With a local history dating back nearly 400 years, we’ve decided here at the Oldfather Group to begin focusing on some of our area historical sites via our various blog pages.
And since historic Fort Miles was in the news recently when officials from the fort, as well as Cape Henlopen State Park, finally dedicated their new gun park, we thought we would start there.
If you haven’t had a chance to visit this important piece of living history, we certainly encourage you to do so. It’s a fabulous trip to make with your family and will illustrate in great detail how important this coastal fortification was during a time when the entire world was at war.
The fort has a history that dates all the way back to the early days of World War II, and was built to be one of the most strategic and important defense systems in the United States during that time period.
For a video lesson on the fort, check out this fantastic video by Content Delaware.
Located near the mouth of the Delaware Bay, Fort Miles was one of the most heavily fortified installations on the eastern seaboard in the 1940s as American military officials prepared for a possible attack from Nazi Germany.
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.
There has never been a military installation quite like Fort Miles, nor will there ever be again. The fort included several bunkers with cannons that could fire between 15 and 25 miles out into the Atlantic, controlled by the 11 fire control towers strategically placed between Fenwick Island and Lewes.
Construction on the fort began in the winter of 1941, months before the United States officially entered the Second World War. There was concern that the country would be dragged into the war, and the Pentagon wanted to be prepared if, in case, this prophecy did come to pass.
Troops from the 261st Coast Artillery ― a Delaware National Guard unit made up of men from the western areas of Sussex County ― began building the fort during the harsh winter months. But there was really no big hurry, at least at the time.
That all changed on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese Emperor Hirohito launched an unprecedented air attack on the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
The next day, construction of the fort accelerated and the harbor defense of the Delaware was put on full war alert. The more than 2,200 men stationed at what would be Fort Miles prepared for the defense of the Delaware Bay, as well as the city of Philadelphia.
In an ironic turn of events, by the time the fort was completed, the German naval threat had all but been eliminated by the Allies and the men at Fort Miles spent most of their time looking for German U-boats, or submarines.
But no one had a way of predicting early on in the war what direction the fighting was going to take, and Fort Miles was constructed to face the would be “worst case scenario” head on, should that need arise.
But as for the actual war time, the approximately 1,300 acre coastal fortification is remembered most today for an obscure event that occurred on May 14, 1945, just six days after Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies.
That’s when the men of a German submarine, identified as U-858, turned themselves in to the American military off the coast of Fort Miles.
It was the first enemy warship to surrender to the United States military since the War of 1812.
German Kapitänleutnant Thilo Bode was in command of the sub and surrendered himself, his vessel and his 57 man crew to the authorities at Fort Miles, thus securing the fort's place in the history books for generations to come.
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 the fort’s importance during World War II.
Eventually, the fort 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 it with the help of a dedicated group of volunteers.
The Fort Miles Historical Association (FMHA) is today working with the state of Delaware to turn the installation into a museum dedicated to the World War II history of Delaware.
FMHA volunteers now give guided tours of the bunker located inside the Great Dune at the park. It’s been beautifully restored and includes interactive displays and a hands-on history lesson for all who enter its doors.
There’s even a cannon on the south end of the bunker that resembles one located at the fort during the war years at the Delaware beaches. And the fire control tower located adjacent to the bunker is the only one of the 11 in Delaware that is currently open to the public, providing one of the best views of the area from atop its winding staircase.
If you’re interested in local history and want to learn more about Delaware’s role during the “war to end all wars,” Fort Miles is a great place to start.
Visit the Fort Miles Historical Association for more information, including dates and times of reenactment events, bunker tours and more.