Fort Miles group aims to bring ‘big gun’ to Delaware shore


The battleship U.S.S. Missouri was the scene of the Japanese surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, and the ship’s significance in World War II history has forged a local connection, as members of the Fort Miles Historical Association (FMHA) work to bring one of the ship’s eight remaining 16-inch guns to the burgeoning military museum at the Fort Miles Historical Complex inside Cape Henlopen State Park, near Lewes.

FMHA President Gary Wray told Sussex County Council members on July 26 that the group now aims to add a 16-inch gun from the Missouri to its collection of arms at the museum, which they hope will “become the place to be if you have any interest in World War II.”

“It’s always been in our strategic plan to have a gun representative of every gun that was present at Fort Miles,” Wray explained. “The 16-inch gun is the one we’ve really been wanting.”

Wray said the remaining eight of the Missouri’s 16-inch guns are all in the ground at the U.S. Navy yard in Norfolk, Va., and the Navy is looking to get rid of them – even if it means turning them into scrap.

“There were 15 in the desert in Nevada that they cut up and sold as surplus three weeks ago,” Wray emphasized. “We’ve got a race on our hands. The Navy wants to get rid of them.”

The FMHA’s long-range effort, he said, focuses on a concept plan for the museum complex. The group has been working on building the museum inside Battery 519, underground, inside of the “Great Dune,” which is one of the biggest dunes on the East Coast and the only one people can actually go inside of, thanks to the presence of the World War II-era battery.

“We plan, when we’re done, to have the best World War II museum inside a World War II facility in the country,” Wray said.

Visitors will be able to go inside the battery, 30 feet underground, where the temperature is a constant 52 degrees – all the better to protect historical treasures and keep summertime visitors cool and wintertime visitors warm – and view historical displays, including the gun room, which Wray said currently houses “the only static display of a 12-inch gun inside its proper casemate in the country.”

“If we pull off the 16-inch gun, it will be the only place in the country with a static display of a 16-inch gun and a static display of a 12-inch gun,” he noted. The 12-inch gun is one of Fort Miles’ original complement and could fire a shell some 17 miles, using targeting information from the series of observation towers up and down the coast, which were used to search for German U-boats.

The addition of the 16-inch gun from the Missouri, Wray said, could help increase the museum complex’s draw from 10,000 visitors a year now to 30,000, 40,000 or even 50,000 visitors per year.

“It will attract tourism to Sussex County,” he told the council.

The costs of creating such a museum aren’t small. The FMHA has already garnered a $175,000 federal stimulus grant, in conjunction with the City of Lewes, to put in a geothermal heating and air system inside the battery. And Wray said bringing the 16-inch gun to Fort Miles will cost about $80,000, assuming that they can get approval from the Navy to obtain the gun.

“We’ve been working for the last two months, writing a plan the Navy will accept to donate a barrel from the Missouri to Delaware,” he explained, noting that the State of Delaware would receive the gun under its state parks, of which Fort Miles is part.

“We’ve written to request Barrel 371, which was on the front turret of the Missouri,” he noted.

Wray said the eight barrels remaining from the Missouri as it stood on Sept. 2, 1945, were removed from the ship in 1955, when it was “rebarreled” for the Korean War. They were taken to Hawthorne, Nev., or to Virginia, where they have remained until last month, when the Nevada barrels were scrapped. The Virginia site is now the only place with the historic guns.

Arizona officials, Wray said, are also looking to get one of the Missouri’s barrels, which they plan to erect in a park in downtown Phoenix – alongside one from the U.S.S. Arizona – in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Arizona.

“We’re working with them to see if we can share the costs,” Wray said, noting that the two desired barrels are actually in the ground next to each other.

Adding to the costs of bringing Barrel 371 to the Delaware shore is its needed mode of travel – by railcar. Wray said the Baycoast rail line will bring it to the western side of the Chesapeake bay, where it will then be barged across the bay and Cape Charles, “and then across beautiful Delmarva on that car,” through Milford.

“They have assured me they will pull out Engine 187,” Wray said of Baycoast,” which is the most beautiful engine they’ve got. It’s got its own Web site!”

“They’ll dress it up with American and Delaware flags and pull her all the way to Lewes,” he added. “It will take about a week to come up.”

“Imagine – a gun barrel from the battleship Missouri on a coal train coming through Georgetown,” he prompted. “It’s going to be like Abe Lincoln’s body going from Washington to Springfield. … It’s 136 tons, 66 feet long, the size of two coal cars. She’s a monster!”

Along with approval from the Navy, Wray said the objective will also require that the FMHA raise some significant funds.

“We’ve got to raise all the money ourselves,” he said, noting that they were appealing to FMHA supporters in their newsletter and had already received $10,000 in pledges from members. The Delaware Department of Tourism has promised another $2,500. Fundraisers will also be planned to help with the effort.

“We’ve requested the Navy give us a year to put a package together,” Wray added. “But we have a Plan B if they don’t – if, say, Sept. 30 is the date and they’re going to cut it up on Oct. 1. I don’t think they will,” he asserted. “But you’re going to hear more about this, with our fundraising appeals.”

More than 340 volunteers have worked on the Fort Miles project for 11 years, aiming to preserve the World War II-era battery site, from the observation tower and bunker to the gun park and cantonment, where soldiers lived and worked. Plans for the completed complex include a 50-seat theater inside the battery, as well as the historical displays of information and – they hope – at least two large guns to represent the site as it was during its operation.

FMHA will be holding an open house at Battery 519 on Saturday, Oct. 8, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Ongoing fundraising activities include the sale of brick pavers for a “Wall of Honor” in the battery, for $200 each. For more information, visit the Web site at www.fortmilesha.org.