Saturday, June 26, 2010
Cape May's World War II Observation Tower
I chatted with World War II veterans at the restored observation tower and learned some stuff I didn't know. This mysterious structure has intrigued me since I was a child. It stood there with no explanation just down Sunset Boulevard from Sunset Beach and the sunken concrete ship Atlantus.
It looked creepy and spooky. The tower was finally restored over the winter of 2008-2009 by Cape May's Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities and opened to the public in March 2009.
Signs, officially called "interpretive panels," tell the history of the tower. It was built in 1942 as part of Fort Miles. Fort Miles was mainly situated on Delaware's Cape Henlopen, with some sites on Cape May. Originally it was called Fire Tower #23, and there were eleven others on the Delaware coast and three others in the Cape May area. The towers were staffed by soldiers who were charged with guarding the Delaware Bay and River from German U-boats. The ports upriver (Camden, Philadelphia, etc.) were though to be prime targets. Part way up the spiral stairs is an engaging memorial to local veterans showing then and now photographs. A couple more flights and there is the soldiers' "Dayroom" or lounge.
From the veterans last weekend, I learned that these towers were actually decommissioned in 1944. The army figured that if there were German U-boats approaching, they wouldn't be seen anyway because they would be under water. Also, the shipping channel, closer to the Delaware side of the bay, was not deep enough for the U-boats to submerge to sneak up on us. After the decommissioning, those two thousand soldiers involved were reassigned and the towers were staffed by volunteers until the end of the war.
I had been wondering about communication, too. How did the soldiers in this tower communicate with those in the other towers and on the base manning the big guns? (Cape May was remote when I was a child--imagine thirty years before that.) My question was answered by the equipment hanging on the wall and explained by the veteran at the top of the tower Sunday: they used radios until telephone lines were put up. Telephone lines, as you might imagine, were much more secure than radio transmissions.
The tower now has metal, spiral stairs up to its sixth-story top, but those don't seem military.
What did the soldiers use in the 1940s? The veterans explained to me that there were straight wooden ladders running up along the inside of the tower. They were staggered and passed through manhole-sized openings. If a soldier fell, he wouldn't fall all the way down because each ladder ended and a new one started on the opposite side of each floor.
The restored tower is no longer creepy to me. It is a meaningful memorial to the Cape May residents who fought for our country and a great addition to Cape May's riveting World War II destinations. How lucky are we that there are still veterans from that Greatest Generation willing to share their knowledge with us today?!
The view from the top: