German U-boat surrenders .. again

It is May 14, 1945. The crewmen of the German submarine U-858, weary, dirty and defeated, surrender to the U.S Army at Fort Miles on the Delaware coast.

Coastal Point • File Photo: This tower located in Cape Henlopen State Park near Fort Miles was used to spot German U-boats and direct gunfire towards them. Fort Miles will be holding a day-long event designed to give visitors a taste of the life at Fort Miles during World War II.Coastal Point • File Photo
This tower located in Cape Henlopen State Park near Fort Miles was used to spot German U-boats and direct gunfire towards them. Fort Miles will be holding a day-long event designed to give visitors a taste of the life at Fort Miles during World War II.

It will happen again, tomorrow.

On Aug. 15, a re-enactment of the historical surrender of U-858 will come to life at the Fort Miles historic area at Cape Henlopen State Park, as part of the “Dog Days of War” event, a day-long program of tours, re-enactments, gun drills and exhibits. The program is designed to give visitors of all ages a firsthand experience of life at Fort Miles during World War II.

Between 20 and 30 volunteers in authentic German and American uniforms of the era will portray the historic U-boat surrender on Saturday, with narration by Gary Wray, an historian and president of the Fort Miles Historical Association (FMHA).

The submarine itself will not be at the park, because, according to Wray, U-858 lies at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, off Cape Cod, Mass., where it was towed and sunk by the U.S. Navy in 1947 during torpedo trials. But the Fort Miles museum does have a complete 20 mm cannon from U-853, a German submarine identical to the one that surrendered at Fort Miles.

“Not too many museums actually have a piece of a real German submarine, and this is not just any submarine, but she’s a sister of a boat that surrendered to Delaware,” said Wray.

“German nomenclature of submarines really doesn’t mean a whole lot, but, in this case, U-853 and U-858 were ... [part of] a six-boat contract that were built as sisters; they were all essentially identical,” he explained. “U-853 was the last U-boat sunk in WWII. She was sunk 7 miles south southeast of Block Island, Rhode Island, in 110 feet of water, on May 5, 1945.”

How did a gun from an enemy U-boat at the bottom of the Rhode Island Sound come to rest in a museum at Fort Miles?

“In 1968, Melvin Joseph of Millsboro sponsored scuba trips,” Wray explained. “He got permission from the German government to dive [the wreck]. He sent a dive team out there to bring her up, actually. They couldn’t bring her up, but they got pieces of her.

“His daughter Joanne donated to us, through Del Tech – the entire 20 mm gun tub. The tub is the entire aluminum tub that the gun sat in on the conning tower, and we have the entire outfit.”

Wray said the artifact was a little worse for the wear of being under the ocean for more than 20 years, but it will be in working order by Saturday.

“We have a crew that’s still working on it. They’re bringing it back to the way it was when it came out of the Mauser factory in 1943,” he said. “We have part of it now already on display inside the museum, and we’re going to have the rest of it all fixed up … so that kids can actually go on it, elevate it and traverse it.”

The happenstance of a locally-sponsored effort finding a gun from the sister ship of U-858 came as a surprise to Wray.

“I was actually stunned when I found the gun. I knew it came off a German U- boat, but I didn’t know which one. When I started doing the research and found out which one it was, I was even more shocked that we had a piece of it,” he said.

Perhaps not for the faint of heart are the gun drills that are scheduled for the Dog Days of War, at 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., and 2 p.m., when re-enactors will fire one of the 3-inch guns near the Orientation Building.

“We have a 3-inch naval gun, the 1903 model, that we actually have working, and we have a gun team,” said Wray. “The team will give a demonstration right in the gun park. One of the guys explains what the team’s doing, how the team’s composed and the job each one has.

“The culminating activity is to pick somebody out of the audience, usually a little kid, to pull the lanyard and fire the gun. And it makes a bi-i-ig noise,” he emphasized. “We’re firing blanks, but we’re firing. We aim it toward New Jersey, so, just in case one of them puts out the real thing, you know… It’s pretty cool. And it gets your attention. … The Orientation Building is right behind it, and it’s full of people, and when that thing fires, it’s like a great big, huge, amazing bang!”

Many guns used in World War II are on display outside in the gun park, including an 8-inch railway gun. The FMHA hopes to get at least one of every weapon that was at the Fort during that era. The guns are mostly being obtained from Dahlgren Naval Weapons Center in Virginia.

“The base at Dahlgren is being downsized,” said Wray, “and they want their weapons to go to someone who will take care of them. We’re a historical association, and that’s what we do. We don’t have a 16-inch gun yet, but we’re working on it. But we have the 12-inch gun. She weighs 92 tons. If you came up and looked at it, you would be impressed. “

Visitors will also likely be impressed by the view when they climb to the top of Fire Control Tower No. 7, one of the 11 World War II concrete military “observation towers” that are familiar sights along the Delaware coast. Delaware is the only state to have all its Fire Control Towers – which were used to direct weapons fire at U-boats spotted off the coast – still standing, according to Wray.

Wray said visitors should be sure to take one of the half-hour tours of Fort Miles that are offered by trained docents throughout the day.

“People can go inside the dune,” he noted. “The Great Dune in Cape Henlopen State Park is an actual artillery bunker. It’s the second largest sand dune on the East Coast, and it’s hollowed out inside. There’s a huge bunker the size of a football field inside. It’s the only sand dune on the East Coast that you can actually go under and go inside. That’s where our museum is going to be, that’s what we’re all about. We’re about creating the best World War II museum inside a World War II facility in the country.”

The bunker has been open to the public for four years, with approximately 7,000 tourists visiting last year.

“We get people from Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, California, but many local people don’t know anything about it,” said Wray. “We’ve got it all cleaned up and sealed off, and we’ve started to move artifacts in there now.

“We have 1942 Sperry searchlight, and we have some items from U-853. The bunker is 300 feet long inside and 12 feet wide, with two huge gun rooms at either end. We got a 12-inch gun in the south gun room from the World War I battleship Wyoming a couple of years ago,” he added.

There is a $3 charge for the tour of the bunker and museum, but access to Fort Miles and all other events for the Dog Days of War are free, though there is a $4-per-vehicle entrance fee to the state park for Delaware-tagged vehicles and an $8 fee for out-of-state vehicles. Hot dogs, cookies and water will be available for purchase at the event. Wray said visitors should stop in the Orientation Building to confirm the schedule of events for the day.

Tim Resch, an AmeriCorps historic interpreter at Fort Miles, encouraged visitors not to be shy but to interact with the historic interpreters and re-enactors.

“The most fun thing is being able to walk through a little bit of history,” he said.