An unflinching sentry awaits new orders.

Through sixty-plus years of scorching sun and biting wind, the lone sentry remains on post – the final relic of a once-massive coastal defense system that guarded a vital American waterway. Standing half-forgotten on a scrub-covered parcel of beachfront, the concrete guardian now awaits a new set of orders. As the collective memories of The Greatest Generation fade with time, Fire Tower #23’s new mission is keeping those memories alive.

When the war broke out, tiny Cape Island changed in many ways. Armed Coast Guardsmen could be seen and heard riding up and down the beaches on horseback, lest enemy submarines drop off landing parties onto the moonlit beach (local lore has it that a German raiding party once made it to shore, only they didn’t raid the town – they went to the movies instead).

Soldiers, sailors, and Marines streamed onto the island, occupying every livable space, and some spaces that weren’t so livable.

Doris Branigan, an eighth-generation West Cape Mayan, grew up on Sixth Avenue and was still in school when the war came home. She remembers the soldiers; she remembers the problem the island had trying to house them.

"Virtually thousands upon thousands upon thousands – all over the place – you couldn’t find a place to live for love nor money," she said. "People were turning their closets into apartments. We used every square inch."

Cape May Point, for the most part, became a U.S. Army camp. The nuns of St. Mary’s convent had to give up their summer home to house the soldiers. Listen: you can hear the strains of the "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B" playing.

"The winters were extremely cold," said Doris. "Our winters were much colder in those days – and they were billeted in St. Mary’s. There was no heat; I still don’t know what they did for heat, but it was better than being outdoors. We always kidded them about shooting craps off the statute of St. Joseph."

She was just a teenager when she met her husband Henry "Hank" Branigan, a young soldier from Rhode Island sent to man the big guns set up on the beaches in what is now Cape May Point State Park.

"My husband was stationed in the camp out there. The Army had mounted guns on the shore and they were quite impressive at the time. They were mounted high in the air and you had to climb a couple flights of stairs to get to the gun mounts. There were rooms underneath. They’ve all sunken into the ground now. The beach was much farther out then – three or four blocks."

Serious guns they were – cannons really – some of the largest on the East Coast. Skip Hoffman Sr., a lifelong Cape Island resident, who also grew up on Sixth Avenue in West Cape May when it was still a dirt road, remembers the time well.

"During the war years, they had five-inch fifties – that was the nomenclature – and 90-millimeter anti-aircraft batteries out there" said Skip.

There were changes everywhere on the sleepy island. Favorite haunts were now off limits. One such place was the construction site of a new tower.

Fire Control Tower #23 is an enormous and instantly recognizable landmark rising 100 feet out of the sand along Sunset Boulevard. Its hulking shell remains in remarkably good shape just a few steps through the brush, a couple hundred yards from Sunset Beach. It was built in 1942 shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor as part of a coastal defense system that stretched from North Wildwood across the bay to Delaware.

Standing alongside Fire Tower #23 – looking up at this tall beacon amidst the serenity of Sunset Blvd – it’s hard to imagine Cape May Point as a lone outpost vulnerable to enemy attack. But think about it: a German or Japanese submarine could have easily invaded the United States at such a remote outpost. Legend has it that pirates succeeded in coming ashore many times and the British gave it their best during the War of 1812.
The tower had a dual purpose, both as a lookout for submarines and a spotter for the guns on the beach. Fire Tower #23 – now listed on the National Register of Historic Places – had its own job. It was one of a series of 15 fire-control towers, including those in North Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, and Cape May, all part of the coastal defense complex known as Fort Miles. Locals barely noticed Tower #23.

"We didn’t pay it any mind," Doris said. "They didn’t welcome people hanging around."

The towers were part of maritime defenses, which included, according to Skip, a large sub net that stretched across the mouth of the bay from Sunset Beach all the way to Delaware. Skip claims the sub net is why the Cape May canal was built, so friendly ships could go up the Delaware without taking down the sub net. Additionally, said Skip, the sharp bend in the canal kept out enemy subs that were too long to make the turn.

In Tower #23, look-outs peered through its eye-like slits in search of enemy submarines and then directed the fire of coastal artillery batteries if any were spotted.

As you can imagine, nights here on the island were especially eerie.

"We would be taking a stroll through town," Doris recalls, "And the siren would sound, and in an instant the entire town was in pitch darkness. All the street lights were dimmed anyway, but when the siren went off, it would be total darkness. You had to pull the shades over the windows. Wardens would patrol the streets. If you had even a crack of light shining out, they’d bang on your door, and well, you had better cover it up. We ate in our basement because it was the only place in the house where the light wouldn’t shine out."

Doris did her bit on behalf of the war effort as well. As an operator for Bell Telephone on Ocean Street in Cape May (now the library), she spent time working at Fort Dix where she often communicated in code to throw off any unwelcome ears – loose lips sink ships, you know.

As the threat to America’s shores declined, so did the coastal defense structures. Even now the proud tower squints hard into the setting sun, but the concrete bunker sits brooding and crumbling on the shore and the magnesite plant is a mere ghost. The gun batteries that guarded America’s shorelines have fallen into the sea; the men and women who lived in their shadows are now shadows themselves.

The towers in the Wildwoods were torn down and the tower in Cape May City was absorbed by the Grand Hotel on Beach Avenue (it’s still visible, jutting above the roofline). Fire Tower #23 is the only remaining restorable structure in New Jersey. Across from Tower #23 is the empty land where the Northwest Magnesite Company once stood. The plant operated 24-7 during WWII making firebricks necessary for the production of steel. Skip worked at the plant, which extracted magnesium ironide – a necessary component for high-temperature bricks – out of the waters around the cape. The land is about to become a flower-covered wildlife sanctuary thanks to a revitalization effort. But at that time, the plant covered everything on the island with a layer of white soot.

The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC), an organization dedicated to interpreting the rich history of Cape May and the surrounding area, recently negotiated a lease agreement to restore the tower and convert it to a World War II museum. The tower’s new assignment is preserving the memories of hardship, sacrifice and stiff-upper-lip-icity of the generation who went to war.

An unflinching guardian that once kept watch over a critical American shipping channel awaits a new mission − a mission to pass on the stories of Cape May at war. America prevailed 60 years ago and Cape Island remains the jewel of New Jersey. Tower #23 stands as a reminder to the valor of that time.

Note: This story is excerpted from the Spring, 2006 issue of CAPE MAY MAGAZINE

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