Fort Miles had only been completed days before the attack on Pearl Harbor when the soldiers stationed there were suddenly put on high alert. America had joined the war. With one of the largest guns ever made, Fort Miles was ready with tremendous fire power.
Sixteen concrete fire control towers were built along the coast, still dotting the coast line today. They were necessary as the 16″ guns could shoot longer than anyone could visibly see from the fort (the sightline from the fort was up to 14 miles, but the gun range was 25 miles).
For now the soldiers waited anxiously to see if the Axis powers would reach American soil again. They would not have to wait long.
Admiral Karl Dönitz, commander of a German submarine fleet, launched Operation Paukenschlag (“Operation Drumroll”). Unofficially, it was nicknamed by the German commanders as “American shooting season.”
German U-boats sailed to their positions on the eastern coast of America and sank over 600 ships, killing thousands of merchant mariners and sailors.
In January 1942, just a month after Pearl Harbor the tanker Francis Powell was cruising unarmed towards Cape Henlopen when a German U-boat fired a single torpedo. The torpedo hit its mark and caused a devastating explosion to the side of the tanker.
Most of the American crewmen on the ship had been asleep and they quickly abandoned the sinking tanker on lifeboats as it disappeared beneath the water. One man was crushed to death when he slipped and fell between the lifeboat and the ship and two other men and a officer were also lost.
The crew watched as the tanker broke into two pieces, caught fire and sank. Five hours later, the surviving 17 men were rescued by an American steam tanker and brought to Lewes, Delaware. The 11 survivors on the other lifeboat were found by the U.S. Coast Guard and brought to Chincoteague, Virginia.
For the rest of the winter the residents of Lewes stood on high alert as German U-boats continued to sink American ships along the coast.
Over the course of the war, more than 200 crewmen from 13 torpedoed ships were rescued and brought into Lewes. At its peak, 2,220 personnel staffed the fort.
By the end of 1942 improved aerial surveillance of the coast significantly reduced the U-boats’ effectiveness.
And then, in May of 1945, the fort received the surrender of German U-boat U-858 as part of the German surrender to Allied forces. It was the first German warship to surrender to the U.S.
After being surrendered, U-858 was used for publicity in war bond drives and then for torpedo practice. In 1947, it was purposefully sunk. (You can see how fast an old ship being scuttled goes down, here)
In the end, the guns at Fort Miles had only been used a handful of times for testing. So why had local residents heard thunderous firing so often?
Between January 1944 and September 1945, 150,000 artillery shells were fired from Fort Miles. But it wasn’t the guns in these photos. Instead these rounds were coming from a highly classified area known as Herring Point.
The shells were part of a top-secret program on General George S. Patton’s list, only under the development of the atomic bomb. It was the world’s first “smart bomb.”
Experimental radio technology was being used on shells to send out radar-like radio waves. These bounced off objects until the pulses became strong enough to detonate the bomb within 75-feet of their target. The technology would make direct hits unnecessary.
Britain, Japan and Germany were also working on smart bombs but the U.S. succeeded first. Patton said to Levin Campbell, the Army Chief in charge of the project, “I think that when all armies get this shell, we will have to devise some new method of warfare. I am glad you all thought of it first.”
Four ammunition igloos were constructed at Fort Miles but the actual ammunition for the smart bombs was stored in the open hidden among the sand dunes.
While women worked at the Fort, none of them were allowed to fire guns. At least officially. Secretly they were working on Battery X’s secret project too. The project was unclassified in 1968.
The fort ceased military operations in 1991 and became part of the state park. In 2014, the Fort Miles Historical Association saved a battleship gun for the park from the scrap heap.
The gun had been on the U.S.S. Missouri, the battleship on which General Douglas MacArthur had accepted Japan’s surrender in 1945. Today you can take a tour of the fort or see gun firing demonstrations.
*Interesting footnote: Fort Miles was named for Civil War Lieutenant General Nelson A. Miles of Massachusetts. Miles fought in almost every major battle in the east and received the Medal of Honor for gallantry at Chancellorsville where he was severely wounded. During the war he was wounded four times, twice supposedly fatally, but he survived each time.
At Fort Monroe in Virginia (Virginia joined the Confederacy but Fort Monroe remained under Union control), he served as the commandant where he faced charges on mistreatment of former Confederate president, Jefferson Davis.
Miles served in the army until 1903, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 64. He died in 1925 at the age of 85. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in one of the only two mausoleums in the cemetery.