It happens every now and again when the elements have their angry way with Salisbury Beach and exhume a reminder of what this nation endured during World War II.
According to Newbury resident and Salisbury Beach lover Janet Hickey, as she walked the beach on Sunday, she realized that Friday’s furious storm tides had exposed two pieces of 20th century history: the remains of concrete gun batteries that guarded the coastline during World War II.
“The largest is maybe 15 to 20 feet in diameter, with a turret in the center,” Hickey wrote in a note to The Daily News. “Apparently, there was a military reservation at the point during WW II, with a commander’s tower and barracks to protect the entrance to the Merrimack.”
Hickey’s correct. From 1942 to 1945 as World War II raged, like other areas along America’s coast, Salisbury Beach Military Reservation had gun batteries. According to northamercianforts.com, the site held a four-gun, 155mm battery on “Panama mounts,” along with a commander’s tower, barracks and other support buildings on the site on the Atlantic side along the southern portion of what is now Salisbury Beach State Reservation.
A 155mm gun is a large piece of artillery, capable of projecting a 100-pound shell up to 15 miles.
Reservation Field Operation Team Leader Mike Magnifico knows just about every grain of sand along the 3.8 miles of state-owned Salisbury Beach, having worked for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which owns the beach, since 1985. Magnifico said on rare occasions when the erosion is the worst, the gun turrets appear, then they disappear again when the sea pushes the sand back into shore.
“There are World War II gunnery turrets out there,” Magnifico said. “During the war they were used to keep a look out for enemy subs. They’re round, and they had guns that rotated 360 degrees.”
After the surprise Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor nearly wiped out the Navy’s Pacific Fleet on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan, as well as Germany, joining the European Allied force. As fear gripped a nation at war, many worried an enemy attack on America’s mainland was imminent. With tens of thousands of miles of exposed coastline, Naval bases and shipyards, part of America’s homeland defense tactics included establishing guard posts all along its shores.
An invasion never occurred, but the coast did face a deadly threat — German U-boats. The stealthy submarines operated off the entire U.S. coast, sometimes sinking ships within sight of the shoreline. Coastal batteries like Salisbury’s were intended to be used to shell U-boats. No U-boats were ever sunk in local waters.
According to fortwiki.com, military sites in Salisbury were established by the War Department in 1941 on land leased from the state of Massachusetts at two separate locations. Where the gunnery batteries are now exposed was the largest of the two locations, on 237 acres north of the entrance of the Merrimack River, south of the then town-owned Salisbury Beach. Its purpose was the first line of defense against enemy ships and the protection of the entrance to the Merrimack River.
The towers and guns were dismantled and the site returned to the state when the war ended. But the mounts remained, usually buried deep in sand.
The second military location was only about an 1 acre in size, in the residential area of the town beach, consisting of a fire control observation tower. According to northamericanforts.com, the site remained after the war ended, and was used by the state police until the structure was destroyed by a hurricane in 1958.
This second location was part of a series of stations for the Harbor Defenses of Portsmouth, where the Naval Shipyard was building warships. Other similar stations were placed on Plum Island and Crane Beach, but no remains exist today.
Along Salisbury’s rugged coastline today, other historic artifacts dating back to World War II sometimes turn up, Magnifico said, as he pulled out a cup full of gun shells washed up by the sea over time.
And, Magnifico added, the sands of time have already begun to bury the military remnants that have caused such interest recently. For although the gunnery towers were sharply exposed right after Friday’s tide hit, sand is already coming back to cover them up, he said.