s rarely talked about – one that played a role in America’s defense as recently as World War II.

Fort Thunderbolt — also known as the Thunderbolt Battery — was designed to help protect the city against Union forces approaching from Whitemarsh Island.

An 1861 entry in the personal diary of Savannahian, journalist and Confederate soldier Cornelius R. Hanleiter noted the location of the Battery at Thunderbolt as “on a high bluff, commanding the river at this point.”

Two years later, the fort was visited by Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, who inspected the Phoenix Riflemen of the 63rd Georgia Regiment, one of the oldest volunteer militia companies in Savannah.

Following the war, the area underwent a variety of incarnations, including the Thunderbolt Casino, which burned down in 1930, and the Thunderbolt Yacht Basin, which opened in 1939. The yacht basin would quickly play a new role in the country’s defense when, as early as November, 1941, it was reported that the Army Air Corps stationed at Hunter Field had three “crash boats” stationed there, with more anticipated.

Crash boats, more formally known as rescue boats, were deployed to save air crews who crashed or had to ditch their planes over water.

By 1942, the air corps had acquired the yacht basin for use as a Rescue Boat Station in support of its airborne bombing and gunnery training.

The Thunderbolt station housed the crash rescue boats of Operations Platoon No. 9 of the 922nd Quartermaster Co., eventually becoming part of the Third Air Force Staging Wing at Hunter Field until the mid-1950s.

In 1965 William E. Honey and the Latex Construction Company purchased the property to support the Company’s dredging operations. Through the ensuing years, the facilities have been used by Lockheed Shipbuilding Company to construct military watercraft and by Palmer-Johnson for repairs to private and commercial vessels. More recently, Thunderbolt Marine, Inc., has resumed operations on the site for service and repair of luxury yachts.

But Bill Palmer, whose father, the late Staff Sergeant William J. Palmer, served at the Rescue Boat Station and later settled in Thunderbolt, didn’t want to see that important piece of the town’s history fade away.

“My father, who was serving with the Army Air Corps at Hunter Field, had a merchant marine background,” he said. “When he learned about the Rescue Boat Station, he immediately got a transfer there. He married a local girl and settled into life in Thunderbolt, which is where I was raised.”

Always interested in military history, the younger Palmer had started doing research for family members when he wasn’t busy traveling for International Paper.

“It occurred to me that I should be researching ways to tell the story and preserve the history of Thunderbolt’s contribution to World War II,” he said.

A commemorative marker seemed like the best bet, but he quickly learned that individuals cannot sponsor historic markers. He went to the town of Thunderbolt and the marina owners, who were immediately on board.

After several years of careful research, he presented his findings to the Georgia Historical Society. The historic marker was approved early this year and will be installed in a small park just outside of the boatyard fence.

A dedication has been set for Oct. 7 and Palmer is reaching out to any veterans of the Rescue Boat Station or their relatives to be a part of the ceremony. He can be reached at 912-897-4329.

 

Senior business reporter Mary Carr Mayle covers the ports for the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow. She can be reached at 912-652-0324 or at mary.mayle@savannahnow.com.

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