Delaware Gov. Jack Markell speaks at the opening of the new Fort Miles Artillery Park on the 71st anniversary of the Japanese surrender to end World War II. Produced by Gray Hughes
In 1941, Fort Miles was established to defend the Delaware River and Bay areas from possible attacks against oil refineries, factories and the city of Philadelphia during World War II.
The 261st Coast Artillery, comprised of mainly locals from Kent and Sussex counties, was involved in the construction and military operations of Fort Miles and Battery 519 – home to two 12-inch guns.
Today, visitors to Cape Henlopen State Park can visit both places thanks to thousands of hours put in by dedicated volunteers who believe the preservation of history should be shared with future generations.
Gary Wray, president of the Fort Miles Historical Association, proudly shares a few highlights.
The Fort Miles Historical Association was established in 2003. Volunteers were instrumental in refurbishing Battery 519 prior to opening it to the public for tours. Initially, what condition was it in and what are some major overhauls that were made?
The place was a mess, full of "critters,” and just about every kid in the area had at one time or another partied inside. So, our group spent the first several years cleaning out the inside of Battery 519 to make it presentable and ready for tours. Same with the barracks area.
The military had converted them into motel rooms so we had to demo them back to their original wartime use which took lots of effort of our small group at the time. However, by 2007 we had the place ready to go.
Is it true that during WWII not a single shot was fired in defense?
Yes. Since our homeland was not invaded, the guns of Fort Miles did not fire in anger. But, they did practice a lot with the smaller guns, and not so much with the large ones (12" and 16") as they tended to upset the locals.
How many men were stationed at Fort Miles during that time?
At its peak in WWII, Fort Miles had over 2,200 men and women involved with the Fort.
What were the conditions like living at Fort Miles being that Delaware is not a warm climate?
Folks stationed at Fort Miles complained of the fish smell from the menhaden factory and the bugs, deer flies, mosquitoes and such. The weather was not so bad, but the bugs and smell left a lot to be desired. Overall, it was better than the conditions in North Africa (sweltering during the day and freezing at night time).
If someone wants to volunteer, what are some roles they can get involved in?
We have over 400 members and many are active either with the board of directors, the bunker busters or other volunteer work for the organization.
We have trained docents who give tours, work in the gift shop, or repair and refurbish things in the Fort Miles Historical Area.
We have many trained workmen who volunteer include metal fabricators, engineers, carpenters, electricians, and their leader has over 100 patents so we have a pretty good team.
This past year we donated almost 17,000 of volunteer hours to the Fort Miles effort, which has saved the state many thousands of dollars. We also received the largest Longwood grant in the state this past year ... $569,250 which is going to improve the infrastructure (roads, parking lot, and such) at Fort Miles.
How many bunkers are actually located in the area and are there plans to restore more?
There are four large casemates and several smaller ones.
We have restored Battery 519 to its WWII configuration and our team is working inside Battery Smith.
We have opened the other casemates and have from time to time worked inside them to improve them and to keep them from falling into more disrepair, but our concentration is Battery 519 and the Fort Miles Museum.
What are some projects that the association is planning to tackle next?
We are working with Delaware Seashore Preservation Foundation (DSPF) and Delaware State Parks to open up Tower 3 at Dewey Beach in the near future.
We signed a MOU with DSPF and DE State Parks in 2007 to make it happen and I am happy to report that on Feb. 12, 2018, Gov. John Carney and Secretary (Shawn) Garvin (of DNREC) will pull the switch to light up Tower 3 for all of those traveling up and down the beach highway to see the cobalt lights and start the chatter to enable us to raise the couple of million dollars to make Tower 3 a destination for tourists.
Hopefully, this will also entice them to come up the road to visit us at the Fort Miles Museum.
IF YOU GO
Battery 519 and Fort Miles Historical Association
» FMHA Lecture Series: Saturday, Jan. 27, at 1 p.m.
» Battery 510 Tours: Saturday, Feb. 10, at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and Feb. 17 at 2 p.m.
» Historic Grounds open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset
Where: Cape Henlopen State Park, Lewes
Cost: $5 per person for Battery 519 Tours
Info: http://fortmilesha.org/ or 302-645-0753