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



World War I: Naval Section Base, Lewes

















































































For information on the German submarine operations off the Cape, go here____.


































































In 1914, war in Europe was raging and, despite U.S. neutrality policy, German submarine operations continued to threaten U.S. ships and sink foreign ships carrying U.S. goods to the Allies.  It was possible that the U.S. would be drawn into the war and precautions were being taken to defend shipping off Cape Henlopen and in the approaches to Delaware Bay.  To that end, soon Naval Section Bases would be established on Cape Henlopen and Cape May.


A "Naval Section Base" is a shore base under the overall command of a Naval District Commandant, as distinguished from a "Naval Base" or "Naval Operating Base" which are under the command of a Fleet Commander. 

At Cape Henlopen, the planned closing of the underused Public Health Service Delaware Breakwater Quarantine Hospital was deferred and the hospital continued at a reduced level of operations.  The suitability of that facility and its piers as a naval base had been demonstrated in August 1914 when two destroyers on neutrality patrol stopped there and, again, when, over the Christmas-New Year's period of 1914-1915, the battleship USS Ohio was quarantined there.


As the U.S. entered the war, in April 1917, the Cape was defined by Presidential Executive Order as a "defensive sea area". A Navy delegation met with the mayor of Lewes to make arrangements for the Navy to occupy the former quarantine hospital facilities and piers as a Naval Section Base, under the command of the Commandant of the Fourth Naval District.


Portion of USCGS map 379 dated 1910 showing the quarantine hospital, piers and barracks.
In 1914 the Public Health Service described the barracks as:
...two in number, called the “north” and “south” and each has a length of 300 feet, a width of 24 feet, and a clear height of 12 feet.  They are each divided by five partitions into compartments of equal size, and contain accommodations for 750 persons. The bunks are arranged in tiers, three in number, similar to  those of a vessel.  Each barrack has an addition 15 by 44 feet containing rooms for nurses, ships officers, etc. The barracks are not connected, but in the interval between them is the building containing the mess hall, kitchen and storerooms.  This building is 48 by 48 feet, with a wing 18 by 45 feet.  The kitchen contains apparatus for cooking by steam, and all modern appliances for the preparation of food.  The mess hall will seat about 250 people at one time.  In the rear of the barracks are found the latrines, wash rooms, and washtubs for clothing.
It is likely that when the Navy took over the quarantine barracks, mess hall and facilities, it retained them pretty much as described. 

Soon additional buildings were added for workshops, storage facilities and other naval support functions.
By the Spring of 1918, the headquarters and administrative offices had been moved to the Lewes Coast Guard Station. The principal part of the base occupied the piers, and administrative buildings of the former quarantine hospital while the hospital barracks became the base enlisted living quarters (BEQ). 
There were about 800 men stationed at the base and, as at any naval command, Saturday morning sea-bag inspection was common.

The accomodations at the base were quite primative.  Even as late as October 1918, more than a year after the base was established, the Red Cross representative complained to Delaware's senators that the buildings were in an unsanitary condition and the water bad.


The Navy assured the Senators that work on improving the water supply had been undertaken and that the heating plant was to be extended.

Nevertheless, life was not all hard for the sailors assigned. The Bay provided recreation close at hand, the band provided lively entertainment and there was a YMCA on base.  The sailors who did get into Lewes were treated well.   The Rector of St. Peter's Church made his Rectory a home for the men and had a dozen to fifty lodgers a night.    

Naval Section Base Lewes was established  primarily to serve as home to the varied organizations and personnel responsible for the routing, control and support of the vast numbers of naval combatants and transports that would soon be enroute from Philadelphia to Europe  


Among the first convoys to form up at the Cape in June 1917 was one of cruisers and transports, including the Navy transport USS Hancock (AP-4), carrying the Fifth Marine Brigade to join  the American Expeditionary Force in France.

The first naval force based at the Section Base Lewes was the minesweeping section. The section was composed of steam powered wooden-hulled vessels from the menhaden fishing fleets that operated in waters adjacent to the Delaware Breakwater.  One was Delaware acquired from the Delaware Fish Oil Company of Lewes.  Delaware was taken by the Navy in May 1917, converted as a minesweeper and placed in commission as the USS Delaware (SP-467).  At least nine other Delaware Bay menhaden vessels were purchased outright, rapidly converted for minesweeping service at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, commissioned into the Navy and assigned to Lewes.


While the minesweeping section was being formed at Lewes, the patrol section was being formed at Cape May.  The patrol section consisted mainly of private yachts acquired by donation or purchase from individual owners.  They were converted for Navy use, equipped with weaponsgenerally a main battery of a single pedestal-mounted gun and a secondary battery of a machine gun as well as depth chargesand commissioned.


Most patrol craft were based at Cape May, but at least two  were based at Lewes: the USS Drusilla (SP-372) which had been acquired from the Philadelphia millionaire Anthony J. Drexel and USS Juniata (SP-603). Patrol craft patrolled the shipping lanes approaching the Cape and at the harbor entrance.  The Lewes units served as guard ships in the harbor and on net duty. 

The war arrived at the Section Base with the first warning of a submarine in Fourth Naval District Waters on May 20.  A number of reports of sightings and SOS messages were received during the next week.  But it was not until 2 June, on what came to be called “Black Sunday”, that the full extent of the submarine’s operations became apparent with reports of six ships being attack off Barnegat light.  On 4 June some survivors of those attacks were brought to Lewes.   

Meanwhile, on the afternoon of June 3rd, the Herbert L. Pratt, a 7150 gross ton oil tanker, proceeding empty from Alameda, California to Philadelphia for delivery to the Navy, was rocked by an explosion about three miles off Cape Henlopen near the Overfalls lightship.  The explosion caused a hole in her forward section  which quickly submerged.

In the belief that a submarine was in the area, search operations were begun.  Soon section base minesweepers located and destroyed three mines. With the mine threat identified, the Commanding Officer of the Section Base was directed to stop all outgoing vessels and the port of Philadelphia was closed temporarily until such time as the Commandant was assured that the channels to sea were safe and free from mines.   Several Fleet minesweepersUSS Widgeon (AM-22), USS Teal (AM-23) and USS Kingfisher (AM-25)moved from Philadelphia to Lewes. 


The Pratt was quickly refloated by attaching pontoons, towed by the salvage tug USS Tasco (SP-502) to the pier at the Section base where the ship was righted, the hole patched, and  power  restored.  Pratt sailed to Philadelphia under her own power.  There she was drydocked, converted and commissioned as the USS  Herbert L. Pratt  (ID No. 2339).  In July she made her first Navy voyage carrying fuel oil to Brest for Navy ships based there.

Because of the submarine presence off the coast the Commandants of the Naval Districts were ordered to take control of shipping in their areas by routing ships through areas that had been swept of mines and establishing coastwise convoys.


To escort convoys, each naval district had an escort group consisting of a destroyer as flagship and two squadrons of eighteen subchasers each.  The flagship of the Fourth Naval District subchaser group was the USS Phillip (DD-76).  The group was based at Cold Harbor, Cape May. Units of the group often came to Lewes for various types of support. SC 144 (Below) was attached to that group. It was one of three WW I subchasers built at the Vineyard Shipyard in Milton, Delaware.

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These subchasers were a project of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. Because steel was scarce and the big shipbuilding yards were already fully contracted, he commissioned a naval architect to design a vessel that could be built quickly of wood in small boatyards yet would have the capabilities necessary to be effective against the U boats. 


There were 448 built, of which 303 were commissioned in the U.S. Navy.  Of those, the Vinyard Shipbuilding Company in Milford Delaware built SC-144, 145 and 146. SC-144 was one of the first to join the Phillip group at Cape May.  SC-145 operated with the Jouett group out of Lewes. SC-146 was sent overseas.

Because of the continued visits of subchasers to the base, one element of  Naval Section Base Lewes was a subchaser maintenance and support detachment. 
Ensign Morrison and his detachment of Petty Officers.

In addition to minesweepers and subchasers, in response to the submarine threat, Submarine Squadron Eight consisting of the subtender USS Savannah (AS 2) and eight O-class submarines arrived at the Cape to be based in the Breakwater Harbor and supported from Naval Section Base Lewes.  As Fall set in, however, the ocean swells became too strong in the harbor and the squadron moved to Cold Harbor Inlet on Cape May.  The squadron left behind at Lewes its most unique unit, the 4-masted schooner, USS Robert H. McCurdy (ID 3157).  She was a  "decoy ship" intended to simulate a coast-wise cargo ship and lure German U-Boats into torpedo range of accompanying U.S. Navy submarines.


During the influenza epidemic of 1918, the sailors were quarantined to the base for over four weeks in October and early November.  Fortunately, there was only one death from influenza at Lewes.  During the same period, 21 persons died at the Naval Hospital, Cape May. Some of those may have been transferred there from Lewes.


According to the Commandant of the Naval District

With the signing of the armistice, all war activities ceased. Convoys, patrols´┐Żwere suspended and district vessels were placed out of commission and returned to their respective owners.


The base at Lewes was abandoned and demobilization was begun and carried out promptly.

The facility was kept in a state of readiness until it was officially abandoned as a quarantine area in 1926. The last of the station's buildings were removed in 1931. The area remains vacant today, just to the east of the pavillion at the Cape Henlopen fishing pier. 

Photo Credits


-Title picture: Originally the flag of the Naval Infantry Battalion. It was recognized as the unofficial flag of the Navy in about 1900 and remained so until the formal adoption of the current Navy flag in 1959.

-USCGS map from Horn Collection. Courtesy of James G. Horn.

-Quarantine Hospital: From Frank H. Taylor, The Handbook of the Lower Delaware River (George S. Harrison and Sons, Philadelphia: 1895).

-Topographic map: From records of the Delaware Bureau of Museums and Historic sites.

-Naval Base Barracks: Courtesy of Hazel Brittingham, Lewes Historical Society.

-Bag Inspection: Postcard photo, courtesy of Hazel Brittingham, Lewes Historical Society.

-Snapshots: Courtesy of Hazel Brittingham, Lewes Historical Society.

-SC-145: T. Wolfenden Collection at www.subchaser.org.

-Sailors in quarantine: Courtesy of Hazel Brittingham. Lewes Historical Society.

-Base Site: Author's photo.

All other ship photos: U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command, On-line Library of Selected Images at www.history.navy.mil.

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