It is about 7:20 when I pull over and park along the shoulder of Sunset Boulevard. Sunset is at 7:45 so I figure I have plenty of time but I have underestimated the number of people who attend the Evening Flag Ceremony at Sunset Beach every night from May through September My parking space is across from the water tower. I grab my camera bag and start walking, briskly I might add, so I don’t miss a thing because this is going to be one spectacular sunset.

 

The lowering of the American flag is a 40 year tradition and Marvin Hume has been at the mast for 32 of those years. The 83-year-old Hume owns the property at sunset beach which includes a couple of gift shops, a clothing boutique, Sunset Beach Grill and is the site of any number of other attractions including the concrete ship Atlantus – but more about that later. A setting sun has no patience for digression.

 

The sky, as I step onto the rough sand, is filled with pastel hues of peach and yellow with just a trace of blue. As the sun begins to set in earnest, the peaches turn to orange, the yellows deepen to gold and blue disappears completely, replaced by a fiery red. It has been very hot the past few weeks and the sunsets have been hidden amid a thick, steamy, summer haze. This clear, variegated sky although beautiful is another reminder of fall and cooler temperatures.

This is the first time I’ve actually stayed for the flag lowering. There are loads of people lining the beach for the sunset. As I busy myself taking pictures of the scene I hear a voice over the p.a. system bringing my attention away from the sky and toward the flag and sky which is still blue.

 

Marvin is explaining the ceremony and introducing the family who will help lower the flag tonight. All the flags flown at the mast are veterans’ casket flags donated by the families of the deceased. Tonight, the flag will be lowered with the help of Julianna and Alex Herff whose grandfather Olimpio Herff, a veteran of the Korean War died recently. Julianna and Alex are about 4 and 6 I venture to say. Marvin asks that we all stand while a recording of Kate Smith singing God Bless America, followed by the national anthem play. Marvin then walks over to the mast, greets the Herff family and shows Julianna and Alex how to stand with their hand over their heart while the music plays. Their mother Victoria Monacelli-Herff stands nearby watching.

 

I snap away with the camera until the Star Spangled Banner plays and then I too, place my hand over my heart and look to the flag. There are maybe a couple hundred people assembled. They spread out from the Sunset Grill up and down the beach for quite a ways. Many are gathered near the mast. They are young – children, teens and young adults. They are old, many of them veterans of various wars from WWII to Vietnam. They stand in silence, some singing, some near tears, some with their heads bowed as though in prayer.

 

And then it is over. At the end of the anthem, Marvin and Julianna begin lowering the flag. Marvin asks Alex and Victoria to stand opposite them so they may catch the flag as it comes down. Marvin cautions against allowing the flag to touch the ground.

“Crumble it up and bring it toward me,” he says to Victoria. As I approach them to ask some questions, Marvin looks me straight in the eye. “Hey Mary Lou how about helping us fold the flag?”

 

Mary Lou who? Now does he think I’m really Mary Lou or is that a generic name like; “Hey Buddy, give us a hand here?” I don’t know but I wasn’t about to turn Marvin down. That I do know. So, whoever he thinks I am, I step up and wait for instructions. Victoria moves to the edge of the flag. She is standing at the top of the flag. Marvin asks me to take the flag from Julianna and Alex at the opposite end. Another veteran comes up and thanks me for coming. He asks me if I need help folding the flag and cautions against allowing it to touch the ground.

 

I tell him that it looks like I’m in good hands. Indeed I am. Marvin, a veteran World War II naval airman, carefully folds the edge of the flag with the grommets.

“Begin folding by the stars,” he tells Victoria. “Hold your end very tight,” he says to me, “Don’t let the flag drop to the ground.”

Marvin then shows Victoria how to fold the flag – corner to corner in tight folds. At one point, he sees that the ends are not going to meet and we unfold the flag halfway and start again. I am amazed at how thick and strong the material is – a sturdy cotton which will not surrender beneath harsh weather or an unforgiving climate.

 

Not only did Olimpio Herff serve his country during war, he also worked for the defense department until his retirement.

“My father served his country his whole life” she says, telling me it was his wish that she bring his casket flag to Cape May Point for the Sunset Beach flag ceremony. One thing she did not anticipate was the waiting list. She tried several times to arrange a date and finally this one came up.

“My father,” she says. “loved it here. We’re from Philadelphia but we come down all the time. I had to wait for date to do this. So, in May I asked to look at the calendar for 2006. I was so happy when I saw that my dad’s birthday was open. So, we’ll be back June 23rd next year. I figure it’s better than taking my kids to a cemetery. Right?”

Marvin agrees that many people want to honor their family members. “I remember one woman,” he says, ”She asked me if we could use her husband’s flag. I said ‘Sure, when did he die?’ She said, ‘Oh he’s not dead.’ So, I explained to her that the veteran has to have died before we can use the flag.”

I ask Marvin if I can contact him if I have any questions. “I’m here every night just come on over.”

As I walk back to my car, forgetting just how far back that is, I think what I unique place Sunset Beach is. A small gesture like the flag ceremony brings strangers together in a shared moment to enjoy the sunset, the flag lowering, the site of the concrete ship, a view of the ferry going across the Delaware Bay – more importantly it is a moment of a shared history and a sense of our commonality.

 

There are reminders of history all about me. Looking up, I stand gazing up at the WWII Fire Control Tower #23 which will be getting a facelift in the coming months in preparation for its debut as a new historical attraction. Up until January of this year when word of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts’ (MAC) $2.5 million proposed project became public, the tower to me was just a big ugly concrete thing sticking up in the middle of a pristine beach community. See how your perceptions can change?
 

The Fire Control Tower was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in November of 2003 by the National Park Service.

Now, I must tell you this because I didn’t get it. Yes, it is called a Fire Tower but not the incendiary kind of fire – the boom boom gun blast kind of fire.

Tower #23 was designed to help artillery spotters direct fire at enemy targets off the coast. Built by the U.S. Army, at the start of the war, the south tower was part of a network of fortifications, (including the WWII artillery bunker located at Cape May Point State Park) whose purpose was to protect U.S. shipping and guard the mouth of the Delaware Bay.

There is a north lookout tower located within The Grand Hotel on Beach Avenue. The three – the north, the south towers and the Cape May Lighthouse – worked in tandem to alert the artillery bunker of enemy presence. And that’s right, I said within the hotel.

Grand Hotel, general manager Bob Belansen said government authorities required them to keep the tower so, they built around it. It is used as a utility room for the hotel and rooms were built around the tower to disguise it. But nothing can disguise that big concrete cylinder sticking up from the middle of the hotel complex roof.
 

Meanwhile, back on Sunset Boulevard, Tower #23 has a promising future. It sits on land owned by Cape May Point State Park and is currently being leased, just like the lighthouse, by MAC. The main purpose of the renovation, other than to acknowledge the role Cape Island played in WWII, is to provide an educational resource for school groups.

There were actually 15 towers which comprised the Harbor Defense of the Delaware known as Fort Miles. The towers stretched from North Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, Cape May, Cape May Point and Bethany Beach, Delaware. All the towers were torn down except the one at The Grand Hotel in Cape May leaving Tower #23 as the lone restorable remnant of the WWII defense system.

 

Another attraction at Sunset Beach is the concrete ship. The concrete ship or the Atlantus which is its proper name – is that big, thing that sticks out of the water and gets in the way of your view of the sunset.

In 1926 a guy – let’s call him Jesse Rosenfeld - got the brilliant idea of using concrete ships as a landing for a ferry connecting Lewes, Delaware with Cape May Point, New Jersey. Plans and hopes for a ferry connecting the two land points had thus proven futile so Rosenfeld’s idea was welcomed. The plan was to buy three WWI concrete ships and sink them, thus forming a Y-shaped dock at Cape May Point where the steamboat landing was. A drawbridge would then be built across the exposed part of the ship to load and unload vehicles and passengers. The other two hulls would be sunk to form the Y. The ferry would then “wedge in” and the drawbridge would be lowered. Rosenfeld, buoyed by his plan, formed a company called the National Navigation Company. The 250-foot long Atlantus was the first purchase. Investors flocked.

 

Just a little bit of background, because you might well be wondering - concrete ship? Are you serious? Oh yeah. According to an account in Cape May Point by Joe J. Jordan, the concrete ship – and there were 12 altogether, four cargo ships and eight oil tankers – was the brainchild of the United States Shipping Board. Its goal was to “increase the merchant fleet by building concrete-hull ships instead of the conventional metal-hull because of the steel shortage created by the war.”

Information provided by the folks at Sunset Beach tells us that the Atlantus was launched on Nov., 21st 1918 at Wilmington, N.C. and was commissioned June 1st 1919. She served one year as a government owned, privately operated commercial coal steamer in New England.

All 12 concrete ships came to just as ignominious an end as the Atlantus They either ran aground, ran into something, or suffered irreparable damage in storms. A few years after they were constructed, steel became more plentiful and the concrete ship was quickly scuttled or – in case of the Atlantus got stuck in the mud.

 

Now, back to the ferry. The Atlantus was rescued from the mud of the St. James River in Virginia. From there it was towed to Norfolk, and then onto Cape May Point where its long history of mishaps continued.  During a violent storm in June 1926, about a month after the thing was anchored, the Atlantus slipped its mooring plunging bow-first into the sand. It floated free dragging its anchor, and according to Cape May Point Mayor Malcolm Fraser, snapped in the middle when the anchor became weighed down. Rosenfeld failed in his bid to obtain funding from either the Delaware or the New Jersey legislatures for future attempts and investors scurried. The ferry would not become a reality for another 40 years. Plans to consolidate South Cape May (that’s a whole other story), Cape May Point, West Cape May, and Cape May were also tabled.

 

O.K. so much for concrete. What else does Sunset Beach have to offer? Well, I’ve run out of time and space, you’re just going to have to tune in next month for more. Until then, whether you are a local or a visitor, take a few minutes and go out to Sunset Beach at sunset. It is a moving experience and one unique to the typical shore ‘things to do’ list. Happy landings.

We would like to thank our good friends and loyal readers Jim and Shirley Jenkins from Alabama for giving us the picture above. This picture was taken in September of 1959 and that's Shirley discovering a horseshoe crab.

See Sunset Beach Part II

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