Reviewed By Michael F. Solecki
Protecting the entrance to the Delaware River and Bay has been of concern to its maritime communities since their early existence. Most of that protection was farther upstream at Forts Mott and Mifflin and Peapatch Island. But, it was not until the Spanish American War that the powers that be decided to protect the river at its entrance. Cape Henlopen, Delaware on the western bank and Cape May, New Jersey on the eastern bank form the gateposts of that entrance. Although this book gives some information about the Cape May side of the river, it describes in amazing detail the fascinating history of Cape Henlopen.
The late 1800s were a time of naval reform for the fledgling United States of America. Until that time, the U.S. did not have a high seas fleet to speak of. With war against Spain looming and vibrations of a world scale war coming from Europe, the U.S. decided that in order to protect their interests around the globe, a modern and sustainable navy was necessary. The 1880s and 1890s saw the formation of a naval reserve force, state naval militias, and a true “coast guard.” Post-Civil War America was becoming a global power. National defense by way of its harbors became a concern of the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, who began pushing harbor defense to the sitting congress and White House. The Philadelphia Navy Yard, commercial shipbuilding and the massive industrial base along Delaware was a primary national asset that needed protection. This was proven by German U-Boats during both of the world wars and the submarine service of the Soviet Union later on.
Once the gate posts were organized and equipped with signal stations and patrol boats, mining the entrance to the Bay began. By 1905, the Cape Henlopen facility received a Massie Spark Gap Transmitter and was named a Naval Wireless Station. From that point, the station technologically evolved through two world wars and the Cold War with the Warsaw Pact. The station provided not only anti-submarine services as part of the Navy Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) net it was at the forefront of naval surveillance, communications and navigational aids. Together with Cape May, the stations provided the main protective force of the harbors and assets of the Fourth Naval District.
Since its establishment, Cape Henlopen was manned by the United States Army in Fort Miles, a Coast Guard detachment from the Captain of the Port of Philadelphia and several Navy units and related military reserve units. The Public Health Service maintained a quarantine hospital and even state naval militias maintained a presence. The personnel became a welcome and integral part of the Lewes, Delaware community throughout its existence. As the Cold War began winding down in the 1980s, the naval facility became primarily a reserve training facility for the sailors living in the region. The reserve units of Cape Henlopen were activated and served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the early 1990s. By the mid-1990s, the number of reserve personnel dwindled. The units were moved elsewhere and the facility closed in December 1995.
The State of Delaware has since reabsorbed the land and converted it into a state park and environmental center. Almost all of the buildings are gone and the antennas no longer decorate the beaches. The dunes are being allowed to reestablish to protect the area from nature instead of enemy ships and the town of Lewes has mostly become a sleepy hamlet. For the most part, the majority of the tourists do not realize the important services the area contributed to the security of the nation. I am more guilty than most. I was one of those “tourists” for fifty years, as I have been surfing the surrounding beaches from the mid-1960s through the present, not to mention the countless trips on the Cape May – Lewes Ferry. I actually taught beach ecology courses at the former Reserve Training Center, now an Environmental Center. Embarrassingly, as a Naval Historian and regional resident, I never knew its legacy.
This book tells it all and literally names names. It gives a comprehensive military history of the Cape from the beginning to the end. The detail is surprising and easily defines the amount of effort put into the research by the author. Authentic photographs and charts are used throughout to create a realistic mental picture and emphasize the military and communal importance throughout the station’s history. Unlike most other naval facilities this base was very mission specific and high-technology was its primary tool. Cape Henlopen was on the forefront of naval technological research and the author covers its evolution in detail. The author also personalizes it by including details of the close relationship between the local civilian community, the military personnel, their families and the base as a whole. By covering the whole spectrum he clearly defines the regional importance of its location. I recommend reading the book to anyone interested in the history of naval technology and/or the region; it is well written and maintains the reader’s attention.
Michael F. Solecki is an independent naval historian, U.S. Navy Destroyer (AAW & ASW) and NOAA (Atmospheric and Marine Physical Scientist) veteran of the Cold War and performs peer reviews for several publishers of U.S. and Japanese Naval History.