|A few remembrances from artist Ellen Rice about Delaware’s WWII watch towers and their history.
We attach all sorts of meanings to objects. For me, the World War II watch towers on the coast of Delaware are very cheerful reminders of joyous days well spent and symbols of hope the hope that these relics of a war long past remain just what they are, relics, reminders, and that one day we will truly realize the prophesied day when mankind will “learn war no more.”
I first saw the watch towers in June 1964. I was 15 years old, wedged into the back of my Aunt Sylvia’s station wagon between my three younger cousins, Terry, Sally and Richard, for whom I was to babysit through the summer. We were on an adventure.
Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Dick had decided, pretty much on a lark, to run a rooming house on the ocean block of Wilmington Avenue in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, for a friend of the family. Bill Hill was a Rehoboth native and owned a number of properties with rooms for rent by the day or week during the summer season. We called ours “The Stone Balloon.” I don’t recall why, since it was the building next to it that was made of stone, but so it goes.
It was a golden summer, one of the most memorable of my lifetime, though I labored long and hard … taking my cousins to the beach every sunny day, acquiring the darkest tan of my life, and staying up late nights (way beyond my at-home bedtime) playing cutthroat Scrabble with my uncle, aunt and newly acquired “Uncle” Bill.
It was Bill who showed us the towers and told us their history, though little of the latter rubbed off on me at the time. I was more intrigued with his tales of native American Indians and pirates who had inhabited the area hundreds of years ago and the traces they had left behind on our shores … silver pieces of eight, gold doubloons, arrow heads, shards of clay crocks once used for cooking at fire’s side on this same spot.
Bill took us out in his dune buggy one day. At that time, you could go just about anywhere you wanted with a jeep. We bounced all over the dunes at what was then called “Whiskey Beach.” It was there Bill pointed out the mounds of shells left behind from countless Indian meals and told us tales of the pirate ships that had wrecked just off shore tales that decades later would lead to the creation of Treasure Beaches of the Mid-Atlantic, my first national bestseller. It was at Whiskey Beach that I got my first close view of a watch tower.
The concrete observation towers dotting Delaware’s coastline were built by the Department of Defense during World War II to protect us from foreign invaders. It was a real threat. Some potential invaders were spotted offshore. One German U-boat even entered the Delaware Bay. Military and trained volunteers manned the towers 24-hours, night and day. In those days, ships were the only way to move armies and materials across the sea.
The tower in Winds of Time is in Cape Henlopen State Park. It was abandoned and sealed up after the war. Another tower in the park is still used by the Philadelphia Maritime Exchange and the Delaware Bay Pilots Association to monitor ship traffic moving in and out of Delaware Bay. Most of the observation towers along Delaware’s coast are permanently closed, but there is still another one at Cape Henlopen State Park that you can climb and from which you can see a beautiful 360° view of the area. (There are a lot of steps.) If you’re not acrophobic (or terribly out of shape), it’s a lot of fun. Take a camera.
People have been asking me to paint the towers for years. They’ve been painted so much by so many artists that I didn’t want to tackle the subject until I could do so in a way that was meaningful, to me and hopefully to others.
After that first summer spent at Delaware’s beaches, I returned annually and four years later made the area my home. By this time, the watch towers had become for me a beacon, as they probably are for many who vacation here. When you catch your first glimpse of them over the tree tops, you know you are nearing your destination.
In Winds of Time, I’ve endeavored to capture that feeling of anticipation as you approach the beach on foot, round a bend and see the tower rising above the wind-blown dune grasses before you. The ocean is just coming into view. Listen quietly and you can almost hear the soft pounding of the breakers just over the horizon, the call of sea birds. Feel the hush of the wind and the brine in the air, the crunch of ocean debris, sea shells and sand under foot. It’s a beautiful day. Clear, blue skies, just a hint of pink on the edge of clouds far out to sea. Yours to enjoy.
-- Ellen Rice