SUNSET BEACH — The World War II Lookout Tower: Fire Control Tower No. 23 Museum & Memorial opened to the public Friday March 27 with a steady stream of visitors and a coastal artillery reenactor inside from Cape Henlopen State Park who explained the purpose of the structure and how ships were spotted from the top level.
In 2008-09, Cape May’s Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC) restored New Jersey’s last freestanding World War II Lookout Tower, an important part of Cape May’s World War II history.
The World War II Lookout Tower was part of the immense Harbor Defense of the Delaware system known as Fort Miles. The tower was used for spotting enemy ships during World War II and aiming guns to fire on them.
From Fire Control Towers along the coast, soldiers would determine the exact location of an enemy ship using the geometric principle of triangulation. Each of these towers had at least two azimuths, which were binocular-like instruments that gave the precise angle between the ship and a base line.
Mike Rogers, lead interpreter and historian from Delaware State Parks at Cape Henlopen at Fort Miles demonstrated an azimuth, a telescope like device. He compared fire control to a quarterback on a football field whose eyes tell his brain how hard and how high to throw the ball.
If the quarterback wants to throw the football to a receiver, “Is he going to throw it right at him? No, he’s going to lead it a bit because he wants that ball and that receiver to get in the same place at the same time,” said Rogers.
“The whole system works like your body and Fort Miles had eyes and the eyes were the towers,” continued Rogers.
He said two towers, like two eyes, are needed for depth perception. Each tower had a M-19 azimuth at the top, which took the position of their target from their viewpoint, and a crewmember telephoned that information to Fort Miles.
The data from two towers was put together in the plotting room to find the point in the water where the lines of sight cross. The information was sent to the guns, which “could throw something as heavy as your car 25 miles away, said Rogers.
The azimuth in the tower is on loan from Cape Henlopen Park. A World War II tower is open to the public there but has not been restored like the tower at Sunset Beach. Fort Miles has a fully restored gun battery with weapons.
Rogers said Fire Control Tower 23 was assigned to a particular gun battery. A fire commander would identify the ship to be fired upon and phone the information to the tower. Another tower would also be tracking the ship from their angle creating a triangle with the ship being the third point.
The towers needed to stay synchronized so a bell chimed three times every 30 seconds.
“On the third chime, they would stop and read what the setting was on azimuth instrument,” said Rogers. “The guys in the other tower were doing the same thing.”
Readings were taken at the exact same time providing a synchronized mark that can be used to plot a ship out in the water. The azimuth would allow a ship to be seen on the horizon as far as 20 miles away and see its distinctive features.
Towers were not paired with a specific other tower but as needed depending on the position of the ship. The fire control commander occupied Tower 12 at the harbor entrance control post at Fort Miles.
The bunker at Cape May Point State Park had big six-inch guns, four 90 mm guns and four, 155 mm guns, said Rogers. He said they were covering this side of the bay where guns in Delaware could not reach.
“Nobody is getting through this bay entrance without being in range of somebody’s weapon, “ said Rogers.
The guns were test fired on a monthly basis but never used to sink a ship. They were fired once at freighter that failed to stop and give proper identification. Rogers said Fort Miles was unable to contact the freighter by radio or signal lights.
A 155mm gun was loaded from the Delaware side with the order to fire three shots, one over the bow as a warning shot, the second shot between the smoke stacks and the third shot to hit the freighter. The first shot fired went between the smoke stacks which caused the freighter crew to believe they were being fired upon with no warning.
The freighter came to a dead stop in the water and the crew came on deck waving white bed sheets to surrender. The freighter turned out to be an Allied vessel coming to pick up supplies from Wilmington and Philadelphia.
Rogers said the crew did not know the ship had to be stopped and searched before proceeding into Delaware Bay. The freighter continued on its way the following day but requested an armed escort after having the life scared out of them from the shot from Fort Miles.
The towers communicated by telephone instead of by radio since it could be intercepted, said Rogers.
The tower will be open daily; call for times, (609) 884-5404. Tower admission is $6 for adults and $2.50 for children (ages 3-12).
If you are in need of a hotel or bed and breakfast while visiting the newly renovated observation tower try the Bacchus Inn in the center of historic Cape May NJ at 609.884.2129. We are a proud business partner of Cape May MAC.