Towers of Strength

The WWII fire control towers on our shores were built to defend industry upriver. Now they guard local history.

One historian refers to the towers at Fort Miles as “the first true homeland security in America.” Photograph by Steve SnodgrassThree young men stand on the Dewey Beach shore, basking in the sun, mindlessly tossing rocks onto the sand and occasionally pointing to the mysterious edifices towering in the distance. In between, they talk, speculate.

“They were fire towers, for spotting fires,” one says.

“Maybe they were, like, missile silos or something,” says another.

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The young men aren’t from around here—at least not the beach. They’re Delawareans, all three of them, but none knows what to make of the concrete cylinders that rise from the sand from Cape Henlopen State Park down the coast to South Bethany.

From about 200 yards away, the towers look surreal, almost accidental, like someone very large and very powerful started to build something, forgot what he was doing, then stopped. Getting closer, the towers begin to take on a more determined character, with their foot-thick concrete walls, small observation slits about two-thirds of the way up and nondescript doors at their bases.

“My dad told me one time what these were,” says Steven Hao, of Wilmington. “But I forget.”

Farther down the shore, gazing intently at Tower 3 off Tower Road, two women stare at the building. They are as perplexed as the men.

“I’ve never seen them before,” says Mary Jaster, of Pennsylvania. It’s her first visit to the region, so she’s equal parts puzzled and enthralled. “Maybe they were fire towers or…”

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“Why would they need fire towers on the beach?” says Jaster’s friend, Lydia Hilton, 39, of Philadelphia. “I heard they were lookout towers for, you know, enemy ships and stuff.”

Plenty of people are interested, but few of them know.

“I hear it all,” says Dr. Gary Wray, president of the Fort Miles Historical Association and author of the book “Fort Miles.” As the state’s pre-eminent expert on the towers and their history, Wray has plenty to say—and plenty of enthusiasm.

“Some people think they were fire towers. Some think they were gun towers. Some have no idea,” he says. “But I know, and it’s really quite interesting.”

During the early years of World War II, Delaware’s coast was a valuable piece of maritime real estate. Just up the Delaware River were the DuPont chemical plants in Wilmington and the Navy Shipyard in Philadelphia, as well as 90 percent of the country’s oil-refining capacity. Because the only route up the Delaware Bay was through the narrow shipping channel guarded by Cape Henlopen, free and safe passage was crucial to Allied forces.

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Thus came Fort Miles. Built between 1940 and 1941 to defend against a possible German attack, Fort Miles was one intensely fortified outpost. According to several historians, the fort boasted two 16-inch guns that could fire a projectile up to 25 miles. There were also four 12-inch guns in separate batteries, four 6-inch guns on armored swivel carriages, eight 8-inch guns mounted on railroad cars—four hidden in earthen bunkers—16 155mm mobile guns, three four-gun batteries of 90 mm to be used against torpedo boats, and four 3-inch guns permanently mounted at the northernmost battery on the cape.

That’s one hell of an artillery punch. Firing these weapons took a team of soldiers engaged in very detailed triangulation to hit their targets, German U-boats. That’s where the towers came into play.

“The gunners, you have to understand, were blind,” Wray says. “They would have been under the sand and behind concrete. They depended on the guys in the towers to make their shots.”

Fort Miles contained 15 towers: 11 in Delaware and four across the mouth of the bay at Cape May, N.J. With heights that ranged between 39 and 81 feet, the various fire control towers (or FCTs) housed soldiers that would be the first to spot enemy ships. As the vessels neared the beach, the spotters would relay the ships’ coordinates to a second group of infantrymen known as the plot group. The plot group would do the heavy mathematical lifting, figuring into their equations the curvature of the earth, ocean currents, wind conditions, the air’s humidity and myriad additional factors that affected the accuracy of artillery shots.

When the plot group had those factors figured out, it would relay the final shot coordinates to the gunners, who would then dial in the coordinates and fire. The tower lookouts would watch the ships, see if the shots hit, then relay the next round of coordinates for an even more accurate attack.

In a swift, unbroken chain, the process would repeat until all enemy ships had been destroyed. Though there was never an occasion to fire from Fort Miles against enemy vessels, teams of soldiers constantly practiced their triangulation and firing, the thunderous boom and powerful shock waves of the weapons often shattering the windows of nearby homes.

“The only part of that entire team that could have seen the enemy would have been the guys in those towers,” Wray says. “They were the tip of the spear and the eyes of the fort. If the enemy could take out one of those towers, it would render that part of the fort completely impotent.”

There was no enemy (at least not on these shores) and no real threat to the fort or nation. By 1944 the United States began dismantling the fort, but the towers—which were built with reinforced concrete, not the more commonly used steel—remained. To this day, Wray says, they are among the rarest artifacts of World War II.

“We are the only state in the country that has all of its original fire control towers,” Wray says. “And they’re beautiful. They’re historic. And they are Delaware’s most valuable piece of landscape architecture.”

To that end, Wray and his association have been working diligently over the past decade to not only make sure these towers are preserved (beach erosion has threatened more than one of the towers, but that they play an integral part in what will eventually become a massive World War II museum at the former Fort Miles.

“Back then we really thought the country was going to be attacked,” Wray says. “These towers were defending our country. They were the first true homeland security in America.”

Visitors can go inside Tower 7 at Cape Henlopen. At 81 feet, it is the tallest and perhaps most impressive of them all. However, Wray says his association is working on trying to open Tower 3 as well, with more to come in the future.

“As historians, this is what we do—we tell the history,” Wray says. “And for the greatest generation—the generation of my father and mother—this was a significant part of what they went through. With Fort Miles and these towers, Delaware and New Jersey played a key role in that, so it’s up to us to preserve the history. That’s why we do it. That’s why it’s important.”

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