A Century of Service: The U.S. Navy on Cape Henlopen


World War  II: Harbor Entrance

Control Post (HECP) and Captain of the

Port (COTP). 





























































For information on

Fort Miles, click here____.












































































































































































































To learn how the loops worked,

go here____.



















































































For details of the German Submarine "Operation Drumroll", go here ____.

































































































































































































































































 During the 1930s, with a war in Europe raging and despite U.S. neutrality policy, it was again necessary to take precautions to defend the Delaware Bay and the offshore approaches to the Cape.  Unlike past wars, this time that defense would be a joint Army-Navy effort.

After dropping out of the disarmament schemes of the 1920s, Germany had built three so-called pocket battleships and three battleships, all with main battery guns having a range of about 20 miles. By early 1941, the battleship Bismark was roving the North Atlantic.


If the big-gun ships could approach the U.S. coast or enter American bays and harbors they could attack critical industrial and shipping facilities. The Germans had also equipped a number of merchant ships with guns and mines as auxiliary cruisers for commerce raiding. But, there was the possibility that they could surreptitiously enter ports and harbors to lay mines or to scuttle themselves to block shipping channels. 


Clearly if those threats were not stopped well out at sea, they would have to be turned back from the coast by long range coast artillery or blocked from entry by mines.


In 1940 Delaware's National Guard unit, the 261st Coast Artillery moved to Cape Henlopen bringing 155 mm guns to cover the entrance to the Bay. Soon the 21st Coast Artillery arrived to begin deploying mines at the harbor entrance.  


Then the development of Fort Miles began in earnest with plans for two batteries of long range coastal defense guns; one battery of 2 x 12 inch guns (Battery 519) and one battery of 2 x 16 inch guns (Battery Smith).  The above plan shows a proposal for 14 inch and 8 inch railway guns to be emplaced while the permanent batteries were being constructed. 

In addition, the Germans had developed the Type IX U-boat for long-range sustained operations.  Given the experience at the Cape during WW I, these subs were expected to conduct minelaying operations in the approaches to the harbor.

The Navy planned underwater harbor defenses against submarines, including magnetic loops to detect the passage of submarines over them and sono-bouys to track the movement of the sub by the sound from their propulsion systems.

In the Spring of 1941, the Army and Navy agreed that a Harbor Entrance Control Post (HECP) was to serve as the "...central point for the coordination and joint operation of the Army and Navy elements of the harbor defense system."  The mission of the HECP would be:


To collect and disseminate information of activities in the defensive sea area; to control unescorted commercial shipping in the defensive coastal area; and to take prompt and decisive action to operate the elements of the harbor defense; in order to deny enemy action within the defensive coastal area.

The Navy issued detailed guidance for the operations of the HECP. 


A local Army-Navy planning committe agreed that the HECP was to be located on Cape Henlopen because the deep water channel entering Delaware Bay was on that side.


It would be colocated with the Army Coast Artillery Harbor Defense Command Post (HDCP) on Fort Miles as a joint facility. 


But that facility was not yet built and not expected to be completed until the summer of 1942.




Thus, it was decided that the HECP would be  established in a building that had once been the Lewes Lifesaving Station and later the Lewes Coast Guard Station.


In 1938, when a new Lewes Coast Guard station was built, the old building had been  purchased by Mr. Stephen Girard Pierce of Lewes and moved to the beach at Cape Henlopen.


There it became the Belhaven Surf Club a members-only drink and dance establishment.

On 2 October 1941, the Army directed the establishment of HECPs at 18 U.S. locations, one of which was Cape Henlopen.  It was directed that they were to be organized and operated on a training basis and prepared for operation on a war basis.


Based on the urgency of that directive, the HECP would have to be established in the Surf Club building. 


The Navy was dissatisfied with that location.  The Surf Club building was old, small and at beach level so that it did not meet the official guidance that: "...the ideal location is one which will command a complete view of the harbor approaches and the harbor itself....Each Harbor Entrance Control Post should be equipped with a chart room....and with all the communication facilities to receive and disseminate information...and to communicate with the elements of the harbor defense system...."


Accordingly, plans were developed and funding allocated for improvements to the Surf Club building for use as the HECP. 

On 28 October,  the Second Coast Artillery District put the HECP on continuous alert.  On 31 October, the Fourth Naval District warned of ther threat of "enemy surface raiders and submarines" and announced that "A Harbor Entrance Control Post has been established and is temporarily situated on Cape Henlopen...."


On 2 December, the Commanding Officers of Fort Miles and the 21st Coast Artillery formally accepted the Surf Club building.  On 4 December, despite its temporary and limited facilities the HECP was declared operational. 

By 9 February 1942, the HECP building was ready. 


Observation and signal platforms

were added.  

Weather equipment and 

antennae for


were installed.  

The first Commanding Officer of the HECP was Lieutenant Commander Frank S. Carter, Sr. USNR.  He was a native of Lewes and a graduate of the Naval Academy who had served in WW I and had returned to Lewes to become a prominent businessman and citizen.

The initial complement of the HECP was six Watch Officers and 14 signalman.


The officers were selected from men applying locally for a commission.  Emphasis was on finding men with former maritime experience as there was no time for indoctrination schools. 

The Headquarters Battalion of the 21st Coast Artillery (Harbor Defense) provided an officer and personnel for each watch.


An additional 13 officers and 36 men were sent from Naval Base Cape May to revitalize the direction finding (DF) capability of the former Naval Radio Compass Station and to establish a communications section for the HECP.

That also provided the opportunity to move the HECP headquarters, administrative and support staff to the large former radio compass station building, freeing up the former Surf Club building for the HECP observation and signal station. 

Once established, the HECP was required to coordinate closely, not only with the several Army Coast Artillery commands, but with the Coast Guard Captain of the Port (COTP). 


The HECP was responsible for contacting incoming ships by the time they were 12 miles offshore, identifying them, directing them to an "examination anchorage" and insuring that they stopped for examination.  If the ship was not identified or did not stop, the HECP was responsible for informing an Army "examination battery" to fire a "plugged round" to encourage the ship to stop and for informing the responsible Army and Navy organizations to maintain or activate the harbor defenses. After an incoming ship stopped, the examination to determine their "friendly character and intentions" was the responsibility of the COTP organization. 

New Lewes Coast Guard Station: 1938


Pre-war, the COTP was a Coast Guard function. When, in wartime the Coast Guard came under control of the Navy, the COTP for Philadelphia joined the staff of Fourth Naval District with responsibility not only for the Port of Philadelphia but for the Delaware River and Bay.  The Commander of the Lewes Coast Guard Station, Capt. E.A. Coffin USCG, became the Assistant COTP for Lewes, headquartered at the new Lewes Coast Guard Station.

In peacetime, the COTP was responsible for the movement and anchorage of all ships in the port and for port security. In wartime the COTP additionally became responsible for boarding and "examining" all arriving vessels, forming convoys of outgoing vessels and providing the enhanced security required for the port. Soon the COTP organization would become the largest naval command at the Cape with the greatest range of responsibilities.

Meanwhile, as a temporary measure, on 18 February, the HECP was assigned control of the tug USS Allegheny (AT-19) which would meet arriving ships, stop them for examination and direct them via the channel through the Army minefields. 

The Coast Guard had been expanding the COTP organization to carry out its shipping control and port security responsibilities at the Cape. Soon it was  ready for operations. 

The Coast Guard tugs Yankton and Naugatuck replaced the Allegheny outside the channel entrance. The Barnegat lightship and the Five Fathom lightship were taken off station and brought into Delaware Bay.  One was always on station inside the channel as the "examining ship". 

The increased COTP responsibilities for port security required a rapid and significant expansion of Coast Guard personnel and boats.  The Lewes Power Boat Squadron was Flotilla 42 of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, commanded by Ensign Raymond Adkins.  Early in 1942, the Coast Guard began taking over boats of the Auxiliary and designating them as Coast Guard Reserve (CGR) boats.  They were equipped with radio-telephones, fire-fighting equipment, and small arms to serve a variety of harbor patrol and support functions. 

Members of the Auxiliary could become members of the Coast Guard Temporary Reserve to man the CGR boats. The age limit and the physical standards were not as stringent as those of the regular Coast Guard  Reserve. Temporary Reservists were uniformed when on duty but received no pay.  As they trained and qualified, enlisted ratings and even commissions were granted.  


Others could volunteer to give twelve hours a week of unpaid service in a Coast Guard Volunteer Temporary Reserve. They served as lifeboat crews, did dock duty, checking fishing boats in and out and served as port guards and waterfront patrols.


In April 1942, the laying of the Navy's underwater anti-submarine magnetic detector loops had been completed. There were two loops, each consisting of three strands of cable about 5000 yards long and 200 yards apart.   They were placed just inside the location of the Overfalls lightship and just seaward of the two rows of Army controlled mines and covering the deep water area extending from Overfalls South Shoal to Hens and Chicks Shoal.



Key to chart (from top)


6. Entrance to mine clear channel.

9. Examination ship station.

3. Examination station (Barely visible on chart, inshore of 9).

4. Secondary examination station. (Inshore of 3).

8. Channel buoy.

2. Army controlled minefields.


10. Controlled area.

7. Channel buoy.

5. Navy magnetic  loops.

1. HECP "loop station"

    Army fire control station and "examination

    battery" nearby.

6. Seaward end of mine clear channel.


As a metal object passed the loops, the magnetic field was distorted. That distortion could be detected and measured by a galvometer in the HECP loop station. 

An HECP underwater detection facility or "loop station" was built in the vicinity of the HECP observation and signal facility as the termination point for the signals from the loops.

In addition to the magnet loops, the HECP had sono-buoys for detecting the sound of approaching submarines.  These were most likely the “JM-4 Sono Radio Buoy” system. 


The system consisted of a buoy containing a radio transmitter, an antenna, and a hydrophone suspended down to a depth of about 60 feet.  A weighted metal pole kept that buoy upright.  The buoy was powered by a battery contained in a separate battery raft to which it was connected by a wire rope and by an electrical power cable.  The battery raft was anchored to the bottom.


The hydrophones could detect a submarine at a range of 1500-2000 yards under normal conditions and, therefore, were normally spaced 1000 yards apart.  The radio could transmit the signals to a shore station not more than 15 miles distant. By listening to the buoy from which the sound was the loudest an operator could estimate the position of the intruder.  An experienced operator could usually determine the type of intruder, by the noises it emitted.

Two officers and 11 enlisted were added to the complement of the HECP to form an underwater detection division to operate and maintain these systems. The Petty Officers would have been trained as technical specialists and then attended the Naval Training School (Harbor Defense) at San Pedro California for operational training.


While the HECP and COTP organizations and facilities were being readied, the war began off the U.S. East Coast. In January 1942, the Germans initiated “Operation Drumroll” submarine attacks on coastal shipping.  These attacks were as much of a surprise as the December attack on Pearl Harbor and the Navy was no more ready or prepared to respond than it had been at Pearl Harbor.  From January to June 1942, 17 ships were sunk transiting the coast in the vicinity of the Cape or approaching the Cape from seaward.

The war soon came to the harbor entrance. 

On 10 June a submarine had been detected off the Cape, a search was conducted, but no contact had been made. A mine-laying sub was suspected and mine sweeping was conducted to assure the safety of departing convoys.  Four TMB mines were recovered and destroyed. Later it was learned that these were from a minefield of 15 mines that had been laid by U-373 on 11 June.


Then, at dusk, about 8 PM on Wednesday 24 June, just as Cape area residents and vacationers were out enjoying the evening, an enormous explosion and huge flash occurred just off the entrance to the harbor. 



The tug John R. Williams, returning to Cape May, for some reason, had cut across the suspected mined area and struck a mine.   The small size of the tug, 396 tons, did little to contain the impact of the explosive power of the 2000 pound TMB mine.  Parts of the tug were strewn over a wide area.  Only a lucky 4 of the 18 man crew survived.

In response to the submarine threat, convoying had begun in April 1942.  The COTP was responsible for forming outgoing convoys as well as examining all ships of incoming convoys.

Because of the greater volume of shipping and need for tighter control of movement and anchorage, in December 1942, the members of the Pilot's Association of the Bay and River Delaware were militarized  into the Coast Guard Temporary Reserve.  Pilots were commissioned as Lieutenants or Lieutenant Commanders and apprentice pilots were enlisted as Seamen.
The pilots wore uniforms, were under Coast Guard command and control (except when actually piloting a ship), and had military authority.  They received a uniform allowance but no government pay.  The Association continued to operate as before,  pooling fees and paying pilots.  The apprentices were paid as Coast Guard enlisted and could advance in rate. 
The two pilot vessels, Philadelphia and Delaware, were taken over by the Coast Guard to facilitate control of operations and maintenance.  Coast Guard crews were assigned to each and Coast Guard utility boats ferried the pilots to the ships of incoming convoys. 

Spurred by the three landings of enemy agents on the U.S.. coast from Maine to Florida, in June 1942, the FBI recommended that the Coast Guard establish beach patrols.  A central headquarters was established on the beach front in south Rehoboth Beach at the DuPont home with a barracks next door in the H. Rodney Sharpe home and a hospital in the adjacent R.R.M. Carpenter home.

Originally two-man beach patrols were envisioned.  But, being short of manpower, the Coast Guard recognized that dogs could be trained and used to enhance a one-man patrol. Dog patrols began in August 1942.  Soon thereafter, horse patrols were authorized and eventually became the principal means of patrolling the beach at night. 


On 8 June 1943, the northernmost fire control tower on Cape Henlopen, Tower #9 was declared "occupied" by the HECP.  When an enclosed "watch room" and signal platforms had been completed atop the tower in April 1944, it replaced the HECP temporary observation and signal facility in the former Surf Club building.


This location finally met the guidance that the "...ideal location for such a post is one which will command a complete view of the harbor approaches and the harbor itself...." 

Overall map of HECP facilities upon completion in 1944. Detailed maps below.
In January 1944, Lieutenant Commander James G. Williamson, USNR relieved Lieutenant Commander Carter as Officer-in-Charge of the HECP.


officers with wives or friends. 

Chief Petty Officers with wives or friends.

Each section of the HECP consisted of an experienced Chief Petty Officer, other specialist Petty Officers and some newly recruited sailors. 

Four sailors were selected by their mates to have the priviledge of living in a Naval Annex. This building offered communal areas, private rooms,  a kitchen.

Off duty hours could be spent in the former Surf Club which was restored to its former purpose as a recreation building, after serving as the first HECP observation and signal facility.

On 12 July 1945 the HECP was disestablished and harbor entrance control briefly reverted to the Coast Guard and then to the Philiadelphia Maritime Exchange Reporting Station.  And with the end of the war, the COTP's duties returned to the Coast Guard.


Those organizations have modernized and continue to use the facilities occupied during the war.


Photo Credits

- Title picture: Navy seal approved for unofficial use.

-Battleship Bismark:Wikipedia.

-Type IX submarine: U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command.

-Fort Miles gun ranges: Courtesy of the Fort Miles Historical Assn.

-HECP document;Naval Harbor Defense OPNAV 30-3A.

-Early Coast Guard Station: U.S. Coast Guard photo.

-Belhaven Surf Club: Drawing by Henry L. Jacobs.  Courtesy of the Lewes Historical Society.

-Surf Club converted to HECP Building. Courtesy of Fort Miles Historical Assn.

-Frank S. Carter, Sr.; Courtesy of the Carter family.

-Watch Officer and signalmen; Courtesy of Mr. Julius Amling former Radioman third Class (RM3) HECP.

-Army-Navy watch personnel. Courtesy of Mr. George Stroup former Signalman Second Class (SM2) HECP. Provided by Michael Gatti. 

-U.S. Coast Guard Station 1939: U.S. Coast Guard photo.

-USS Allegheny (AT-19); U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command.

-Five Fathom Lightship; U.S. Coast Guard Lightship Sailors Organization.

-US Coast Guard CGR boat, police: From The Coast Guarfd at War "Port Security XVII" (Historical Section, I.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, 1 September 1949).

-Chart of magnetic loops; From Commander E.S. McCawley USN (Ret,) War History of the Fourth Naval District from December 7 1941, U.S. Navy Department Library. 

-Illustration of Sono Radio Buoy; From U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships Catalog of Electronic Systems (NAVSHIPS 900.116 1946). 

-Sailor monitoring fluxmeter: Dr. Gary Wray and Lee Jennings, Fort Miles (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing Co. 2005).

-New York Times.

-Chart of German mine locations; War History of Fourth Naval District.

-TMB(s) mine being loaded on U-373; www.uboat.net.

-J.R. Williams; www.uboatarchive.org.

-H. Rodney Sharpe House: Courtesy of the Rehoboth Beach Museum.

-Coast Guard, pilot, patrols;The Coast Guard at War.

-Tower 9, Fort Miles HECP; Left photo: Official U.S. Navy photo from Fort Saulsbury and the Delaware National Guard (Argos Corner, DE: Ray Bunting's World War II Shop). Right photo: Courtesy of Mr. Julius Amling.

-Tower #9 with flags. Photos by George Stroup. Courtesy of his grandson Michael Gatti.

-Maps of HECP locations: From War History of the Fourth Naval District Volume 1, illustration CM 607 annotated by author.

-Lieutenant Commander Williamson: Courtesy of Mr. Julius Amling.

-Officers of the HECP: Courtesy of Hazel Brittingham, Lewes Historical Society.

-Chief Petty Officers of the HECP; Ibid.

-Chief Petty Officer and men: Courtesy of Mr. Julius Amling.

-Barracks of the HECP; Courtesy of Mr. Julius Amling.

-Naval Annex: Photo by George Stroup, courtesy of Michael Gatti.

-HECP group off duty; Courtesy of Mr. Julius Amling.

-Maritime Exchange Reporting Station and Pilot's Association of the Delaware River and Bay Assn. building: Author's photos.

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