The smooth sounds from the band’s sax player swirled around me as I stopped to capture the image in front of me. A young German soldier stood with a thoughtfully contemplative expression on his face as he absorbed the conversation of his companion, an older balding gentlemen with traces of white hair complementing the hard lines of his profile. As I focused my camera the young German glanced my way and flashed me a smile. I released my shutter and captured this small moment in time. As I turned away to continue on my way I could just hear a young lady begin to sing along with the band…
A moment in time. This is what Cape Henlopen State Park and the Fort Miles Historical Association were trying to do on Saturday, April 27th at the Delaware Goes to War Re-enactment at Fort Miles. The young German soldier I had encountered was one of many American and German re-enactors on site in full gear to bring visitors back to 1945 for the day.
As a closet 1940s-50s enthusiast I was not-so-secretly glorying in my good fortune at being assigned to photograph the event.
Let me give you a quick lay of the land…
Fort Miles is located within the boundaries of Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes, DE. It was built to defend the Delaware Bay and domestic shipping and was manned by the 261st Coast Artillery Battalion. Batteries, which are big guns, were built throughout the Fort and a large mine field was laid out in the waters off of Lewes. Although the Fort did not see any action during the war it was the setting of the surrender of German U-boat U-858. The submarine was part of a German planned operation to cause havoc along the East coast of the United States by attacking merchant ships. U-858, however, did not see any combat.
At the peak of the war Fort Miles was home to nearly 2,200 soldiers, men, and women. Our re-enactment took us to the end of the war, with Germany’s surrender to the Allied forces in Europe on May 7. U-858 received the order to surrender on May 8, 1945 and proceeded to do just that. The crew of the U-boat were transferred off the coast of Cape May to a rescue tug and landed at Fort Miles for processing as prisoners of war. It was a sensational press moment for an area that had previously seen little action.
I would say that Saturday’s main event was the reenactment of this surrender and the processing of the German soldiers. A member of the Ft. Miles Historical Association narrated the proceedings as they happened in front of us.
The Germans marched into the Fort where, we, the spectators gathered. Their hobnailed boots clicked in perfect unison as they stared ahead with stony expressions. The American soldiers had formed a circle, armed and ready for anything. As the Germans approached in their dark and weathered uniforms they prepared to receive and inspect them. The German Captain surrendered, with the help of a translator, to our Naval Officer and our MP’s began to search every soldier with a vigorous pat down. The Germans, stoic as they stepped forward, spread their arms out and submitted to the search. When the inspection was complete the Germans returned to formation and were marched out to begin the processing procedure.
It was a pretty awesome recapitulation of a moment in time from 68 years ago that had caused such a sensation. I can only imagine what that must have been like. For a war whose action had probably seemed so far away to so many in this area, having direct evidence of its conclusion right here on our shores must have been a sight to see.
As I continued to walk around and chat with soldiers and visitors I found myself steering clear of certain German re-enactors. I’ll admit here to you all that truthfully many of them were intimidating. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I could totally understand the fear of the Germans. Mayhap it was because of my knowledge of Nazi’s and what they were generally capable of or maybe it was a carry over from the way German soldiers are portrayed in movies (i.e Inglorious Bast***, Sound of Music…) and books that I’ve seen and read. Whatever the reason, their dark uniforms and shadowed faces beneath their German caps sent a chill through my spine and kept me from approaching them.
I wasn’t a total scaredy-cat though and stepped up to the plate and chatted for a good hour with a few German re-enactors who it turns out had come down from New York for the weekend to be a part of our event. I was surprised and pleased that volunteers would come from so far to be a part of something here in Delaware. They turned out to be fine gents and had me laughing and discussing of all things, what I should wear to my next reenactment (red lipstick is a must, and a dress is preferred. Figures…)
As the day wound to an end I visited Battery 519 to see the 12″ gun and the plotting station in the bunker, found a few soldiers with their girls, inspected the barracks of the German soldiers, and got up close and personal with a WWII Army jeep (which happens to be the reason I’ve wanted a Jeep since before I could drive…in case you wanted to know).
As I began the trail walk back to my car my mind was busy as I contemplated everything I had seen and heard.
It had been a very interesting day and certainly a moment in time I wouldn’t soon forget