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One exterior photo of restored lookout tower
Recalling Cape May's World War II mission
Seaside towers provided a lookout for enemies
By Diane Stoneback | Tribune Newspapers
May 10, 2009
Watching the brilliant yellow-to-scarlet-to-purple sundowns or the Cape May- Lewes Ferry peacefully plying the Delaware Bay from Cape May's Sunset Beach, it's hard to imagine the turbulent times when this beautiful location was heavily fortified and played a vital role in the nation's homeland defense system.
But the grand opening Saturday of the newly restored World War II Lookout Tower (Fire Control Tower No. 23) Museum and Memorial brings a very different time into focus.
"The fire tower, constructed in 1942, is our centerpiece in recent efforts to emphasize Cape May's largely underappreciated and under-publicized role during World War II," says Robert Heinly, museum coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts in Cape May, which has spent the last seven years restoring the stark concrete tower.
The new attraction was one of 15 concrete fire-control towers in the Harbor Defense of the Delaware system known as Fort Miles and is the last of four towers in New Jersey to survive intact. (Towers in North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest were demolished and the one in Cape May City has been engulfed by the Grand Hotel on Beach Drive.)
The free grand-opening program Saturday at the tower begins at 10 a.m. Armed forces veterans, World War II re-enactors and representatives from Fort Miles at Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes, Del., will be on hand during the day. The tower overlooking the beach and coastline will be open for tours and will provide an impressive view from its observation level. The tower will stay open until 6 p.m. for visitors who want to climb and explore all of its levels. Saturday is Armed Forces Day.
The tower also will be highlighted during Cape May's World War II Weekend, June 5-7. The weekend will include music of the era plus lectures and presentations about how the war affected Cape May and its residents, museum and trolley tours and a Veterans Memorial Ceremony at Sunset Beach.
Take the time to explore the fire tower and its history and some amazing stories come to light.
Although it wasn't revealed until after the war ended, the Germans had designated the plugging of the mouth of the Delaware Bay as their highest strategic priority on the Atlantic coast, Heinly reports.
In the enemy's sights were strategic industrial centers along the bay, including the DuPont munitions and
chemical plants in Wilmington, Del., the oil refineries in Chester, Pa., and the shipyards in Philadelphia and Camden N.J.
Three rows of mines were suspended across the mouth of the bay to protect its waters.
Heinly adds, "Although most people don't realize it, the first American warship sunk by enemy action after Pearl Harbor was the American destroyer the Jacob Jones, lost 35 miles off the coast of Cape May."
He adds that nearly two dozen ships were sunk in the area, victims of German submarines. "During the 1950s and 1960s, there were a significant number of tar chunks washing up on the beaches. They were formed by oil from those sunken ships," Heinly says.
"At the end of the war, the first German submarine to surrender was the U-858, on May 14, 1945. It was directed to surface where the Jacob Jones went down. The U.S. Navy turned it into a huge media event. Afterward, the sub was first towed to Lewes, Del., and then on to the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where it was scrutinized for any secrets it might contain. Crew members were sent to a prisoner of war camp at Fort DuPont, Del."
But the Cape May fortifications, including the four New Jersey fire towers and an armed bunker (whose remains also are still visible) as well as 11 more towers and a battery on the Delaware side of the Delaware Bay were not constructed to wage war against submarines.
"As war clouds grew, the early concerns were threats posed by German surface ships that could anchor off the mouth of the Delaware Bay, firing on maritime traffic, conducting air raids or even mounting amphibious invasions," Heinly says.
By 1943, the tide was turning against the Germans and coastal defenders no longer feared the threat of German invasions. When the armed services began pulling out of the Fort Miles defense system before the war ended, civilians and Coast Guard Auxiliary members still used the towers as lookouts for spotting enemy subs.
In addition to climbing all the way to the sixth- floor observation platform at the top of Fire Control Tower No. 23 to see the equipment used to determine firing coordinates for massive guns on both sides of the Delaware Bay, visitors can check out other levels in the tower and see interpretive panels and photos explaining the tower's function and Cape May's role in homeland defense.
On the fifth floor of the tower, visitors will see the Day Room, where soldiers rested. It is sparsely furnished with a table, chairs, an old WWII-vintage radio and some log books, says Heinly.
The tower's third level is dedicated to the men and women from Cape May who served during World War II. There is a wall of honor dedicated to 40 current Cape May residents who served in the military during the war and another honor roll listing hundreds more names of Cape May's World War II veterans.
The displays humanize the listings by including films showing interviews with World War II veterans describing their experiences, such as landing in Normandy on D-Day and fighting the Battle of the Bulge. There also are films showing the surrender of German U-boat No. 858 in waters off Cape May and another showing how the towers were used to aim the guns before they were fired from the batteries nearby.
On this side of the bay, the two 6-inch guns at the bunker near Cape May Point and the Cape May Lighthouse were never fired, says Heinly.
if you go
Naval Air Station, Wildwood, 500 Forrestal Road, Hangar No. 1, Cape May Airport, 609-886-8787; usnasw.org. Aircraft museum dedicated to the Navy dive-bomber pilots who trained here from 1943-1945. The planes they flew included TBM Avengers, Douglass Dauntlesses, Vought Corsairs and Curtiss Helldivers. The 92,000-square-foot restored wooden hangar contains more than 26 aircraft displays as well as exhibits of military memorabilia, engines, photos and interactive exhibits demonstrating the science of flight. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, April-September; 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, October-November; 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday, closed Saturday and Sunday, December-March. Admission is $6, adults; $4, ages 3-12.
Millville Army Air Field Museum, 1 Leddon St., Millville Airport, Millville, N.J., 856-327-2347; p47millville.org. Museum preserves the history of the air field, dedicated by the U.S. War Department in 1941 as "America's First Defense Airport." In its four-year existence, more than 10,000 men and women served here, with 1,500 pilots receiving advanced fighter training in P-47 Thunderbolts and P-40 Warhawk fighter planes. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, Mondays by appointment. Admission is free.
The Battleship New Jersey, 62 Battleship Place, Camden, N.J., 866-877-6262, 856-966-1652; battleshipnewjersey.org. The nation's most decorated battleship is open for tours, events and overnight encampments. Visitors can get into many of the "exhibits" as they tour, including sitting in the chair used by Admiral William Halsey when he commanded the fleet, stretching out on the bunks where sailors slept and climbing into a 16-inch gun turret to learn how it was loaded and climbing original ladders up to the bridge. 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. daily through April 30; 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. May-September, 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. October-December. Ticket prices vary by tour.