Fort Miles, Striking Symbol of World War II, Turns 75

The installation, which currently resides in Cape Henlopen State Park, is an oft-overlooked "historical treasure."


Published:

Photo by Kevin Fleming

It's hard to imagine now, but in 1941 the threat was very, very real. The world was in the early stages of the most devastating war in history, and nobody knew what to expect or when to expect it.

Among threats to the United States, German battleships could steam up Delaware Bay and into the Delaware River to blockade Wilmington and Philadelphia or attack the refineries that lined the river. The strategic importance of the bay and river was evident to everyone, including the War Department.

The fear increased dramatically after Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and pulled the United States into World War II. A mere three days before that day of infamy, a new United States military installation was opened in Lewes. The designers and defenders of that fort saw the specter of German battleships as part of an invading armada, and they were ready to do their duty to protect America’s coast.

The installation was named Fort Miles in honor of Gen. Nelson Appleton Miles. Miles was a native of Massachusetts who served in the Union army during the Civil War, then played a key role in the Indian wars of the 1870s. Fort Miles became a key link in a chain of forts along the Atlantic coast.

This year, Fort Miles, now part of Cape Henlopen State Park, celebrates its 75th anniversary as an important, albeit largely forgotten, part of Delaware’s history.

“Fort Miles opens a window on what life was like back in the 1940s in Sussex County, with war on the horizon and everybody uncertain about the future,” says Gary Wray, president of the Fort Miles Historical Association. “It’s really a historical treasure, and it’s right in our back yard.

“People look at Fort Miles today, and I’m sure many of them don’t understand what it was like back in those early war years. That’s one of our main functions at the Fort Miles Historical Association, to make sure people remember the past and understand what real life was like for the people back then, especially the people in Sussex County.”

Photo by Kevin Fleming 

Gary Wray, president of the Fort Miles Historical Association

In late 1941 and early 1942, America was still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war on the United States. People on the West Coast were preparing for a possible Japanese invasion, and people on the East Coast were preparing for the sight of German battleships pointing their big guns at our big cities.

That was before the development of early-detection devices—except for primitive radar—and the United States armed forces were woefully undermanned and unprepared. America’s coastlines presented an easy target for an enemy, real or imagined, and every day the radio and newspapers told us about another country overrun by Germany or another island conquered by Japan. America and her allies were on the defensive all over the world.  

“The War in the Atlantic was going on by then, and people [on the East Coast] could see explosions and see ships burning off-shore,” says Jim Hall, the chief of cultural resources for the Delaware State Parks. “Stuff would wash up on the beaches, even life boats with machine gun bullet holes in them. That was real life in an isolated coastal town like Lewes. They really expected to see the German navy steaming over the horizon. In their minds, they could be faced with an invasion at any time, and they did their best to get ready for that possibility.”

The reality ended up being much different, as the Fort Miles installation became obsolete even before it was finished. It didn’t take the military long to realize the real threat to the coast was not a surface fleet but German U-boats. In the first six months of the war, the submarines sank 397 American ships and 2 million tons of cargo off the East Coast. Fourteen ships were sunk off the coast of New Jersey. Fort Miles and other coastal military installations—including the now-familiar observation towers in Lewes, Dewey Beach, Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island—weren’t much use against roving submarines. The strategic importance of those installations faded quickly, though the people of Sussex County didn’t know that at the time. They, like other Americans on both coasts, were afraid.

MANNING THE GUNS

The 2,200 men and women who were stationed at Fort Miles over the course of the war are almost all gone now, as World War II veterans continue to die at the rate of 500 a day. One survivor is Horace Knowles, a former gunner at Fort Miles who is in his 90s. According to friends, Knowles is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and unable to communicate well, but in 2014 he was interviewed by the Pentagon’s in-house television network, The Pentagon Channel, which aired a documentary on Fort Miles called “Recon Extra: Dunes of Defense.”

Knowles joined the Delaware National Guard in 1939 and became part of the 261st Coast Artillery, a unit charged with defending Fort Miles. Later, when it became obvious that Fort Miles wasn’t needed, most of the 261st was transferred to units that fought in the Pacific and in Europe. Knowles was sent to Europe, but by the time he got there, the war was almost over. He fought mostly in mop-up campaigns.

But it’s the early memories of the war that stayed with Knowles long after the final shot.

“We knew Hitler had a heck of a navy, and we were told quite a bit about that,” Knowles says. “We didn’t know if he would attack the East Coast or not. That was the thing that was on my mind.”

That fear was reinforced on Dec. 7, 1941. Knowles recalls being awakened by a knock at his door, then being told by an agitated soldier that he had to report to the fort immediately. “We’ve been attacked!” the soldier shouted. “The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor! Now we’ll be at war!”

“All I could visualize was our boys in Hawaii were being killed,” Knowles says. “And the same thing could happen to us if the Germans had gotten in here on the East Coast.”

The Germans never came close, however. Jim Hall recalls Knowles saying the soldiers at Fort Miles spent more time playing volleyball than drilling with their big guns. War has been described as a few moments of terror surrounded by months of boredom, and boredom, along with the mosquitoes and no-see-ums, ruled at Fort Miles. 

The dunes near Lewes were picked as the site for the guns because they overlooked the entrance to Delaware Bay, their elevation gave observers a good look at the horizon, and they provided good camouflage. The fort eventually consisted of eight batteries and a total of 26 guns, as well as several anti-aircraft guns. 

One of those guns is named for Knowles. A plaque at the site honors his devotion to duty. 

“I was really proud of my gun,” Knowles says. “My gun was the No. 1 gun, and it was on alert at all times. No. 1 gun was the first gun to be fired if we had to fire it. And I was the No. 1 breech man on that gun. We would compete against one another, against the No. 2 gun and Nos. 3 and 4.”

Knowles never had to fire his gun in anger, but there was a protocol set up in case he did.

“Our orders at that time were to fire three shots,’’ he says. “First one ahead of the ship, then [the second] over the ship, then the third one to hit it.”

The citizens of Lewes eventually got to see one of those German U-boats up close and personal. On May 8, 1945, the commander of U-858 received word that Germany had surrendered to the Allies. He was ordered to surrender to the nearest Allied military installation. So on May 9, U-858 surrendered to two ships, the USS Pillsbury and USS Pope, which escorted it to Fort Miles, reaching there on May 14.

After Fort Miles was decommissioned, the government gave 543 acres to the state in 1964. The property became the foundation of Cape Henlopen State Park. In 2005 Fort Miles was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Though it never saw combat, those servicemen and women can still take pride in being America’s sentinels during the early, dark days of World War II.

“I thought we were doing a great job,” Knowles says. “We were protecting our shorelines.”

The current Fort Miles, as seen from a nearby
observation tower.

PRESERVING THE PAST

Fort Miles would probably be all but forgotten if not for the restoration and preservation done by the Fort Miles Historical Association. The group isn’t a few people sitting around talking about the good old days. Started with 23 members in 2003, it now boasts 350 volunteers who lead tours, conduct fundraisers and sweep up after everybody has gone.

“It has developed over the years and just become bigger and stronger,” says Matthew Ritter, who oversees historical sites for the Division of Parks and Recreation. “It’s to the point where if they were to count up their hours, it would be like a full-time staff. Thanks to them, Battery 519 has been restored as a museum and is open for tours. So are restored barracks and other facilities.

“They’re always ready to do what needs to be done, and they do a great job of finding the right person for a specific job, whether it’s a welder or an electrician or whatever,” Ritter adds. “We recently were able to install a new bathroom facility in the Fort Miles area through a grant they wrote. The state didn’t have to put a dime into it, and now we have a facility that not only benefits the visitors to Fort Miles, but other people in the park, as well.”

Wray, president of the Fort Miles Historical Association, came to Delaware in 1965. Working on a master’s degree in Civil War history led him to Fort Delaware and its role as a prison camp. When he started teaching at Cape Henlopen High in Lewes, he realized that Fort Delaware wasn’t the only fortification in the First State, that another interesting history lesson was mostly hidden by sand dunes and scrub brush outside of Lewes.

Visiting the abandoned artillery casements with the Leland C. “Lee” Jennings Jr., the late historian of Delaware State Parks, he saw lots of neglect and disrepair, not to mention graffiti. “I think every kid in Lewes partied in there,” Wray says with a laugh.

Wray and Jennings saw the problems, but they also saw potential, and that led to the formation of the FMHA. It has since grown into one of the most effective preservation groups in the country. Wray says Sussex’s large population of retirees gives him a large pool of volunteers. 

“At any given time there will be 20 to 30 men giving us their time and their sweat equity,” Wray says. “They’re here because they want to be here, because they care, and that makes all the difference.”

The FMHA pulled off a major coup in 2014, when it saved from the scrap heap one of the 16-inch guns from the U.S.S. Missouri, the battleship on which Gen. Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, ending World War II. The gun was installed as part of the Battery 519 museum. More recently, the park, with help from its friends, built an artillery park that will hold seven guns.

Wray says volunteer commitment is a major reason the Delaware state parks system was selected as the best managed state park system in the country. He vividly remembers when Ray Bivens, the director of Delaware State Parks, called him from a convention in Las Vegas to tell him the news.

“It was the first time a small state won it, and it was because of all the volunteer hours our people put in,” Wray says. “We had over 110,000 hours of volunteer work, and no other state, per capita, came anywhere close to it. And that’s something everyone in Delaware can take real pride in. We may not have the resources some other, bigger states have, but we did more with what we had.”

That has helped make Fort Miles a popular tourist site. Last year, Cape Henlopen State Park had 2 million visitors, in part because an army of volunteers have made sure the army of soldiers who lived and worked there in the 1940s aren’t forgotten.

“Plain and simple, we could not have done it without them,” says Jim Hall. “We just don’t have the budget or the staff to do it. I’m the chief of cultural resources, and my full-time staff consists of one person to support historical sites and properties. So the historical association and The Friends of Cape Henlopen State Park have been essential in terms of the work they put into the physical structures as well as their fundraising efforts. Those two groups are a formidable force. The fort and the park wouldn’t be the same without them. Because of them, new generations of Americans have a better understanding of what the Greatest Generation lived through.”   


Tours of the Battery 519 museum must be scheduled in advance. Call 645-6852 for information. For general information about Fort Miles and its events, visit www.destateparks.com.

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