|An unflinching sentry
awaits new orders.
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
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
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
Soldiers, sailors, and Marines
streamed onto the island, occupying
every livable space, and some spaces
that weren’t so livable.
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"
"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.
She was just a teenager
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
"During the war years, they had
five-inch fifties – that was the
nomenclature – and 90-millimeter
anti-aircraft batteries out there" said
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
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
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
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
Doris did her bit on behalf of the
war effort as well. As an operator for
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
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
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.