Sitting at the foot of the Garden State Parkway in a heavily wooded area is an abandoned, neglected ammunitions bunker that helps tell the story of Cape May’s illustrious role in helping the United States during two world wars.
The bunker, built during World War I, is surrounded by dead leaves, empty beer cans and some trash. Its current state is in some ways symbolic of what is remembered about the resort’s role during the war, and how efforts made in 1917 and 1918 helped set the stage for Cape May to be one of the pivotal defense positions in the country during World War II.
“The World War I history here is under-published and under-appreciated,” said Bob Heinly, a historian for the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities. “It’s a big part of the fascinating history of Cape May that people don’t really know about.”
Today, the ammunitions bunker, three residential homes and a partially sunken concrete ship are all that remain of that history.
After the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917, the federal government quickly identified Cape May as an area that needed to be defended. Sitting at the mouth of the Delaware Bay, the resort was feared to be prone to attacks because it flanked a vital waterway to Philadelphia.
Cape May also was attractive because it had the land, infrastructure and technology available for building and testing blimps and planes that could land in the sea.
Later in 1917, the Navy created a “section base,” known as Naval Section Base 9, in the area where the U.S. Coast Guard Base now stands. The Navy converted an amusement park at Sewell’s Point into the base, turning the skating rink into a mess hall and sleeping quarters, the stage into a galley, and the “human roulette wheel,” a scrub table and the “barrel of fun” into a jail, according to U.S. military records.
The section base was built prior to construction of the Cape May Canal.
A second base, called Camp Wissahickon, sat between Spicer Creek and Lafayette Street near Exit 0 on the parkway.
The base was leased to the government from Henry Ford for $1 for the duration of the war and included 30 barracks and bunkers.
Many of the soldiers who were trained in Cape May took the railroad down to the city. By the end of the war, more than 8,000 troops had been trained at Camp Wissahickon.
The abandoned bunker at the foot of the parkway is one of the only remaining structures from Camp Wissahickon, Heinly said.
“You have to remember that while World War I started in 1914, the United States didn’t enter until three years later,” Heinly said. “A lot of this stuff was something that was built quickly and then gone after the war.”
Most of the base’s buildings at Camp Wissahickon were torn down by 1919 because the government owed the land to Ford. Ford wanted to build a car manufacturing plant on the site of the camp, but those plans never materialized.
Parts of the naval base burned down a year after the war ended, so the military did not have to spend as much time deconstructing it.
“It was a pretty convenient fire that saved them time and money,” Heinly joked.
The USS Jacob Jones moved at a steady 15 knots off the Cape May coast Feb. 28, 1942. Then ca…
But despite the military’s quick exit from the city, structures and vessels they build would play a vital role in Cape May’s future.
The Navy base was reactivated during World War II and defended the Delaware Bay and merchant ships from German submarines. Several dozen ships were sunk by the German subs, but without the base, the damage could have been much more devastating, Heinly said.
After World War I, a concrete ship the military had experimented with was brought down to Cape May. That ship was meant to be a ferry that brought people back and forth from Delaware.
Shortly after the ship was brought down, however, part of it cracked and partially sunk the whole thing.
Remnants of the concrete ship can still be seen from Cape May Point, but it has eroded significantly.
“There was a shortage of steel because of the war, but concrete ships proved to be impractical so they didn’t use them,” Heinly said. “The docking process (for ships) always has a lot of bumps and hits on the side … if you do that in a wooden ship, it’s a scrape and there is no problem. If you do that in a metal ship, there’s a dent and there is no problem. If you do that in a concrete ship… you’ve got a big problem. They quickly abandoned that idea.”