When Eric Pearson moved to the Delaware coast in 1970, the retired mechanical engineer approached his adopted region with a combination of fascination and frustration.
Fascination because the coast in general and Cape Henlopen in particular were studded with mysterious artifacts left over from World War II. Frustration because no one seemed able to tell him what they were.
Nothing was more enigmatic than the series of cylindrical concrete towers dotting Cape Henlopen State Park and spreading down the coast almost to Ocean City.
“People told me they were lookout towers for spotting German U-boats,” Pearson said. “But that just deepened the mystery. Why were the towers located here rather than further down along the Virginia and North Carolina coast, where the U-boats sank so many tankers? And why were they often located in pairs instead of being evenly spaced down the beach? Nobody seemed to know.”
Pearson was not alone in his puzzlement. Generations of beachgoers from Fenwick Island to Rehoboth have puzzled over the structures, which for many years had few identifying marks or historical labels.
They were built with long horizontal slits on several upper levels, apparently as lookout apertures. But lower down, their vertical windows are shaped, like those in medieval castles, to maximize a defender’s field of fire. Each tower has a single door at the base, facing away from the water, but most are welded shut.
“I still get people stopping in my driveway all the time trying to figure out what they are,” says Ken Ferrall, superintendent of Delaware Seashore State Park, whose residence just south of Dewey Beach stands beside one of the towers. “We finally put a historical marker beside the Tower Road tower,” a bit further south, “because we got so many questions.”
For Pearson, 70, who served in the Pacific during World War II and later worked for Sun Oil, the towers were just one of many mysteries surrounding Cape Henlopen. He knew there had been a major Army installation here called Ft. Miles. But when he talked to local people who had worked there during the war, no one could tell him anything more than their immediate job.
“Nobody knew what anybody else did,” he says. “It was an incredibly secret installation. But no one could tell me why.”
Pearson’s persistent curiosity led him to become a volunteer historian at Cape Henlopen State Park, tirelessly roaming the park’s 3,200 acres in his Jeep and poking around in state and federal archives in search of its World War II past--a past all but forgotten in 1964 when the park was born.
“Ft. Miles had been disarmed in 1945 and broken up 11 years later,” Pearson said. Various land swaps over the years transferred part of its original 1,440 acres to the Navy, the city of Lewes and the state. Part of that land included four of the towers. But other towers lay far outside the original boundaries of the fort, almost as far south as the Maryland line.
“Whenever I would stumble on an old bunker or a concrete foundation for a building, I would try to find out what it was,” Pearson said. “And we uncovered a fair amount. But there are still lots of holes in the story. . . . Things I could find no record of at all.”
According to Pearson and various other sources, federal land known as the Cape Henlopen Reservation was transferred to the War Department in 1938 in anticipation of possible U.S. entry in what was looming as World War II. Ft. Miles was activated in 1941.
Its reason for being was the wealth of industry that lay up the Delaware River. In addition to the DuPont chemical plants at Wilmington and the U.S. Naval Shipyard at Philadelphia, some 90% of the future Allies’ oil-refining capacity lay upstream in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the vicinity of Marcus Hook.
Though much of the oil would eventually travel to and from those refineries by pipeline, in the years before and early in the war, its only pathway lay up Delaware Bay, through the narrow, shoal-flanked shipping channel guarded by Cape Henlopen and its coastal approaches to the south.
Gasoline for British bombers and Russian tanks, fuel oil for Royal Navy battleships and British locomotives and all the factories of the Allied cause all depended on free passage through Delaware Bay. One sunken ship blocking the channel would have been disastrous.
Thus, at its peak, Ft. Miles was acre for acre one of the most heavily fortified bits of geography in the world. It boasted two 16-inch naval guns capable of throwing a 55-gallon barrel of lead almost 25 miles; four 12-inch guns in two separate batteries; four six-inch guns on armored swivel carriages; eight eight-inch guns mounted on railroad cars, four of them concealed in earthen bunkers; 16 155mm mobile guns; three four-gun batteries of 90mm to be used against torpedo boats; and four three-inch guns permanently mounted at the northernmost battery on the cape.
All this was overseen by 2,000 troops housed in 85 barracks, 60 tents and eight mess halls, many of whom patrolled the beaches regularly with dogs. Secrecy about every aspect of the base was absolute.
The major threat to shipping bound to and from Delaware Bay came from the extraordinarily successful submarines of the Nazi Kriegsmarine. In the early months of World War II, they ranged almost at will along the U.S. East Coast, torpedoing tankers and cargo ships from which bodies washed up on the same beaches where vacationing children splash today. You could often see the burning vessels from the shore.
The long and costly Battle of the Atlantic against the U-boats would ultimately be won by the Allies with destroyers and planes. Both, however, were in critically short supply in 1941. So the coastal defenses of Delaware were built around accurate fire from the guns at Ft. Miles--the real reason for the venerable beach towers that still stand today.
According to Pearson, there were originally 11--one fire control and spotting tower atop the Great Dune, the highest point on Cape Henlopen, the others erected in pairs along the coast to triangulate the exact position of any hostile vessel spotted offshore.
Like Ft. Miles, they were built in a hurry. “They were apparently cast in a single pour of concrete, often using beach sand,” Pearson says. “Beach sand is a lousy medium for making concrete. It’s too smooth to hold up,” and its salt content leaches moisture into the finished structure, eventually weakening it.
Most of the bunkers and foundations of Ft. Miles were quick-poured the same way. “But they were only designed for a 10-year life. It’s amazing the towers have held up this long,” Pearson says.
Ferrall says most of the towers are in bad shape, too weak to allow public access, which is the main reason they’re sealed shut.
“Back in the early ‘80s when I was a ranger at Cape Henlopen State Park, there was a plan to renovate two of them for park visitors. They did that very successfully with the highest tower atop the Great Dune,” 70 feet high and 135 feet above sea level. “That was opened in 1985. But it cost more than anticipated to rebuild it, and funds ran out before the second renovation was ever started.”