The USS Jacob Jones moved at a steady 15 knots off the Cape May coast Feb. 28, 1942. Then came a wave of torpedoes from a Nazi submarine.
Less than an hour after the ambush, the ship was underwater. It was the first sinking of a U.S. ship following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The attack was a fiery illustration of how the area around Cape May could be a military weakness. It prompted decisions and construction that molded Cape May and continues to change its shape to this day. A vacation hotspot became a military fortress with paranoia of air raids, naval attacks or an invasion.
Strategically located next to the Delaware Bay, the Victorian resort was one of the last lines of defense against a German attack on the Philadelphia Naval Yard, where U.S. warships were assembled and surrounding oil refineries abounded.
“The Germans had this as a top priority to shut off the flow of traffic in and out of the Delaware Bay,” said Bob Heinly, a historian at the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities.
The sinking of the Jacob Jones led to the construction of the Cape May Canal. U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships could access the Delaware Bay without sailing into the ocean off Cape May Point, where German subs lurked throughout the war.
Merchant ships also used the canal. Germans sunk 10 ships within a mile of the New Jersey coast, Heinly said.
But the canal had a lasting impact on the Cape May shore. The jetties constructed at the end of the canal on the Delaware Bay and the existing ones on the other side at the Cape May Inlet have led to major beach erosion.
“Yes, the jetties do interrupt the flow of sand into Cape May. It’s one of the reasons we’ve had a beach-nourishment project in Cape May,” said Steve Rochette, a spokesman for the Philadelphia District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the jetties.
Although they cause beach erosion, the Army Corps said the jetties cannot be removed because of their continued importance to the Coast Guard and the fishing industry.
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In 1942, a magnesite plant was built to extract magnesium salts from seawater to create firebricks. The firebricks lined steel mill furnaces and warships’ boilers.
But the plant devastated the environment. Smoke and alkaline pollution killed much of the vegetation around it. The fire tower, also built in 1942, was once concealed by high evergreen trees. Now, it’s clearly seen from miles away.
The plant closed in 1983 and was demolished. Some plants and trees have begun to regrow there as the alkaline slowly washed away.
That fire tower and another one — now encapsulated by the Grand Hotel on Beach Avenue — also played an important role.
The towers and the bunker on the beach were built as part of Fort Miles to fight off air raids and German ships. But they quickly changed into submarine spotting towers.
The towers communicated with each other and the bunker. The bunker was equipped with 16-inch guns and had rooms sealed off from the outside in case the Germans used chemical weapons, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
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The rest of the Delaware Bay was guarded by aircrafts and mines.
At the war’s end, Cape May was thrust into the national spotlight when German submarine U-858 surfaced and surrendered May 14, 1945. A formal surrender ceremony was conducted where the Jacob Jones was sunk.
The Germans were imprisoned at Fort Dupont, Delaware, and sent home after the war.
“It was a very smart PR move to have that sub surrender over the wreck of the Jacob Jones,” Heinly said
Cape May played an important role for the U.S. military after the war.
Until 1991, it was top-secret information that the U.S. tracked Russian nuclear submarines off the Atlantic Coast, including Cape May.
Heinly, a former analyst for naval intelligence, said there used to be 24 buildings near Cape May Point State Park as part of a sonar surveillance base.
The Navy stretched cables with disks on the floor of the ocean to listen for submarines.
“They could tell the difference between a school of fish, a whale or a Russian submarine,” he said.
When a Russian submarine was detected, a plane flew from Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, to “ping it,” he said. The sub would head back to sea.
“By the rules of the game, they would go away,” Heinly said.
The sonar surveillance base operated until 1962, when it was destroyed by a nor’easter. The Navy moved the base to Lewes, Delaware.
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Cape May today
Today, the area once used for sonar surveillance is a parking lot. The bunker is boarded up to keep out intruders. The guns once mounted to the sides are gone. The beach-replenishment project keeps it from disappearing in the ocean.
The fire tower on Sunset Beach was restored about 10 years ago by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities and serves with the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum as two of the few World War II tourist attractions in South Jersey.
“Not a lot of people know about Cape May’s history with World War II,” Heinly said. “One of our missions, on top of restoring the tower, is to make people aware of how important this was.”