Cape Henlopen State Park

Former USS Missouri sailors meet in Lewes

Fort Miles event pays tribute to Greatest Generation
The Fort Miles Historical Association honored four people during a recent event. Posing by the USS Missouri gun barrel in Fort Miles are in the back row (l-r), Bob Saupee and Phil Saggione, and in front, Horace Knowles and Lydia Wagamon. BY RON MACARTHUR
April 11, 2014

Two former USS Missouri shipmates met for the first time in Lewes, during an event that took place not far from one of three remaining 16-inch gun barrels that once were mounted on the historic battleship.

Phil Saggione of Wilmington and Bob Saupee of Reading, Pa., both witnessed the Japanese surrender aboard the ship Sept. 2, 1945, but so did thousands of others. The two men had never met until they found themselves among honored guests April 5 during a ceremony at Fort Miles honoring the USS Missouri. It was a meeting nearly 70 years in the making.

The ceremony in Battery 519, an underground World War II bunker in Cape Henlopen State Park, took place not far from where the Missouri gun barrel rests. It is destined to be restored by the Fort Miles Historical Association as the focal point for a World War II museum.

Fort Miles during World War II

Built in 1941, Fort Miles was designed to defend assets along the Delaware River and Delaware Bay such as oil refineries and factories, as well Philadelphia.

It was one of the largest and most heavily armed coastal fortifications ever built with more than 250 buildings, more than 30 guns and more than 2,200 men and women assigned to various duties.

Sussex County residents Horace Knowles and Lydia Wagamon, who served at Fort Miles during World War II, were also recognized as members of the Greatest Generation, people who served during World War II.

Knowles was a member of the 261st Coast Artillery and was featured in the award-winning documentary about Fort Miles, “Dunes of Defense,” available on YouTube. Knowles, who lives in Lewes, has been instrumental in providing first-hand information about the fort to association members.

Wagamon, a lifelong Harbeson resident, was a telephone switchboard operator at the fort throughout World War II.

The 16-inch barrel, which had been the middle gun in the forward turret of the Missouri when the Japanese surrendered, was headed for the scrap pile when  it was rescued by the association. In April 2012, it traveled by rail and by barge from a Navy scrapyard in Dahlgren, Va., to Cape Henlopen State Park  just days before it had been scheduled to be scrapped.

Saupee, whose family was represented by five generations at the event, said the first time he heard the 16-inch guns fired on the Missouri, he thought the ship had been bombed. “It moved the ship 15 feet to the side,” he said. Saupee also served aboard the ship during the Korean War.

More than 1,200 sailors served aboard the USS Missouri during the last two years of World War II.

Saggione was one of four Delawareans who served on the Missouri and was among a group of sailors who helped the media move their equipment in place on gun turret 2. He said the crew was supposed to return to its muster station but instead remained near the turret to gain a better view of the historic surrender ceremony.

Knowles, who was born and raised in Blades, ended up at Fort Miles when his National Guard unit was federalized and assigned to the area to help build the fort out among the dunes along the coast. He was eventually part of a crew manning a gun near where the current location of the Cape Henlopen State Park bathhouse. He served at Fort Miles until 1945.

Wagamon said she answered telephone calls from all over the world using a plug-in switchboard. “That time has a special place in my heart,” she said.

During a stint working at the fort's hospital, a storm ripped off the roof of the main building. “We still carried on, covering everything with rubber sheets,” she said.

She still has vivid memories of those years. She said a German POW painted a picture for her, and the doctors left her their mascots – black and white cats named Jack and Jill – when they left the fort.

The association used the event to launch its 2014-15 membership drive and membership renewal.

“The association feels a strong connection to the Missouri. It was important for Fort Miles to add a 16-inch gun similar to the two that were at the fort to defend Delaware during World War II,” said Gary Wray, association president.

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