Re-enacted life at Fort Miles during WW II draws crowd

LEWES — For some, like Kathleen Lombardo’s young children, the highlight was the sights and sounds of the firing of one of three-inch guns at Fort Miles — a coastal World War II Army fortification.

One of the three-inch guns at Fort Miles is fired during an artillery demonstration Saturday at Delaware Goes to War. Pictured as part of the two-man aiming crew is re-enactor John Kelly, representing the Coastal Artillery.

“My boys were here for the big guns and they did not disappoint us,” she said. “That is what they wanted to see. It has been much talked about and it lived up to the expectations for my kids.”

For others, it was the underground Fort Miles Museum based in former Battery 519, or World War II-era military weapons, vehicles and living history re-enactors as well as other demonstrations and educational attractions.

But to Lincoln resident Mike Hills, chaplain of the Harbor Defenses of the Delaware Living History Association, Delaware Goes to War at Fort Miles in Cape Henlopen State Park is all about saluting veterans.

“Why do we do this? As far as the re-enactors — our living historians as we put it — we do this to honor our veterans,” said Mr. Hills, among the dozens of uniformed living historians on hand for the annual showcase Saturday. “Our veterans are what protect and guard our country. So, we look at us as building the bridge between our veterans of yesterday that do not have a voice today to the public that doesn’t know anything about World War II. We try to build that bridge.”

Being as authentic as humanly possible is paramount.

“We try to represent them as best we can with the gear that we have to make sure our uniforms are spot-on,” said Mr. Hills. “The general public doesn’t know the difference of a uniform or a vehicle, but our veterans do. If they can’t find fault in how we present ourselves then we are honoring them correctly. And it’s to educate the public about our veterans of all branches and all years.”

“I’ve been doing this now since 2011,” Mr. Hills added. “My wife works for the veterans’ home in Milford, so we, including my children, are all about our veterans.”

Delaware Goes to War is held annually in conjunction with the calendar date of Germany’s surrender and Victory in Europe on May 8, 1945. It is staged through collaboration of Delaware State Parks, Fort Miles Historical Association and the FMHA’s Bunker Busters and the Harbor Defenses of the Delaware Living History Association.

An armored track vehicle rolls slowly through the encampment at Delaware Goes to War at Fort Miles.

This year’s event featured new attractions – an armored-track tank vehicle and an amphibious vehicle known in military circles as the DUKW which augmented numerous other military trucks, Jeeps and motorcycles – as well as popular staples such as weapon/gun firings and surrender of German submarine U-858.

Using World War II period equipment seamstress Sharon Rea sews sergeant stripes
on a uniform.

“It’s a wonderful event,” said Nicole Miller of Lewes. “It teaches the history of the area. I think it’s awesome. The re-enactors, they did a really good job. And the artillery park is very cool.”
Presenters in Fort Miles barracks included seamstress Sharon Rea of Damascus, Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia resident Laurie Kline, who educated visitors on the American Women’s Voluntary Services.
The AWVS had more than 18,000 “enlistees” by the attack on the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. At its height during the war there were upward of 350,000 members.
These women educated the mainland public on air raid drills, blackout protocol and car and home repairs. “Because not only was your husband or your son away, but if there was a handyman in your area, you’d have 400 women in your area that needed the services. So, they tried to make women self-sufficient,” said Ms. Kline.

AWVS members also provided transportation for troops and tour guides for military personnel on leave or waiting to be deployed and child-care. They sold war bonds and assisted the USO and American Red Cross blood drives among other tasks in that time period.

“There is nothing they didn’t do,” Ms. Kline said. “They did it all.”

Ms. Rea has been sewing for about 40 years and started re-enacting about 16 years ago. “My son got a Jeep when he was 12. Of course, then you must have uniforms to wear. And then mom and dad had to go along. So, we all had to dress up. I just started collecting and sewing for other re-enactors,” said Ms. Rea, whose husband Allan Rea was among the re-enactors on hand with one of his large military vehicles. “

Don Hutcheson right, of the Delaware Military Heritage and Education Foundation shares information on their organization with Delaware Goes to War patrons. Second from right is Bob Seidle, another member of the DMHEF.

Meanwhile, Don Hutcheson and Bob Seidle set up an information table with memorabilia outside their Delaware Military Heritage and Education Foundation tent.
“To preserve all the memories, incidents and artifacts of Delaware Military history, and it goes to back to 1638,” said Mr. Hutcheson. “Kids, like those that are our grandkids’ age, they are just fascinated. They have no idea what some of this stuff is. The little kids come in and they are fascinated by the helmets, so they pick up helmet and mommy takes a snapshot.”

“We’ve got an old typewriter. We have a clock with hands on it.,” Mr. Seidle said. “And we have a room just for kids at the museum (near Wilmington).”
Because Fort Miles and the Fort Miles Museum are spread out, attendance is tough to gauge. Based on the waiting lines for three Delaware State Parks shuttlebuses and the trail of folks heading to and from the museum in the bunker, it was substantial.

“We usually have a great turnout. Last year we had 1,700 visit and actually tour the museum,” said Ms. Hills. “Our biggest promoter is the Fort Miles Museum, which was formerly known as Battery 519, the underground gun battery active during the war.”

John Roberts of the Fort Miles Historical Association notes that while no shots were actually fired from Fort Miles at German vessels in hostility, the fort was well prepared.
“Guns were fired in practice over 440 times against tow targets and maximum range of accuracy was over 95 percent,” said Mr. Roberts.
He also believes people young and old are beginning to learn about Fort Miles and its historical significance. “They love this place. They get a chance to learn about history. Most people who live in the area don’t know this is here. When they do come here it is a real eye-opening experience,” Mr. Roberts said.
Joe Johnson, a 14-year member of the FMHA board, remembers Fort Miles as an electrician – and as a curious kid.

“When the (Battery) 519 was being opened, there was no electricity. I am an electrician by trade, and I went in there and got all the lights on. We got power going so that people could actually go in and tour,” Mr. Johnson said.

“That is really what I think inspired the state to move forward with getting all of this progress. Obviously, we’ve had a great group of volunteers and they do a wonderful job. It really has taken off. It’s incredible the amount of momentum that has happened. We have just been very blessed. Our governor, our senators see progress and see all the volunteers and I think that inspires them to help us and donate money and help our cause. It is very rewarding. And every year it seems to get bigger.”

When I was a kid I used to come in here and break into these bunkers. And now I say, ‘I’m paying my penance.’ It was just an abandoned bunker.,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s so cool when people come here that lived their entire life and don’t even know these bunkers are here. They will walk in — and the look on their faces is so rewarding.”

Fort Miles has a unique niche in WWII history, says Mr. Hills, narrator for the re-enactment of U-858’s surrender.

In the annual Delaware Goes to War re-enactment of the May 14, 1945 surrender of U-858 at Fort Miles, a member of the U-858 crew is checked for contraband.

“One thing about Fort Miles is it’s the only place in the United states that that happened. We have a sole possession of that surrender for a coast artillery fortification,” Mr. Hills said. “So, that is something that nobody else can claim. It makes it very specific to here. It’s something historically correct. It’s not made-up. And it brings a different light to the German submarines that a lot of people don’t know about. The United States government tried to keep it as hush-hush as possible as not to panic the public.”

Facebook Comment