mission519Much has changed in the seven decades years since Fort Miles was built at the mouth of the Delaware Bay.

Today’s homeland defense systems are much more technologically advanced.

The systems at Fort Miles that defended the gateway to Philadelphia between 1940 and 1945 were critical to safeguarding the area and sophisticated for their time.

Those systems included coastal artillery towers and patrols; the military’s biggest guns at 16 inches; underwater mines, nets and sound detectors; a top-secret defense facility; and searchlights powerful enough to light the beach at Cape May, N.J.

Fort Miles was the largest of the East Coast combat-ready posts, with 2,500 trained personnel, fully prepared to battle invaders along our coastal beaches and waters. 

Within Fort Miles, gunnery drills, combat training and equipment maintenance were constant. Even as the secret fortress was being built, flotsam and corpses from German U-boats were washing up on nearby beaches, including refuse from the tug John R. Williams just off Cape Henlopen in June 1942.

Also that month, two four-man teams of German saboteurs were put ashore by submarines off Long Island and near Jacksonville, Fla. At Fort Miles, sentries patrolled with “shoot to kill” orders while the post was under total nighttime blackout. At the time, the threat of invasion was very real.

Members of the Pilots Association of the Bay and River Delaware joined the Coast Guard to lead merchant ships and tankers through the hundreds of mines at the mouth of the bay, assisted by mine battery observers from Fort Miles. Not a single ship was lost.

At its wartime height, Fort Miles operated 32 of the Army’s largest-caliber artillery pieces plus anti-aircraft weapons. This impressive firepower, studied by enemy intelligence, served as a certain deterrent to an enemy invasion of the Delaware shoreline.

As the war progressed, by 1943-44 U.S. naval superiority had reduced the threat of coastal invasion. Just after the war’s end, May 14, 1945, German submarine U-858 surrendered to the U.S. Navy and was escorted to the fort’s mine dock where the captive sailors were held at Fort Miles’ POW camp.

After the war, Fort Miles became a research and development test range, helping to create important future weapons technology, including air-to-air and air-to-ground rockets. The history of this important site and its personnel is being preserved and accurately interpreted.