World War II Lookout Tower tells Cape May area’s coastal defense story
This historic landmark stands as a reminder that enemy attack during wartime along the Atlantic coast and Delaware Bay was a very real fear. Each year on Armed Forces Day, many gather here to pay tribute to veterans and military men and women. This year that experience will be virtual.
LOWER TOWNSHIP — The World War II Lookout Tower (Fire Control Tower No. 23), located on Sunset Boulevard in Lower Township, is New Jersey’s last freestanding World War II Tower, part of the immense Harbor Defense of the Delaware system known as Fort Miles. Built in 1942, the tower was one of 15 towers used as observation posts to detect enemy vessels and direct the artillery fire from nearby coastal batteries.
Fort Miles was a collection of fire control towers and gun batteries, plus barracks and support buildings, on both sides of the Delaware Bay. By World War II the military used a spread-out series of towers and batteries, whose firing ranges overlapped, to protect a large territory. Its largest guns and headquarters were located on the Delaware side, in what is now Cape Henlopen State Park, since the shipping channel hugs the Southern shore of Delaware Bay.
The towers were not originally designed to spot submarines, but rather to destroy German battleships. Giant underwater nets prevented submarines from entering the Delaware Bay. Teams of American aircraft with bombs and naval vessels with sonar and depth charges took the lead in tracking down and destroying the German U-boats. But when the tide of battle shifted in our favor, a change occurred in the use of the Fire Control Tower. In the final year of the war, members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary were stationed here to help spot submarines. German submarines sank many merchant vessels off the coast of Cape May but no German ships ever made it up to the Delaware River to attack the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Philadelphia or Camden.
Fire Control Tower №23 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Nov. 17, 2003. In 2004, the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities (MAC) — now Cape May MAC (Museums+Arts+Culture) — signed a 20-year lease for the tower. After raising $1 million from the New Jersey Historic Trust, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, a Small Cities Block Grant administered by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and Lower Township, and a Save America’s Treasures Grant administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Cape May MAC restored the tower in 2008–09 and opened it to the public in April 2009. The organization continues to maintain and interpret the site for members of the public.
Inside, a staircase winds back and forth taking you to the sixth floor watch gallery. Changing exhibits along the way highlight varying topics of history related to the tower. Interpretive panels and photos explain the tower’s function, while a Wall of Honor pays tribute to local residents who served during World War II. Over 160 veterans’ photos are on display there.
A symbolic eternal flame sculpture designed by local artist Stephen D. Bradway was installed in 2012 on the boardwalk at the rear of the tower. The memorial stands 44 inches tall and consists of a copper cauldron atop a copper-clad pylon. Three-dimensional brass flames arise from the cauldron, symbolizing the passing of the torch from local World War II veterans to all area veterans. The inscription on an adjacent plaque reads: “This eternal flame honors not only the veterans of World War II of the Cape May area but also all area veterans who have nobly carried forth the torch of defending our nation.” The memorial is open year-round for quiet contemplation.
Continuing restoration efforts rely largely on income from admissions and public contributions. The Friends of the World War II Tower, an affinity group, offers public programs on topics of history and organizes an Armed Forces Day Ceremony at the tower each year.
Admission to climb the tower is $6 for adults and $3 for children ages 3–12. Reduced admission for veterans is $3. Admission for active military is free. The Tower is now open daily to visitors. Masks are required. Visit capemaymac.org for schedule.
(Susan Krysiak is Director of Media Relations for Cape May MAC, a multifaceted not-for-profit organization committed to promoting the preservation, interpretation, and cultural enrichment of the Cape May region for its residents and visitors. Cape May MAC membership is open to all.)
(This story was updated Aug.1, 2020).