Saltwater Portrait

Nothing stands in the way of the Bunker Busters

Dedicated Fort Miles volunteers work thousands of hours each year
January 8, 2019

One can only imagine what Fort Miles would be without the dedicated efforts of a group of volunteers known as the Fort Miles Historical Association Bunker Busters.

Over the past 10 years, the group has worked tens upon tens of thousands of hours on a variety of small and large projects – from painting windows to helping restore the historic USS Missouri gun barrel. They are the ones working behind the scenes getting their hands dirty.

Their volunteer efforts have saved millions of dollars and helped to leverage numerous grants.

With 5,000 acres, Fort Miles was one of the largest and most heavily fortified World War II forts in the country. Its mission was to defend the Delaware Bay and Delaware River from enemy attack and to protect domestic shipping to ports such as Wilmington and Philadelphia.

With construction starting before the war began, final work was completed by 1943. The base housed the 261st Coastal Artillery group. While training was a mainstay at the fort, no enemy ships were ever fired on. As many as 2,500 people were working or stationed at the fort, which is now Cape Henlopen State Park.

John Roberts, who has coordinated the Bunker Busters since he helped form the group a decade ago, said the first tasks completed included drying out Battery 519 – now the museum – and getting the water turned on. “It was a big deal when we finally had a working bathroom,” he said.

A lot has happened since then, and a lot more is coming in the near future, including a new outdoor venue overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and a new parking lot for more than 100 vehicles.

He said he never dreamed the group would grow to more than 30 volunteers working about 15,000 hours each year.

Volunteers with a variety of backgrounds work every Thursday and some Fridays throughout the year. Special projects require additional working days.

Roberts said there is always another project to be completed. Volunteers are in the process of repairing a 77-year-old searchlight, and conserving and securing all remaining structures associated with the fort within the park.

“I always say it's a we effort – we are pulling together,” he said.

“John can do everything,” said Gary Wray, association president. “He is the guiding light for the Bunker Busters.”

While many projects involve Bunker Busters manpower, others involve individuals' specific skills to help oversee projects.

Volunteers are involved

The Bunker Busters have been involved in some unique and challenging projects over the years including the removal of large, rusted-in-place nuts on the Missouri gun barrel. They also had to arrange for transportation for another 230-pound nut from the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division, in Virginia, the same place where volunteers rescued the Missouri gun from the scrapyard.

Among recent projects, Bunker Busters are in the process of restoring a World War II aircraft warning shed donated to the association by a family in Hooper’s Island, Md. This past summer, they got a 1945 GMC deuce-and-a-half transport truck in working order for tours around Fort Miles.

Another major project completed by the group was a static display in the Artillery Park demonstrating the power of a 16-inch shell blast.

Bunker Busters are also in the process of rehabilitating numerous windows in the six barracks buildings. New shutters and repaired, olive-drab-painted windows give visitors a more accurate view of what the barracks looked like when Fort Miles was operational.

Bunker Busters also serve as docents in the popular summer museum tour program.

Volunteers have helped restore numerous guns in the Artillery Park, which opened Sept. 2, 2016. The newest project was restoring a large 90mm mobile torpedo boat gun now displayed next to the orientation building among the 11 guns connected by a trail.

And the weight of the World War II relics and guns does not deter them from finishing their work. Consider that the Missouri gun barrel weighs 120 tons and its component parts combined weigh nearly the same.

Volunteers have gone beyond the confines of Fort Miles in the state park. They did the dirty work cleaning out Tower 3 south of Dewey Beach as part of a restoration and lighting project at the tower along Route 1. They removed four tons of debris, sand and bird waste from inside the tower.

Recently, student volunteers from Cape Henlopen JROTC have been spending one day a month assisting with Bunker Busters’ projects.

Association starts in 2003

Land where the fort was located was eventually turned over to the State of Delaware and became Cape Henlopen State Park in 1964. But before that, parts of the land were used by the military until 1990. The southern section of the base became Naval Facility Lewes from 1963 to 1981, where the military maintained a secret underwater surveillance operation on Russian submarines.

Starting in 2003, the Fort Miles Historical Association, in conjunction with Delaware State Parks, has undertaken a major restoration effort at the fort, including a museum in Battery 519, the fort’s largest underground battery.

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Anderson winner of award

Volunteer Tom Anderson says everyone has their own expertise. He wants to be known as the demo man. Over the past decade, he has overseen many projects including the removal and replacement of the Battery 519 museum concrete floor.

For his ongoing efforts, Anderson was recently awarded the Fort Miles Historical Association’s highest honor, the Lee Jennings Memorial Award, the first non-boardmember to receive it. The late Jennings was one of four founding members of the association.

Bunker Busters coordinator John Roberts, a former winner, presented him with the award.

As the first non-boardmember Bunker Buster, Anderson started his service with a shovel uncovering one of the four gun mounts near the state park bathhouse. “I’d show up there every day during the week. Luckily, a backhoe eventually came,” he said.

He moved to the Lewes area in 2005 after spending weekends at the beach for 40 years.

With a background in buying and selling construction equipment, Anderson was a perfect match to oversee some of the fort’s heavy-duty projects, including sandblasting the 90mm gun, and the Missouri gun barrel and parts.

“We all jump in when we can,” he says. “Everyone has a certain expertise including mechanics, electricians and woodworkers.” At 80, Anderson is the third-oldest volunteer of the more than 30 active Bunker Busters.

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