Wednesday, July 13, 2016

WWII Memories in Cape May: Fire Control Tower No. 23

WWII Memories in Cape May: Fire Control Tower No. 23

Rising up from the sands as you approach Sunset Beach in Cape May, New Jersey is a tall conical concrete tower with a few windows and two rows of slit-like windows at the top. A mystery structure for many years as it sat abandoned amongst the sand dunes, scrub pines and holly, this World War II lookout tower, officially called Fire Control Tower No. 23, is now dedicated to preserving the memories of World War II, its veterans, and the war's impact along the Jersey shore.

World War II brought many changes to the East Coast. The Army, Navy, and Coast Guard all had bases in the lower Cape May County area. Cape May, a popular tourist town, was suddenly changed by war. Although there was local resistance at first, blackouts and dim outs, photography restrictions, and even restrictions on where you could fish were put into place. Beach areas that were once popular haunts for the locals were restricted.

Fire Control Tower No. 23 was built in 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, as part of Fort Miles, the system of harbor defenses of the Delaware Bay. It was one of fifteen towers stretching from North Wildwood, New Jersey to Bethany Beach, Delaware used to aim coastal batteries at German ships and submarines. Constructed of one foot thick reinforced concrete, it has an exterior diameter of seventeen feet, and cost $24,700.00 to build. It was transferred for official use on April 8, 1944.

A display inside Fire Control Tower No. 23.
According to the Report of Completed Works dated January 1, 1945, the structure was originally lit by kerosene lighting fixtures and heated by coal space heaters. Originally two Azimuth instruments were located in the tower to watch ship movements and provide the precise angle between a ship and a base line using the geometric principle of triangulation. The soldiers who determined the coordinates of the ship from the tower would communicate with the battery on the beach as to where to fire its guns. Today, one M1910 Azimuth Instrument is located on the observation deck, on loan from Delaware State parks.

When it was in use, only the top two levels of the tower were occupied. The top level housed the Azimuth instruments and communications. The level below that was a "dayroom" or lounge for the soldiers.

A view of the Delaware Bay, Sunset Beach, and the S.S. Atlantus concrete ship.
As for the fate of the other three lookout towers in New Jersey, they were not as lucky as Fire Control Tower No. 23. Towers 25 and 26, located in Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood, respectively, were torn down and Tower 24 is located inside Cape May’s Grand Hotel, at the corner of Beach and Philadelphia avenues. If you look closely at the hotel from the street, you can see the round top of the tower sticking through, painted light blue.

In Delaware,  Fire Control Tower No. 7 at Cape Henlopen State Park is open to the public and was added to National Register of Historic Places in 2005. All of the other remaining towers are closed and not open to the public. Towers 5 and 6, also at Cape Henlopen State Park, are threatened with erosion, although steps have been taken to construct jetties to rebuild the lost beach in front of them.

Fire Control Tower No. 23 was added to the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places in 2003. In 2004, MAC signed a 20-year lease with the State of New Jersey for Fire Control Tower No. 23. Between 2008 and 2009, the tower was restored by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities through grants totalling $1.3 million from the New Jersey Historic Trust, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. A spiral staircase with landings, lighting and safety features were installed which would allow the public to climb to the top of the tower. Sections of the original wooden ladder were reconstructed to show visitors how the observation deck of the tower was accessed (no stairs, only ladders). Future plans for the site include constructing a visitor center.

Additional photos of my trip to Fire Control Tower No. 23 on Pinterest

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