Gentle Giants: The Fort Miles Towers

by Dave on October 7, 2010

by James Diehl

photo from Delaware Public Archives

Today, southern Delaware’s coastal resorts are all about fun in the sun on or near the sandy shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Hundreds of thousands of visitors a year enjoy the area’s beaches, unique attractions and the bevy of water sports so prevalent in the area.

But coastal Delaware served a much different purpose during the early 1940s – the country was at war and the mouth of the Delaware Bay, and the cities of Wilmington and Philadelphia, had to be protected.

Relics from those days of war still exist today, most notably the 11 fire control towers that were built along the beach during World War II. Those towers still stand guard along Sussex County’s beaches today, a proud reminder of Delaware’s defensive role during World War II.

Other than those gentle giants dotting the area beaches, however, much of Fort Miles remains a mystery to coastal Delaware’s visitors, and even to many of its residents. It’s giant bunkers, huge armament and heavily fortified coastal defenses have always taken a back seat to Fort Delaware, in New Castle County.

Children growing up in the First State take trips to Pea Patch Island and learn all about Fort Delaware, its history and it’s strategic location near the city of Philadelphia. Fort Miles is often an afterthought, a reality that is as unexplainable as it is unforgiveable.
Named after Nelson Appleton Miles, the last commander in chief of the United States Army, the massive coastal fortification was built in 1941 to defend Philadelphia, as well as oil refineries and other assets along the Delaware River and Bay.

The fort was designed and constructed to fight the strongest elements of the Germany Navy, though that particular threat never materialized during the war. Adolph Hitler never intended to attack the American mainland via his warships, but American strategists had no way of knowing that and, therefore, planned for the worst.

There has never been a military installation quite like Fort Miles, nor will there ever be again. Boasting cannons that could fire between 15 and 25 miles out into the sea, it was as formidable a fort as the east coast of the United States had ever seen.

The sprawling fort – Fort Miles stretched for about 1,300 acres along the Delaware coast, from Fenwick Island north to Lewes and up the southern edges of the Delaware Bay – was constructed by men from the 261st Coast Artillery, a Delaware National Guard unit made up of men from the western areas of Sussex County.

Construction on the fort began in the winter of 1941, with men working out of a temporary tent city as construction of the fort took place. It was to be a gradual build, but that all changed on Dec. 7, when Emperor Hirohito of Japan savagely attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

That day, the harbor defenses of Delaware were ordered to go on full war alert. Construction of the fort accelerated and the men, more than 2,200 at its peak, prepared to defend the Delaware.

Ironically, the men of the 261st never had a chance to fire the fort’s massive guns, at least not in a combat scenario. By the time the fort was complete, it was essentially obsolete as the German naval threat had been all but eliminated.

After World War II came to an end, Fort Miles stood down and the fort’s heavy guns were eventually dismantled. The men went home and the fort was largely abandoned, standing as a deteriorating reminder of its importance during World War II.

Eventually, Fort Miles became part of Cape Henlopen State Park and is today overseen by the Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation, which has helped restore and maintain the fort with the help of a dedicated group of volunteers.

The Fort Miles Historical Association, formed in the summer of 2003 and now more than 400 members strong, is working with the state of Delaware to turn the fort into a museum dedicated to the World War II history of the First State.

When complete, it will provide a permanent link between the coastal Delaware of today and the area’s strategic importance during World War II.

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