Fort Tilden today is reminiscent of a movie set for a post-apocalyptic film like “The Planet of the Apes” or “I Am Legend.” A walk along the dunes will take you to long abandoned missile installations and the crumbling remnants of concrete bunkers and mysterious outbuildings. The bunkers were designed to house the big guns that were put in place to protect New York City from Axis invaders during World War II. Today, beach grass clings to the entrances, and the sand that caused so many problems for the troops building and maintaining this outpost, has once again reclaimed its territory. Most of the buildings are gone, too, and the sound of playing children has replaced the barking of orders, or the grinding of gears as the Nike missiles of the Cold War were moved into position. Fort Tilden was no nature preserve then.
At the dawn of World War II, when it seemed certain that this war would be much worse, and much more widespread than the “Great War,” the United States Army took the ramshackle base that it had halfheartedly built during World War I, and brought it up to standards. They had to, as Fort Tilden was part of the first line of defense of the greatest and most important city in America. Fort Tilden, along with Fort
HamiltonHancock in New Jersey, had to protect New York City.
The first chapter of this story told the early history of the fort. It was meant to protect NYC during World War I, but by the time the early defenses were established, the war was over. During the 1920s, efforts were made to bulk up the fort. New buildings were constructed, and two big guns were added to the weaponry. But the planning was poor and the working conditions even worse. It was hard to believe that this fort was not in the middle of the Sahara, or on some remote island in the Pacific, but only a few miles from the skyscrapers that could be seen on the horizon when standing on the dunes.
As mentioned in the first chapter, the buildings constructed at Fort Tilden during and just after World War I were not well built, and most were wooden structures that were poorly constructed by troops who were not builders, and were soon sand blasted and eaten away by wind and weather. The army had only left a skeleton crew at the fort, and they were unable to keep up with the repairs. In the mid-1930s, the military, in conjunction with the WPA, began rebuilding the fort.
World War II began in Europe in 1939, ramping up the efforts to rebuild Fort Tilden. By 1941, troops were once again stationed here. The army had gone with concrete this time, and constructed over 90 new buildings on the base, including the huge concrete bunkers built into the sands which held the very big guns that could protect the base from air attacks. These bunkers, technically termed casements, were called Battery Harris East and West.
Battery Harris East and West held two of the largest cannon ever built for land use. They were 16” bore guns that were housed and protected by the concrete structures peeking out of the sand dunes. Most of the installation was underground. In addition to the cannon, the bunker held a supply of projectiles, powder storage rooms, a command center and bathrooms. A railroad track ran through the middle of the ordinance areas, able to bring more ammunition and supplies quickly.
When the big guns were going to be fired, artillerymen would unload the projectiles from the train with a chain or hoist, and ram it into the barrel. Bags of gunpowder were loaded behind the projectile, and the guns were pointed out into the bay. No foreign invading army ever tried to invade us, so these guns were thankfully, never fired in anger, only in test firings and drills. The ground in front of the cannon was paved with concrete, spreading out in a semi-circular pad. This was to prevent the ever encroaching sand from spraying up into the gun and the bunker after a blast.
There were smaller defensive structures as well, including Battery Kessler and Battery 220, these, sunk into the dunes closer to the shore. During the war, the base was active, utilizing all of the new concrete buildings built for offices, mess halls, barracks, officer’s quarters, supply and storage, meeting halls, chapel, recreational buildings, etc. Fort Tilden was a busy place. Fortunately, no German U-boats or destroyers ever tried to attack the base, and the four forts guarding New York never had to mobilize for battle.
After the war, the coastal defense systems were abolished, and the fate of the base was unknown. While they were trying to figure out what to do next, the State of New York needed to house returning veterans and their families. In 1946, the Army allowed 46 of the barracks to be converted into 350 apartments. The state moved families in, but in 1951, the Korean War began, and the threat of war emptied out the 281 families from their new homes, the apartments were turned back into barracks, and new troops moved back in. The Cold War era had begun.
This new war was different, as far as home security. We were no longer as worried about ships attacking us from the sea, we were now worried about missiles raining destruction from the skies. The nuclear bombs we had detonated in Japan had led to a new arms race with the Soviet Union and their Communist allies. Since NYC would still be the prime target for a strike, the Army brought in over 1,000 men to staff four batteries of guns. Each battery had four 90mm guns capable of shooting planes down over the harbor.
But by 1954, modern warfare had developed into a battle of jet planes, not the slower moving propeller planes of World War II. The sixteen 90mm guns were useless against jets, so the Army equipped Fort Tilden with the new Nike Ajax missiles, the first of the SAMS; surface-to-air missiles. Using radar various kinds of tracking radar, the missiles could find, pinpoint and destroy incoming jets and missiles. During the Cold War there were actually nineteen Nike missile sites around New York City.
By 1959, the Ajax missiles were replaced by the Hercules missiles. Both kinds of missiles were designed to track and destroy Soviet Bear Bombers far out to sea, before they got to New York. The troops assigned to this task were able to work 24 hour shifts. The missiles were stored in underground bunkers, and were raised by elevators to the surface. The Ajax could destroy a target out at 30 miles. The larger Hercules had a range of almost a hundred miles, and could carry a nuclear warhead.
Between 1954 and 1974, twenty long years, Fort Tilden and the other bases around the city, were on alert and active duty, ready to protect the city, armed with nuclear capability. In 1974, the SALT treaty was signed with the Soviet Union. This caused all Nike batteries to be disarmed. It was all rather late, anyway. Both sides had developed ICBMs, intercontinental ballistic missiles, which made the Nike look like a bow and arrow in an automatic weapons fight. Fort Tilden’s time was finally over.
That same year, the Army turned Fort Tilden over to the National Parks Service. Part of the base remained a National Guard unit until 1995. The part of the base housing the Nike missile platforms is still off limits, hidden behind heavy fencing and overgrown vegetation. The barracks and other large buildings are gone, leaving the concrete bunkers, tunnels and remains of the railroad tracks. There are small cement buildings scattered around and the entire area is now part of the much larger Gateway National Recreation Area, along with Jacob Riis Park and Breezy Point.
Visitors to the area are left to their own imagining. The most popular parts of the fort are the immense Battery Harris East and West bunkers. The views from the dunes are spectacular. Some of the remaining buildings have been taken over by arts groups, and graffiti runs amok on the walls, floors and ceilings of the old abandoned buildings. Grasses and vines cover the bunkers and the shells of the old buildings. The dunes offer sanctuary for birds and other wildlife, and the beaches wash up crabs and mollusks. The greatest enemy Fort Tilden ever faced was the relentless force of Nature, which continuously battled to reclaim her space. This was the only war the Army of the United States and Fort Tilden ever lost. GMAP