The years I spent in the U.S. Air Force were some of the best – and most interesting – of my life. They also built experiences that help me connect with so many folks who are moving to Delaware following careers in the military. I think most of us follow current events like those taking place in Ukraine and other areas where there are conflicts with a special eye based on what we learned, and especially deep pride in our NATO forces and in all Americans who serve in dangerous places worldwide.
A Brief History of Fort Miles
Some of us are also history buffs, which is a great reason to visit the attractions of Fort Miles when we head into Cape Henlopen State Park. It charts its beginnings to 1938, a time of great danger for the U.S. along our coastlines at the outset of World War II. That’s when four 155mm guns were towed to the area, followed by 8-inch railway guns deployed in underground batteries, to protect Delaware Bay, which was crucial to both national security and access to commercial ports.
In 1941 soldiers of the 261st Coast Artillery, most of them from Sussex and Kent Counties, were called to active duty. At that point the fortification, previously known as Camp Henlopen, became Fort Miles.
As threats from Nazi Germany increased, the Army Corps of Engineers went on to construct more underground batteries, including Battery 519, which is open for public tours today. Also on site were permanent barracks, a hospital and post office to support more than 2,500 men and women who were stationed at Fort Miles.
Soon Fort Miles became one of the largest fortifications built during the war, with large caliber guns that protected the shores of New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware. Equally important were the Fire Control Towers that still stand back in the pine forests of the park and on the ocean. There were 11 on our side of Delaware Bay and four on the New Jersey coast, and all integral to efforts to spot the fall of projectiles from the large battery guns.
The fort stayed useful long after the war ended. After it was turned over to the U.S. Navy, it became a top secret listening post to track Russian submarines that operated until 1963.
A Beautiful, Natural Setting
By 1964 the Delaware coastline was secure enough for the U.S. Department of Defense to declare the 543 acres that comprised Fort Miles as surplus property. The state of Delaware accepted the land and incorporated it to establish Cape Henlopen State Park, which spans 5,200 acres.
Over the next few decades the park became a treasured place for camping, fishing and riding the waves along miles of pristine beaches. Thanks to scores of volunteers and a lot of support from the state of Delaware over the past decade the area encompassing Fort Miles in particular has been developed as a prime spot for living history. Throughout the year visitors can take guided tours of the grounds and restored batteries and enjoy an art gallery and many special events that celebrate “the greatest generation” in our nation’s history.
Whether you’re on your own or hanging out with your grandkids, one of your favorite places it apt to be within Battery 519, a 15,000 square foot underground chamber that houses several museum exhibits and artifacts. You can experience it through guided tours and open houses where you’ll learn a lot about U boats, surrendering Germans and even civilian pilots who were intent on protecting the nation alongside military personnel.
Right now tours of the battery are offered each Friday and Saturday at 2 p.m., and beginning May 15th you’ll also be able to tour on Sundays between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Also note: Battery 519 opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 4 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and closes at 3 p.m. on Sunday.
Learn About Delaware Service Members at Pearl Harbor Too
While you’re there, take in “Oil Still Bleeds,” a standing tribute to service members from Delaware who were at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The exhibit features a 650-pound relic from the Battleship USS Arizona, which was sunk during the attack, along with interactive touch screens that walk you through the attack and the sinking of that ship. Right now the exhibit is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Friday and Saturday, and beginning May 15th it’ll also be open on Sundays.
The grounds of the Museum are open from 8 a.m. to sunset every day. The Museum Orientation Building is open on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from now through June 10th, and Tuesday through Saturday between June 13th and September 9th. The Fort Miles area is easy to find thanks to ample signage once you enter Cape Henlopen State Park.
You can learn more about all of this at the Fort Miles Historical Association Web site – and please visit it before you visit to ensure the open hours and tours haven’t changed.