In 1940, the European war seemed grim and the thought that America might be attacked was not a completely idle one. Though shoring up the defenses of New Jersey might seem a little remote these days, back then it was a military priority.
More than 60 years later, not much is left of the somewhat substantial World War II defense system in lower Cape May County, but the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts is working with a series of grants totaling more than $600,000 to make sure what remains will be restored.
"There was no invasion, but in 1940, no one was taking any chances," said center director Michael Zuckerman. "Let's just say the fortifications served their purposes."
Originally, the military built four observation towers from North Wildwood to Cape May Point and a gun-emplacement facility on the south end of Cape May. Only one of the concrete towers, along Sunset Boulevard in Cape May Point, is still intact.
The gun emplacement, nicknamed "The Bunker," has seen most of its innards washed away by Atlantic Ocean shifts over the years, leaving primarily a concrete slab jutting into the water.
The center plans to use the grants to restore the Cape May Point tower, technically Fire Control Tower #23, so that by the end of 2008, people can climb it and see how the fortification system worked.
Essentially, according to Zuckerman, the people in the fire towers did triangulation — a geometrical system to figure out how the large guns should be aimed — then communicated the results back to artillery units at the Bunker or across the Delaware Bay at Cape Henlopen, where there was other artillery.
Zuckerman said the towers were built quickly, in as little as two weeks, with quick-drying concrete poured into large wooden scaffolding molds. Though the one on Sunset Boulevard is the last remaining intact, part of another was incorporated into the superstructure of the Grand Hotel along Cape May's beach, now serving as a storage facility.
"By 1943, the war had turned and the possibility of invasion had certainly lessened," said Zuckerman. "All the facilities went into disrepair and all the artillery was sold for scrap. Eventually, most of the fortifications deteriorated, but we want to keep what we have left and use it as a way to teach the area's history."
The center gives intermittent World War II trolley tours that also include the Cape May Canal, which was dug in the early 1940s to ease naval maneuvers, and the old naval air training center at the Cape May County Airport, which houses some vintage military aircraft.
The center is having a World War II weekend June 1-3, just before the 63rd anniversary of D-Day, with tours by boat and motorized trolley and lectures and discussions of Cape May's role in the war. *
For information about the World War II weekend, call 609-884-5404 or go to