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Standing tall

The towers hide in plain sight; there is nothing stiller or more silent on the Lewes, Del., beach. They have been part of this place for so long that people who return year after year to the Delaware resorts hardly notice them anymore. The war against the Germans, not surprisingly, isn't much on peoples' minds these days.

The 11 concrete fire control towers (colloquially known as "submarine towers") have lasted far longer than anyone thought they would when they were built 60 years ago along the Delaware coast, from Cape Henlopen down to Fenwick Island.

Four others went up in Cape May, N.J., under the same authority as the Delaware towers. This was the military installation named Fort Miles, created by the War Department in 1941 on 1,000 acres of what is now Cape Henlopen State Park, the largest and most popular among Delaware's 13 state parks.

Urgency was the watchword at the time: World War II was racing across the Atlantic. The towers were an element in a broad strategy to defend the North American coast: 17 coastal forts were commissioned from Newfoundland to Trinidad for that purpose, to deflect an invasion from the sea.

The mission here was to defend the entrance to the Delaware Bay, for through it the enemy might strike at the chemical plants of the DuPonts, the Philadelphia Navy Yard from where the Victory Ships were sent forth in their thousands, and the oil refineries at Marcus Hook, outside Philadelphia. The latter was an especially tempting target, for all the fuel that enabled the Allied struggle against the Germans in Europe and Africa flowed from there out through the bay. To cut that supply at its source, the Nazis sent their U-boats, individually and in packs. They sank more than 1,000 Allied ships by the war's end, some 400 off the coasts of New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.

These towers, then, recall that time. But they are not just decaying artifacts of an old war. They are historic, the last expression of "a strategy of coastal defense going back 1,000 years," says Chris Bennett, manager at the Cape Henlopen nature center and a student of these matters. Most of the towers are accessible, which is to say that you can approach them. One is open to the public, and another soon will be. A third fulfills a contemporary mission.

The first of 11
The round tower on Fenwick Island was designated No. 1, according to declassified U.S. Army documents. It is the southernmost Delaware tower, and it is hard to say just how tall it is, because the sand moves now and then and changes that. Eighty feet was the standard.

It is gray or manila, with patches of green that match the variable colors of the sea itself. It plays with the mind: When I first saw it, I thought of anthropomorphic sculptures of another time. At night, when dimly perceived, it is a mammoth chess piece.

Having been raked by the wind, baked by the sun and eaten by salt for six decades, the tower looks its age. Its steel ribs show through. Ivy crawls up it. Brambles crowd its base. Somebody without appreciation for the beauty hidden in all spectacularly ugly things tried to improve it by painting a half-hearted mural on it; they left their lavender palm prints near the sealed-up door.

The tower is surrounded by beach grasses, bayberry and black pines. A path circles it, leads over the dune to the strand. Like the others, the Fenwick tower has a roof that extends over the observation slits near the top. It has smaller openings lower down, to admit light so the troops that manned it could see when they scaled the ladders that led straight up to the high platforms where they stood watch.

It's hard to believe, but the architects of these vertical columns obtruding on the relentlessly horizontal landscape thought they would be difficult to discern what they were from offshore. "They were supposed to look like the cylindrical water towers that served the beach communities," says Bennett, apparently mystified by that presumption.

Northward from Fenwick Island, tower No. 2 stands next to a row of beach houses in North Bethany; towers 3 and 4 are at Dewey Beach, 5 and 6 just north of Rehoboth; the rest are in and around Cape Henlopen. All are on state land.

Nearly all the towers are disintegrating. They were built hurriedly, and their concrete was made with beach sand, which is not the best mix because the grains are too smooth to form a good bond. All but two are sealed, the entrances and lower apertures bricked up. They contain nothing more than rubble and gull guano, for only the sea birds have steady access to them.

And, of course, the ocean is closing in. On certain days at high tide, towers 5 and 6 are in the surf. One day they will fall into the sea, as the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse did in 1926.

Tower No. 10, on Cape Henlopen, is painted, maintained and used as a radar and ship reporting station. No. 8, behind the youth camping area of the park, is the one to be restored and opened to the public.

Tower No. 7, which rises behind the Great Dune south of the cape, is the only one currently open to the public. It has a steel, spiral stairway to the top. It overlooks the approximately 3,100 acres of pine forest, pond and beach that constitute Cape Henlopen State Park. It offers the best view of the joining of the ocean and bay, the blunt hook of the cape itself, and of the two rocky breakwaters in the mouth of the bay, with their distinctive lights.

From the tower's open platform you can see the hotels on the boardwalk at Rehoboth to the south, the town of Lewes to the north and the long pier built during the war to dock the tenders that strung the anti-submarine mines in the bay channel. Today the pier is jammed with fishermen. And you can watch the white Cape May-Lewes Ferry glide majestically between the two arms of land that embrace the entrance to the Delaware Bay.

Also from that height, you can better appreciate the apparatus of defense installed on the land below before the war, and the part the towers played in it.

Ready to fire
Some 2,000 servicemen and women and civilians were deployed in Fort Miles, in barracks and tents, and told not to discuss their work. The fort, off-limits to the public, contained 150 structures, miles of rail lines and road.

This infrastructure supported an impressive concentration of firepower: Batteries of 3-, 8- and 12-inch guns lurked within and behind the dunes; some moved on railroad tracks, others swiveled in bunkers. At the center of this lethal array, sunk into a bunker of concrete 10 feet thick in spots, and covered with 10 to 15 feet of earth and sand, two 16-inch naval guns raised their silent mouths.

The barrels of these behemoths, the largest and most powerful guns ever produced as a standard piece of artillery, weighed nearly 200 tons each; they were 70 feet long. Built for battleships, they could spit a 2,200-pound shell 26 miles, accurately.

These guns were deployed near the Great Dune (at 80 feet, the highest hill of sand between Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras), a mile or so south of the sandy cape.

The batteries received precise information on suspect vessels -- their distance from shore, direction and speed -- from the towers, all of which were equipped with equipment for long-range observation.

The guns were always ready, as were the towers and the men who manned them. But the message was never sent, the guns never fired in anger, though one test firing, it is said, cracked windows in Lewes.

By 1943, new tactics and technology -- radar and sonar, depth charges aboard destroyers -- proved more effective against submarines than artillery ashore. By the war's end, some 800 German submarines were destroyed in the Atlantic.

Lingering reminders
The Pentagon decommissioned Fort Miles in 1959, but didn't turn it over to the state of Delaware until 1963, which opened it up to the public a year later. Even so, the Army still held on to the Great Dune until just two years ago.

Even today much information about Fort Miles remains classified, and many artifacts of that era lay buried under the sand. You may come across stretches of the old railway track, or foundations of concrete structures emerging near the sea, rusted cables and engine parts, all decaying reminders of what had been elements of a major fortification.

No part of the park is off-limits to the public, except the point of the cape from March to October, which is the nesting season for migratory birds, and occasionally an area near Gordon's Pond when the Piping Plovers and the Least Terns settle in.

You can walk or cycle up to the top of the Great Dune and see the bunker that housed the 12-inch guns of Battery 519 (all the artillery has long since been scrapped). The dune itself was only 40 feet high, bare and unstable, when the Army arrived in 1941. After constructing the bunker, the military piled enough sand and earth on top of it to double its size. Today it is a forest of red cedar, black pine, huckleberry and bayberry bushes big as clouds.

On Sundays the park's nature center offers tours of what remains of Fort Miles. These are preceded by lectures, with old photographs of the place when it was being built. The pictures give an idea of how massive the complex was before the forest began to reclaim it, encroaching on the buildings, blocking off once-clear fields of fire.

The tours include a visit to one of the gun rooms at Smith Battery, which housed the 16-inchers. In this bunker, beneath a mountain of sand, and though massively remodeled over the years, one can still get an idea of how the guns were deployed and directed.

Much of what was at Fort Miles is missing, of course, and there are still secrets of state, files the federal government declines to open.

But sometimes nature undertakes some declassification on its own. Cape Henlopen naturalist Jennifer Multhopp recalls how the storm that hit the Delaware coast in March 1998 cut away large segments of the dunes and, in the process, exposed a heavy cable. The cable, it was determined, led to hydrophones set far off the coast, used to detect the presence of Soviet submarines -- which might explain the Army's continuing presence on the Great Dune until 1998.

Towers, such as those that line the coast of Delaware, will never be built again. They are the last concrete expression of a strategy of national defense going back to antiquity, and the days when people in England and Ireland, and on other coasts in other lands, posted lookouts on high places to raise the alarm against marauders from the sea. But the Delaware towers were not the only such structures erected to warn of an invasion that never came.

Between 1805 and 1812 the British government built 103 stone towers along the southern coast of England, and 50 more in Ireland, to watch for a naval invasion from Bonaparte's France. The invasion never came, but many of the towers, which were staffed again against the Nazis in World War II, are still there. They are called Martello towers -- after a bay in Portugal. They are much more attractive than their Delaware cousins.

An ideal day:
9 a.m.: Start your tower tour with No. 1, the southernmost of the 11 concrete submarine towers. It stands on the northern end of the state beach of Fenwick Island, about 20 yards off the Ocean Highway (Route 1). Park on the shoulder of the road and walk right up to it.

10 a.m.: Drive north up the Ocean Highway. You will pass Tower No. 2 on a small patch of state beach in North Bethany, hemmed in by beach houses. About five miles further on, you will see Nos. 3 and 4 just off the highway at Dewey Beach. (These towers, positioned at a known distance from each other, recall the method of triangulation used to calculate the precise location of any object within sight out at sea. This information was forwarded to the gunners in Cape Henlopen.)

11 a.m.: Arrive at the end of the boardwalk at Rehoboth and walk north a mile or so up the beach to Nos. 5 and 6. Owing to the continuing erosion over the years, these towers are now dangerously close to the sea. At high tide they are usually in the surf.

12:30 p.m.: Drive north to Lewes. Have lunch in one of the restaurants at the marina, and then visit the Zwaanendael Museum, which commemorates the town's 370-year history.

2 p.m.: Drive the mile or so to Cape Henlopen State Park. When you pay the entry fee at the booth, ask for directions to Tower No. 7. This tower has been rehabilitated, resurfaced and is clean inside and, unlike the other towers, is open to the public. There is a steel circular staircase (116 steps) to the roof. The towers, in their original use, did not have such staircases; the troops who manned them had to make do with ladders that ran straight up to the platforms. The view from the top should be the highlight of your day, for from there you can see all the remaining towers, and much of the bay and park as well.

3:30 p.m.: Explore the rest of the park. Visit the nature center, which has an aquarium holding fish indigenous to the waters in and around the Delaware Bay. Buy some shark's teeth at the gift shop.

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