An Island Full of Bullseyes
Several of you sent me a TikTok that shows a spot on the North Carolina coast that contains perfect circles, tanks, shipwrecks and more. What's going on there?
Whenever I get sent the same thing three times in rapid succession (thanks Miller Yoho, Michael Bitzer, and Daniel Neal) I have no choice but to write about it.
Here is that thing:
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This TikTok, which is currently approaching a million views, falls under the genre of People Zooming Into Weird Shit On Google Maps. First we see a tank in the middle of a large circle. Then there’s another circle, with something smashed to bits in the middle of it. Then, there’s a shipwreck. WTF indeed!
These things look like bullseyes because… they are. This is the Piney Island Bombing Range, used by Marines based nearby at MCAS Cherry Point. It’s been used for target practice since World War II, along with Brant Island, which was effectively bombed out of existence in 1960. Piney Island is closed to the public and can only be reached by boat, and it’s sticking up into the sound just to the west of Cedar Island, northeast of Beaufort. It’s an out of the way place for most of us, but fairly convenient for the Marines based about 20 miles away.
There are only a few ways to see what’s going on there. Google Maps is one. Occasionally the Marines release pictures from the range. Hence, here’s that tank that you saw in the TikTok:
And here’s that barge from the end of the TikTok, being shot up by Marines flying by in an Osprey:
There are also fake surface-to-air missile sites, a fake runway with a fake plane, and also boats that are pulled around by remote control towboats. It’s sort of like a buffet for bullets.
Those bullets turn the targets into a pile of twisted metal (and occasionally start fires). “Over time, the targets being shot at become beaten-up and worn down so much that they begin to sink into the marsh,” Clyde Downing, the test range tracker at the bombing range, said back in 2015. Hence, the Marines here took the exact same approach as the king of the swamp castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “By towing the new targets out and putting them on top of the old ones, we give the pilots a good target to shoot at, which gives them better training to accomplish their missions,” said Paul Brody, a heavy equipment operator with the bombing range.
As you can see, those old boats are full of bullet holes, so, yes, Marines, soldiers, and sailors who use the range are using live bullets. But planes and helicopters aren’t dropping big bombs on the island. Instead, they use Mk-76 practice bombs, which weigh only 25 pounds, but are meant to fly through the air like the real 500 pound versions (actual, exploding bombs are green, while practice bombs are blue). There aren’t any explosions, but there are booms. Those bombs are often coming out of planes that are zooming by at hundreds of miles per hour, and it only takes a few moments for them to break the sound barrier and create the extremely loud sonic boom that comes with it.
All of this was helpfully pointed out by John Rahm, a retired Marine colonel who wrote a series of blogs for the folks in Oriental, a small town just across the sound to the west of Piney Island. People there and in other places nearby had been seeing some worrying stuff like, uh, this:
This dude on a ferry from Ocracoke to Swanquarter was CONVINCED that he was seeing a UFO. Instead, he was watching military planes dropping flares, ostensibly to light up targets on Piney Island.
Thus, if there’s something strange in your neighborhood, and your neighborhood is in eastern North Carolina, it’s probably the military doing military things. Here's one last example. Back in the day, you used to be able to cut across Camp Lejeuneto get from Bear Creek to Sneads Ferry on North Carolina Highway 172, although sometimes you’d get caught in traffic. As in: You’d have to stop and wait for Marines and tanks to cross the road in front of you. That road closed to civilian traffic back in 2007. Today, the only way to see it is on Google Maps. Maybe somebody will make a TikTok about it.
The Marines are just thrilled about having a place to practice that’s close to their base, but fishermen aren’t wild about it. The Corps wants to push boaters even further back from their bombing ranges, and a lot of captains and guides are mad that they can’t get at some prime areas for shrimp, crabs, oysters, and fish.