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Delaware's Shoreline Towers Made Line in Sand Against Enemy Attack

Defense: Long puzzling to tourists and locals alike, concrete structures along the coast were built to guard inland oil refineries and chemical plants from German U-boats.

November 09, 1997|KEN RINGLE | WASHINGTON POST

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."

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