More than a simple painting, a compass rose illustration that adorns a Sea Island ceiling reveals the strength and courage of local volunteers during World War II.
By Amber Lanier Nagle
Having played an active role on the homefront during World War II, Sea Island’s rich history is intertwined with that of the infamous conflict. While that once meant the inclusion of an eight-point compass rose, painted high on the ceiling of the administration building in the early 1940s in hues of red and blue, it’s now chronicled by a plaque discussing the directional symbol and its importance. Namely, it pays homage to our nation’s Greatest Generation—members of the military as well as civilian men and women who felt a duty to serve our country through any means necessary.
“It was a time of immense fear,” says Sea Island archivist Mimi Rogers. “Between World War I and World War II, long-range bombers with the capability of carrying devastating quantities of explosives were being developed and radar technology was still in its infancy. People were scared, and after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, everyone was on edge.”
America desired a warning system to protect the mainland against the threat of air attacks. “We needed lookouts all along the coastline,” Rogers notes. “But we needed our trained soldiers for military operations. That’s why the Aircraft Warning Service was formed.”
The AWS was composed of civilians, mostly women, who kept watch over coastal skies from existing towers and elevated structures from Maine to the southern tip of Florida, as well as on the West Coast.
“The tower in the Sea Island administration building was one of those lookout points,” Rogers explains. “Volunteers spent hours in the tower looking for aircraft in the skies over the Atlantic. If they saw an aircraft, they were instructed to report the sighting immediately to the regional Army Information Center.”
Flashcards and posters helped AWS volunteers learn to identify the markings and shapes of various planes that were prominent at the time. Indeed, aircraft recognition became somewhat of a pastime among American civilians, and clubs and contests emerged that promoted accurate aircraft identification.
The compass rose, a directional graphic most often used by cartographers when developing maps, was painted on the ceiling of the tower to help AWS volunteers relay precise location of the aircraft they spotted.
“We know that the compass rose was painted on the ceiling for the sole purpose of citing the direction of aircraft,” Rogers says. “It appears that the original paint underneath the design was green, which suggests that the original ceiling was painted in 1929 or 1930, just after The Cloister was built.”
Rogers notes that the spotters at Sea Island never sighted an enemy plane; however, there would likely have been numerous sightings of our own aircraft due to Sea Island’s proximity to the naval stations in Brunswick and on St. Simons Island. “AWS volunteers also reported planes that went down or seemed to be in trouble,” she adds.
Katharine “Kappy” O’Connor, daughter of former Sea Island Co. President Alfred W. Jones Sr., remembers plane spotting with her mother, Katharine Talbott Jones, during the war when she was a young girl. In an interview with Rogers a few years ago, O’Connor recalled that a man from the Navy taught aircraft identification techniques using a big screen that showcased various plane silhouettes.
“Identifying planes is harder than you may think,” O’Connor shared in that interview. “The smaller planes were very similar. I’d go up to the tower with Mom for her shift and if we spotted a plane, we’d say ‘hi, bi’ for the altitude and two engines.”
O’Connor understood the seriousness of the task even though identifying aircraft sometimes felt like a game. “Everyone did their part—anything and everything we could do to support the war effort,” she said. “I also remember gathering with other women and children at The Cloister to roll bandages that medics used to dress wounds overseas.”
In 2017, the historic ceiling planks embellished with the compass rose design were carefully removed and placed on a backing designed to hold the pieces together. Inch by inch, two professional art conservators performed the tedious work of restoring the image.
“In some areas, the paint was flaking and they carefully restored the surfaces. They breathed new life into our compass rose,” Rogers says. “The original compass rose was moved to the World War II Home Front Museum on St. Simons Island, where it is the centerpiece of the gallery devoted to the Aircraft Warning Service. It was unveiled to the public in 2018, on the anniversary of the beginning of the war in America—the day after the Pearl Harbor attack.”
In its place, a replica was painted on the ceiling of the tower to mark the hallowed place where dozens of AWS volunteer observers stood watch eight decades ago. The plaque was erected as a reminder of both the significance of the compass rose as well as a nation’s willingness to help during wartime. Through its values of personal responsibility and duty, the AWS, including Sea Island’s own volunteers, played an important role in WWII that will long be remembered at the resort.