Art, science and a Schroeder mural at Fort Miles

The Schroeder mural upstairs in the Lewes Public Library blends art and science. BY DENNIS FORNEY
April 27, 2012

The buzz acronym in education these days is STEM.  It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and the general belief across the nation is that our students have to become more proficient in STEM subjects if we want to maintain our status as a global economic leader.

Back in the early 1940s, the nation’s leadership role in the STEM areas was at work in helping the Allied forces defeat German and Japanese military machines bent on world subjugation. Military work is filled with STEM, as is the infrastructure work that keeps us humming along as a cooperative society.

The world of art intersected with the military world of science, technology, engineering and math at Fort Miles in Lewes during the second world war.  Stationed at the U.S. Army base on Cape Henlopen, a young artist named Howard Schroeder – out of the Bronx of New York – found his talents put to work by Uncle Sam.  With large pieces of plywood as his canvases, Schroeder painted several mural-sized pieces illustrating the defense work of Fort Miles and its amazing setting inside the cape.

As a professional educator, Fort Miles Historical Association President Gary Wray sees one of those Schroeder murals as a perfect example of STEM subjects at work.  Included with this column, the painting presents a rare glimpse inside the top-secret world at Fort Miles at the time.  Two soldiers stand inside one of the fort’s fire towers using an azimuth-measuring instrument to calculate the position of a target ship on the horizon.  Communicating that information to gunners in the bunkers of the fort, they could correctly project where to fire the cannons to intercept enemy vessels. “That activity, which is all about science, technology, engineering and math, was central to the important mission of Fort Miles,” said Wray.

A war in full swing
World War II was in full swing when the finishing touches were being put on the defenses of Fort Miles.  Oil processed in the refineries of the Delaware River, and tankered across the Atlantic, fueled the equipment for the forces battling in Europe.  German submarines, armed with torpedoes, threatened to disrupt that vital supply line for the war effort.  They also constantly menaced other shipping along the East Coast.

Using the cannons and an extensive system of mines placed along the coast and across the mouth of Delaware Bay, the mission of Fort Miles focused on keeping the enemy from disrupting those vital supply lines.

“Communications from the soldiers working in the towers made it possible for those operating the cannons and the mines to pinpoint their targets and take action. Our goal is to bring students to the Fort Miles World War II museum, when it is complete, show them this Schroeder painting, and set up a plotting table to help teach them the science, technology, engineering and math that drove the Fort Miles operations.”

When Wray worked as an administrator for Cape Henlopen School District in the Lewes School on Savannah Road, four of the Schroeder murals hung on the walls of the cafeteria, and at other places in the school.  When the Army deactivated Fort Miles following the war, the murals made their way to the school after languishing, and deteriorating, in a warehouse being used by the fledgling Cape Henlopen State Park.  “We thought they would be better off at the school,” said Jack Goins, one of the first superintendents at the park.

When the new Lewes Public Library was built in the mid 1980s, Cape Henlopen School District gifted three of the paintings to the library for display in the upstairs meeting room.  Two of the paintings, depicting the mine planting operations, have since made their way to the Biden Environmental Center in the park.  The third, the one that Wray would like to acquire for the World War II Museum, still hangs in the library.

Mystery hangs over the final resting place for that fourth mural rescued from the reactivated fort.  The background for that mystery will have to wait for another column.