- Associated Press - Saturday, December 3, 2016

LEWES, Del. (AP) - It was a blustery, rainy day when state park historian Jim Hall got the call from Cape Henlopen State Park maintenance staff.

They’d discovered a big chunk of iron in a footpath to the beach.

“I said ‘leave it alone until we can get it identified,’ ” he said.

Cape Henlopen used to be an Army fort and anything unexpected needs to be treated with care, lest it possibly explode.

So Hall told them to cover it with a piece of plywood and put some orange traffic cones around it.

The last thing he wanted to do was draw attention to it and he thought the cones and plywood would make it look like a routine maintenance project. Also, he said, the weather was so bad as Hurricane Hermine was passing through, there weren’t many people visiting the park.

It turned out that piece of metal was a relic from Cape Henlopen’s role as Fort Miles, part of the Army’s coastal defense network during WWII.

In the days that followed, Hall went on an international search to figure out what the hunk of metal was.

He sent pictures of the round piece of iron to historians around the world.

“They thought it was a mine cable distribution box,” he said.

That made sense. One of the missions at Fort Miles was to maintain and operate the mine network across the entrance to Delaware Bay.

The estuary was of strategic importance because factories in Trenton, Philadelphia and Wilmington were bustling to keep pace with the war effort and early in the war, as German U-boat submarines patrolled America’s coast from Florida to Maine, hundreds of merchant ships were targeted, torpedoed and sank.

The minefield was designed to keep enemy ships from slipping into the bay and river.

“Our mines here were electronically controlled,” Hall said. “Nineteen mines were in each array and all cables ran into one distribution box,” he said. That went to a cable hut with one cable.”

But when Hall looked at the military specification for the mine cable distribution box, “it didn’t quite look right.”

Then he heard from two WWII military experts in Texas. They provided him with pictures and specifications and a positive identification for what the chunk of iron was.

“These are 1,000-pound, solid cast iron, mine anchors,” Hall said. They can nest two together.”

What was exposed in the walkway during the storm were two of them bolted together.

“We did get it out,” he said. “We picked it up with a backhoe once we knew it was a weight and not a bomb. Thank God this was a rainy day in the middle of September.”

As a piece of history, the mine anchors tell an important story, he said. So park officials will have them restored and will use them to explain the role Fort Miles played during WWII. Plus, Hall said, objects like these in such good condition are pretty rare.

“This is far enough up on shore,” he said. “This didn’t roll up in a storm.”

Hall can’t be sure how the mine weights ended up in the pathway but a gun battery is in the area and he suspects a storm might have been coming and the men assigned to the fort covered up guns with a tarp and used the mine weight to hold it in place. Over time, it was covered with sand.

But this isn’t the end of the story.

“As we were dealing with the anchor, one of the maintenance guys comes by” and described a “big, round thing” he’s seen buried in the sand.

“Don’t touch it,” Hall told him. “Let’s just leave that alone.”

Because it looked bomb-like, Hall contacted the state police. They called in the explosives team from Dover Air Force Base.

They had no idea what they were looking at so they pulled out old WWII munitions manuals, Hall said.

The rusted, round object turned out to be an M2 mine case “which was state of the art in 1942,” he said.

“This thing is five-feet long and three-feet across and 15 to 20 percent exposed,” he said.

The Air Force team X-rayed the object and found nothing inside

That was great news because in its day, it would have been packed with 24.99 cubic feet of crystaline TNT, Hall said.

It was designed to destroy things by the concussion they created, he said.

“All these components were put together here,” he said.

As they were pulling the mine casing out, another maintenance guy said: “You know, I think there’s another one of these.”

It was covered in weeds, about 40 yards from the first one.

The explosives team was called again and this one also turned out to be empty, Hall said.

In 2008, the Army Corps of Engineers Baltimore District started an investigation of three sites in the park: a suspected 40 mm shell disposal area, a live dud area and former rocket ranges. They found nothing, according to the report issued in 2012.

Fort Miles, first called the Cape Henlopen Military Reservation, was part of the Harbor Defenses of the Delaware Bay during World War I and World War II. Besides the mines there were 90-millimeter, 155-mm, 6-inch and 12-inch gun batteries. At the end of WWII the fort operated on standby status. The fort was used for training and during the 1950s, there were several ranges including one 16-point small arms range, one 8- point pistol range, one skeet range, and two overlapping 3.5-inch inert rocket ranges. The fort was decommissioned in 1958. The Army returned 543 acres to the state in 1964 and that land became Cape Henlopen State Park. The park is now about 7,000 acres.

Because the mine casings were buried, they stayed in remarkably good condition. They too, will be restored.

Once they are restored, all three pieces will be on display at Battery 519 in the part, Hall said.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide