LEWES – Cub Scout Pack 72 from Abington near Philadelphia got more than they bargained for last weekend during their weekend adventure at Cape Henlopen State Park.
Their annual spring camping excursion encountered an unexpected bonus: “Delaware Goes to War” – a special event at Fort Miles that featured historical presentations, American and German re-enactors, weapons and military vehicles, bunker tours of Battery 519, artillery demonstrations and re-enactments.
“We usually do a spring camping trip,” said Becky Devlin, Cub Pack 72’s committee chairwoman. “Someone we know had been here (Cape Henlopen) before. And then we found out about this World War II event …”
Blasts from the past echoed along the coast as members of 261st Coast Artillery’s gun detail – in a series of artillery demonstrations – fired one of the 3-inch guns, Big Band music from the 1940s rolled from Orientation Building and patrons got a grand tour of Battery 519, the spacious protective bunker fortress overlooking the Atlantic and entrance to Delaware Bay.
On hand was 91-year-old Horace Knowles, one of the few known survivors of the Army’s 261st Coast Artillery who served there during WWII. He also served in Europe.
“It was quite an experience. Fort Miles – there is a lot of history here. I was happy with my duty … and if I had it to do all over again I’d be right there,” said Mr. Knowles. “I only wish to God there was more (261st Coast Artillery) living to come in and talk and tell what they know about it. I can’t remember everything.”
On the highlight reel: re-enactors from the 261st Coast Artillery and Grossdeutschland vividly brought to life the third and final surrender of U-858 – the last German submarine to surrender at the close of WWII.
On May 14, 1945, U-858 – one of six U-boats dispatched from Norway in March 1945 with orders to attack America’s East Coast – sailed into the Army dock at Fort Miles. Cape May was considered for the surrender venue but found to be too shallow.
Four U-boats were destroyed by submarine-seeking hunter/killer teams but U-858 and U-805 survived and initially surfaced off Canada.
“But they didn’t want to surrender to the Canadians because they knew the Canadians would turn them over to the French. And that is the last thing the German boys wanted to have happen to them. So they wanted to come down to us,” said Dr. Gary Wray, president of the Fort Miles Historical Association, who narrated the surrender procession. “The German boys decided that they were going to surrender. They weren’t captured. They surrendered. We like to pretend that we captured them. No, no; they surrendered.
“They kept their prefect military drill, their perfect military discipline right up to the second they surrendered. Only took orders from German officers. One of the final things that they did was they turned around and saluted the boast to thank u-858 for bringing them back to the united states are keeping them alive,” said Dr. Wray, noting history shows this was actually the third time U-858 surrendered. “They had to surrender out in the Atlantic to the Marine Corps. They had to surrender again and be searched when the Navy showed up. And the Army doesn’t recognize Navy surrenders so when they came to an Army base they had to take the Army’s surrender. Believe it or not at all three searches contraband was found …”
Lt. Mike Hills of Milford, a re-enactor and chaplain with the 261st Coast Artillery re-enacting group, and German-born Oliver Ecke of Hagerstown, Md., a re-enactor with unterfelwobel (staff sergeant) rank with Grossdeutschland, both have WWII branches in their family trees.
“My father was in World War II. My grand-father was World War I and World War II … and I had uncles. Seven went to war and all seven came back home,” said Mr. Ecke, who came to America in 1998.
“I first came here several years ago on a tour just like the events we’re doing today,” said Mr. Hills. “I’ve always wanted to get involved in something that was really passionate. I fell in love with this place because of the World War II history; I’ve been a student of history all my life, especially World War II.
“In studying about the place I started asking more questions of my family and I found my grandfather was an MP here with the regular Army. My uncle was in the motor pool. And during the Korean War my father served with the Delaware National Guard and trained through Fort Miles. So I feel like this is kind of like my part to able to contribute to that.”
Mr. Ecke says re-enactors such as those with Grossdeutschland play an important role in portraying history while showing another perspective of the German soldier.
“They always see in movies and videos the bad part. But the German soldier was not bad. There is black sheep on both sides,” said Mr. Ecke.
The event was sponsored by Delaware State Parks, in conjunction with the participating re-enactment groups, Fort Miles Historical Association and the Friends of Cape Henlopen State Park.
“Fort Miles Historical Association has outreaches into schools, to promote mostly to our younger generation not only the history of Delaware and our country but also the math and the science. We try to encourage schools to send the kids out here to be able to put what they are learning in the classrooms in a real life action and how it would apply back in the 1940s,” said Mr. Hills. “It is very important. That is what Fort Miles is all about.”
News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at 629-5505 or firstname.lastname@example.org.