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Silent Sentinels

Updated: Feb 28, 2018

It was a frigid February morning in New York harbor as the USS Jacob Jones (DD-130) steamed out of port and began its southward patrol. The morning had started out as any other normal day would for the 113 man crew, as they made their way to the search the waters between Barnegat Light and Five Fathom Bank. In her 24 years at sea, she had served as a training vessel for officers, a guard ship to aircraft carriers and even provided escort for President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a visit to Haiti.

On this day, just hours into her patrol, she would be assigned to join in rescue efforts off the waters of Cape May, New Jersey and Cape Henlopen, Delaware. The night before, an oil tanker, the RP Resor, had been torpedoed by the German U-758 on its way to Massachusetts. The Jacob Jones would spot the burning wreckage of the Resor around 2:30pm and circle the vessels remains for roughly 2 hours, before resuming her southern course. At 10pm, the Jones called in its position and then commenced radio silence under a full moon and clear visibility. Her running lights off, she cruised through the calm stillness of the ocean in complete darkness along her charted course, completely unaware of what the dawn would bring.

At first light on the 28th of February in 1942, the undetected U-758 had returned to greet the destroyer who was unknowingly in its path. It fired a spread of torpedoes into the Jones’ port side that would wreak such incredible damage, that the ship was sheared into three sections. The first torpedo struck just aft of the bridge and caused major damage, setting off the ship’s magazine and the resulting blast sheared off everything forward of the point of impact. The bridge, chart room and the officers’ and petty officers’ quarters were completely decimated. As she stopped dead in the water, unable to signal a distress message, a second torpedo struck about 40 feet forward of the fantail and carried away the after part of the ship above the keel plates and shafts, destroying the after crew’s quarters. Only the mid-ship section was left intact and all but 25 crew members were killed as a result. Oily decks and twisted wreckage slowed the launching of the life boats, but the ship’s remains would stay afloat for another 45 minutes, allowing her survivors to navigate the carnage in four or five rafts. Within an hour of the first torpedo, the shattered stern would slip from sight, but not before inflicting a final blow. The depths charges within her hull exploded expectantly, obliterating the last of the rafts that were making escape. Of the 113 men aboard the Jacob Jones, 11 would survive and the warship would become the first ship to be lost to enemy action in US Waters. 1942 would become known as the “Second Happy Time” among German naval operations or its more sinister moniker, “American shooting season” by the submarine commanders. The U-boats were sinking an average of one ship per week and the US military was hard pressed to protect its merchant vessel.

“Raising” an Army

At the start of 1940, our response to the ongoing threat, was to erect the concrete fortifications that line the coastal beaches and shorelines of Delaware and New Jersey. They were strategically placed at the mouth of the Delaware Bay with the intent to protect Philadelphia ports and oil refineries, critical to the Allied Forces. A total of 19 towers, called Fire Control Towers, were constructed (15 in Delaware and 4 in New Jersey) as artillery spotting locations. Within these towers, military personnel would coordinate firing trajectories to prevent the advancement of the submarines and possible warships, some having 2 viewing slots while others had four. Eight soldiers were housed in each tower for 8-12 hour shifts. Hidden between the towers were 12″ and 16″ rail guns positioned along the coastline. They were camouflaged in salt grass and dunes and could fire a 2,700 pound shell approximately 25 miles.

Graphic Courtesy:

How it all worked….

The towers are spread over a 40 mile distance, vary in height from 45 -80 feet and are arranged in a network array along the coast. With good visibility, they could see 14.5 miles into the Atlantic. The number of towers and their specifically engineered heights was determined by the range of the rail guns involved. When an enemy was spotted, the bearings were measured by a pair or more of towers using an azimuth scope or depression position finders.

The baseline, or distance between the towers, had been precisely measured by surveyors. Using this distance along with the bearings that were radioed in by the base end stations, the guns were able to plot target positions using a mathematical process called, triangulation.

Photo Source: Maine Bureau of Parks and Land

Seven Decades later

Visitors traveling south to Sea Colony pass these behemoths which are no longer active, but serve as a grim reminder of when our country was at war. They were initially constructed -for an average of $17,900- and the US Army anticipated a 20 year life span. However the treated wooden pilings buried at their bases have sustained them way beyond. Currently, only the Cape Henlopen tower is open to the public, made possible by a partnership between Fort Miles and the Delaware Seashore Preservation Foundation. Together, these organizations are raising $500,000 to renovate Tower 3, which is located in the Delaware Seashore State Park.

These towers never had to fire on an actual enemy, although they were responsible for the surrender of the German U-boat U-858 on May 14, 1945. Today, their purpose is one of historic value rather than military. They remind us of a time when we were at war and our country rose to defend its shores. It keeps us vigilant in the knowledge that we are not unreachable by those seeking to do us harm, but more than capable to address the challenges.

The Tower Locations

Map Courtesy:


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