It's a six-decade love story that has its roots in one of the most fascinating times in Lewes history.
Merlin and Yvonne Beil, who recently celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary, spent their two-week honeymoon in the summer of 1958 in a small apartment near Lewes Beach while Merlin was serving in the Army National Guard at Fort Miles.
Although they didn't get to see much of one another, the couple discovered the beauty and charm of Lewes, the place they would eventually bring their family camping, buy a vacation home and move to. It also triggered a lifelong fascination with Fort Miles that would lead to Merlin playing a pivotal role in helping to restore the fort.
Daughter Laurie Miele posted her parents’ wedding anniversary on Facebook in the I Love Lewes group. So far, it has received 1,300 likes and more than 210 comments. “Mom and Dad cried when I showed them the posting,” Laurie said.
Because the U.S. Navy took over housing at the base, National Guard soldiers were housed at a facility in Bethany Beach. Merlin was given permission to stay off base during his honeymoon, although he was still required to be at Fort Miles 12 hours a day.
“He reported for duty, and I sat on the beach in Lewes each day,” Yvonne said. Included in the family photo album is a photo of her on the beach in front of the old Ocean Hotel, which was torn down and is now the Ocean House condominium complex.
“The water was bitter cold that summer. Merlin still went in and came out blue as could be,” Yvonne said.
Merlin, now 84, then just out of college, enlisted in the 42nd Detachment RECAT on Aug. 1, 1957, and he was discharged as a member of the 176th Artillery on Feb. 22, 1960. He served another three years in a part-time capacity in the National Guard in Pennsylvania.
A top-secret mission
Merlin said at the time he served at Fort Miles, the base was being dismantled. Following World War II, many of the buildings and facilities were torn down. During the war, more than 2,000 military members were stationed at the fort to guard the mouth of Delaware Bay.
The fort would later become part of Cape Henlopen State Park when the lands were turned over to the state.
Merlin was attached to a unit involved with a top-secret mission using technology far ahead of its time. Long before they became popular, his unit was flying remote-controlled aerial target plane-like drones, or RECATs. The 10-foot-wingspan drones were state of the art at the time and used as targets for antiaircraft gunners. The metal drones, costing up to $2,500, were not supposed to be hit by the gunners, Merlin said.
“But sometimes they were damaged and even shot down into the ocean,” he said.
The cement fire towers were used to triangulate the targets just as was done to help aim the fort's guns during World War II.
The planes were outfitted with a parachute for landing and a skid for emergency landings in case the parachute didn't deploy. They had a top speed of more than 200 mph.
It's part of Fort Miles history that has all but been forgotten. Merlin said association members are trying to find a drone to be placed in the Fort Miles World War II Museum.
Several years ago, Merlin identified a drone engine that was found in the sand near the park.
Knowledge of the fort
Merlin has been an active member of the Fort Miles Historical Association board of directors. Because he's one of the few remaining veterans who served at Fort Miles, he's been instrumental helping the association gain background knowledge and locating long-gone landmarks. He found the fort's original entrance, denoted by a cement marker, near the current exit to Cape Henlopen State Park.
Merlin also played a key role in getting the historic 16-inch USS Missouri gun barrel to the fort and park. After he found Missouri barrels destined for scrap at Dahlgren Naval Weapons Station near Norfolk, Va., he helped set the wheels in motion to get the 116-ton, 68-foot barrel to the fort, where the restored cylinder has become the showpiece of the Fort Miles World War II Museum.
The couple's home resembles a museum dedicated to Fort Miles history with photographs and paintings. One black-and-white photograph stitched together as a panoramic view of the Cape Henlopen point involves a family secret.
Their son, Craig, took the photograph from the top of a fire tower that he climbed up with a rope. The tower was not open to the public and climbing it was prohibited and dangerous.
“Of course, we didn't know he was doing it,” Yvonne said.
Merlin, who took numerous photographs during his time at Fort Miles, has albums filled with newspaper clippings and other historical memorabilia.
Spending time in Lewes
Yvonne said, while their time in Lewes was always special, they didn't have any immediate intention to return until bad weather changed their plans. Forced away from a family camping trip to North Carolina because of rain, the couple decided to try Lewes. “Once we got there, that was it,” she said.
Not long after, they began making more camping trips to Cape Henlopen State Park. “It looked much different because there weren't many trees, and you could see the dunes and beach easily from all over the park,” Yvonne said.
The Lewes of the 1950s has very little resemblance to the Lewes of today. “Everything closed down at 5 p.m,” said Yvonne. “You could walk on the beach near Fort Miles and not see anyone.”
The couple purchased a home on DeVries Circle more than 40 years ago, a house where they let friends and family stay. They purchased another home in Bay Breeze Estates and moved to Lewes full time 25 years ago.
“We came down here a lot, even in the winter,” said daughter Laurie. “And when storms were forecast and other people were running away from the area, we ran to the house to check on it. As kids, we had a great time.”
The couple has one other son, Clark, and five grandchildren.
Because their father had an intimate knowledge of Fort Miles, Laurie said, the children had firsthand experience exploring the fort, including getting inside some of the 16 underground bunkers.
Laurie says she has fond memories of Lewes as a youngster, especially her bottle-collecting adventures with family friend Bill Craig. “He knew where all of the good trash spots were,” she said.
Merlin has retired twice – the first time from Otis Elevator and the second time just last year from Delaware Elevator, working in the elevator business, mostly sales, for 56 years. Yvonne stayed home with the couple's three children until they went to school, when she started teaching.
The couple grew up in western Pennsylvania and met after Merlin graduated from graduate school at Thiel College in Greenville, Pa. They have had homes in Pittsburgh, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Trenton, N.J., living most of their working years in Philadelphia before moving to Lewes.
Yvonne and Merlin said they have lived in Lewes for 25 years and have been coming to Lewes for nearly 50 years. “Even so, as long as we've been here, we are not considered locals,” Yvonne said with a smile.
Yvonne said the biggest change she has seen in Lewes is how the population has grown. “This was a little town. I hate to see how it's getting so overpopulated,” she said.