Sights on renewal

Restorations, informative tours planned for war-era tower

May 16, 2008|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

DEWEY BEACH, Del. - Long decades past its purpose, the mammoth concrete tower remains anchored deep in the sands of southern Delaware, a curiosity that captivates beach-goers .

Sixty years ago, this stretch of dunes and scrub brush was part of the U.S. Army's Fort Miles. Tower 3, next to the Dewey Beach bath house, and ten others like it had as their mission defending factories along Delaware Bay from Nazi attack

Now, two small preservation groups are working with state officials to refurbish Tower 3 and open it to the public, much as they did another tower near the fort's main buildings outside Lewes.

"People are always fascinated with the towers, but they usually get it wrong," says Gary Wray, a retired school superintendent who has spent years studying the little-known artillery base.

Wray says most visitors can guess the right era, World War II, but then blow the quiz, assuming that the towers were fortified lookout points where American troops kept watch for Nazi submarines.

Instead, the towers were designed to give Army spotters a vantage point to see German battleships and other surface war ships, calculate the enemy's location from two towers, and relay coordinates to a plotting room, where they were sent by radio to artillery units.

"The towers were self-contained units for spotting ships and directing artillery fire," says Wray, who founded the Fort Miles Historical Association and published a book about the fort. The fort's gunners could fire everything from 12-inch guns, which could deliver a blow from 15 miles, to 16-inch guns, which could strike a target 25 miles away.

They never had to fire at the enemy. While German submarines wreaked havoc on ocean-going American supply ships early in the war, surface war ships were not a threat in coastal waters, Wray says.

From the late days of 1941, Fort Miles was manned by 2,000 or so members of the 261st Coast Artillery, most of whom were former members of the Delaware National Guard. Among them was Horace Knowles, now 87, who lives in nearby Millsboro and spends many of his days at the fort, remembering old friends and times long gone.

"We were fortunate not to have the enemy attack us," says Knowles, who spent the last days of the war in Europe after transferring to a field artillery unit. "We expected them, we were ready for them, but it never happened."

Knowles is working with the Fort Miles Historical Association and the Delaware Seashore Preservation Foundation to raise money for refurbishing Tower 3 - officially known as Artillery Fire Control Tower No. 3. The hope is to raise $500,000 to refurbish the tower and open it to the public. The groups are holding a fund-raising event today on the beach next to Tower 3.

For years, vacationers and tourists have speculated about the 11 towers, stretching from Lewes to Fenwick. Fort Miles, including the towers and an artillery bunker, barracks and other buildings near Lewes, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In addition to installing a spiral staircase inside the Dewey Beach tower, organizers plan to have interpretive tours and demonstrations on how fire teams operated. All of the towers, built with scarce concrete during wartime, have held up remarkably well, according to a structural engineer hired to inspect them.

The story of Tower 3 is already spelled out for visitors on a historical marker the base of the tower complete with vintage photographs and maps.

"Getting on the national register was a big step," says Mike Rogers, the fort historian. After Tower 3 is renovated, officials hope to take on other restoration projects at the fort over the next five to seven years.

Tourism officials say the towers have become a key element in marketing the Delaware beaches.

"They've become almost iconic," says Betsy Reamer, executive director of the Lewis Chamber of Commerce. "People notice them driving or at the beach. We're featuring them on our annual visitors' guide."

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