Friday, May 27, 2011

Keeping New Jersey safe for democracy: Coastal Defenses Day at Fort Hancock

Each May, generally the weekend before Memorial Day, Sandy Hook's Fort Hancock pulls out all the stops for its annual Coastal Defenses Day. Celebrating the Fort's role in keeping New York Harbor safe from enemy attack, the National Park Service conducts tours and discussions of many of the defensive structures, much with the assistance of re-enactors from the Army Ground Forces Association. Indeed, if you didn't know better, all of the period uniforms in some places would have you convinced you'd stepped right into the early 1940's.

The unmarked entrance to the Harbor
Defense Command Post
Though none of Hancock's guns were ever fired in defense of the country, the fort played a crucial role in deterring Axis powers from attacking the New York area. It's known that several U-Boats patrolled the coast, but no naval or air attack was made, nor a serious threat incurred.

Four of the defensive batteries were open for touring on Sunday, but my big goal was to get into the inner corridors of the Mortar Battery. On its own, the battery is regularly available for wandering, with its two rear gun pits easily accessible any time the park is open. Getting to the front pits and the innards, though, is a much rarer opportunity, and, in fact, the corridors that were open for Coastal Defenses Day hadn't been accessible to the public for decades.

The Mortar Battery itself is one of the first fortifications built at the fort and is, on its own, nothing fancy to look at. However, in the early days of World War II, the army came to see its value as a strategic location for the Harbor Defense Command Post. From this protected location, the armed forces could manage all of the intelligence related to the harbor, including information coming via underwater cable from Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn and Fort Tilden in Queens.

From the outside, the door to the bunker is unmarked and looks rather unassuming. Without inside information, enemy invaders would have no indication that this is where the strategic leadership convened. Entrance to the post was restricted to a select few, with sentries posted outside who knew by sight who was permitted to enter. There was no secret password, no secret handshake -- they just knew who was in and who was out. Before getting into the main corridors, personnel would pass through an airlock that would seal the bunker in event of a gas attack.

Corridor where communications specialists would have
maintained contact with the Harbor's other forts.
The visitor today is immediately struck by how cold it is inside -- that steady ~55 degree climate you find inside caves. Right now there's nothing much to look at but a few photos and signs explaining what each of the rooms was used for, but you can imagine how frenetic the place would have been, had there been an actual attack on the harbor. It reminded me a little of Churchill's wartime bunker under the streets of London, especially when I read that the commanding officer had a bed in his office for use in event of an extended stay.

Kilroy wasn't here, but apparently Robert was.
A thin whitewash covered most of the walls, but as we explored, Ivan and I also found signs of those who'd been in the bunker well after the war. Apparently the place had either been used at some point in the last 35 years, or someone had found their way in with little trouble. The graffiti we found had been placed after the Army transferred the property to the Park Service, but who knows what kind of arrangements they might have had for additional use of some structures.

The Nike missile radar site and Batteries Potter and Gunnison were also open for touring, with plotting and gun loading demonstrations taking place at the latter, but we chose to skip them for the time being. Both are well worth a visit and open at regular intervals through the year. Check the Sandy Hook calendar for more information.


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