An Ocean City landmark played a vital defense role during World War II

Hello from Ocean City

By Harlan B. Radford, Jr.

The origins of today’s Ocean City Music Pier emerged from the ruins of a catastrophic fire that occurred on October 11, 1927, and destroyed a large part of the boardwalk along with some homes and many business establishments, including the elegant Hotel Normandie, the Hippodrome Amusement Pier, the Traymore Hotel and the Colonial Theatre.

While the actual cause of the fire was never determined, more than 400  firefighters from numerous communities in the area were called in to fight Ocean City’s Great Fire of 1927. Fortunately, there was no loss of life.

Interior, Music Pier, Ocean City, NJ

By the spring of 1928, a major project began with re-constructing the Ocean City boardwalk between 6th and 12th Streets.

An important part of that construction project included building a grand concert hall that would originally be christened the Municipal Pavilion in 1928, actually undergo construction in 1928-29, and soon thereafter became popularly known as the Music Pier and provided live entertainment for the public. Mayor Joseph Champion was instrumental in dedicating this new facility and before long, the Music Pier was the site of frequent conventions, bazaars, dances, and daily free summer concerts.

Music Pier, Ocean City, NJ 1929

As one of the most iconic buildings in the seashore resort, this distinctive structure with its oceanside location at Moorlyn Terrace and the Boardwalk reflects the architectural style of the Spanish Revival period.

Two days after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Ocean City’s Daily Sentinel-Ledger reported a lookout tower was to be built on the top of the Music Pier. Its sole purpose was to provide a means of coastal defense as a “look-out” point for protecting a portion of the Jersey seaboard from enemy submarines or U-boats in the water as well as enemy aircraft in the skies. Kelly Tjoumakaris, wrote of it in  “Making Music,” which appeared in Ocean City, NJ Magazine in August 2013 (p47):

In the immediate wake of the Pearl Harbor tragedy, December 1941, the first structure in the country built especially for aircraft spotters was erected atop the Music Pier. Volunteers consisting of teenage boys from Ocean City High School to retired residents from the island kept watch 24 hours a day.

 

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The observation tower was operated and manned 24 hours every day of the year and played a vital role in the war effort from 1942 to the end of the war in 1945. It appears the American Legion was responsible for most of the recruitment as well as the scheduling of the plane and sub spotters. It took considerable effort to establish a network of civilian observers and to train them to be able to recognize and differentiate all types of aircraft.

According to one source, Ocean City’s 147 spotters were comprised of some high school-aged youth and many adult volunteers including some retired persons. These spotters are said to have spent two hours a week observing and reporting all aircraft activity along the Ocean City shoreline. In his 1999 book, Ocean City, NJ by Arcadia Publishing, p87, Mark McLaughlin wrote, “…there were a few U-boat sightings and that one was actually captured by the Coast Guard north near Atlantic City.”

Ocean City Sentinel Ledger, Feb 5, 1943, p2

The civilian volunteers who were trained to act as airplane spotters were organized as a unit of the Aircraft Warning Service. The rare article at left mentions the Music Pier observation tower and praises the high efficiency rating of tower.

Ocean City, NJ 1969 – observation tower gone

The little-known tower with its observation windows can easily be seen on the Music Pier roof in most of the preceding postcard images. The tower remained in place until 1968 when it was dismantled.

The next time you should happen to venture to the Jersey Shore and visit Ocean City and the popular Music Pier on the boardwalk, think about the brief but nevertheless important role this building played in our history.

In observance of Pearl Harbor Day 2016, Ocean City Magazine published “December 7, 1941 – A Day That Will Live in Infamy!” by Fred Miller. The article describes other ways in which the barrier island community mobilized civil and government resources to defend itself from attack.

Few people today know of the vital role that Jersey Shore towns played in America’s defense during World War II. John DeRosier, Staff Writer for The Press of Atlantic City, wrote “How a German submarine attack forever changed Cape May” in 2017.

We look forward to readers’ comments and recollections on the topic.

Jan. 25, 2021, William Thorpe writes: I have very fond memories of singing with the Ocean City Pops on the Music Pier in the 1980s and 90s, but had never heard about the watch tower. It was gone by the time I sang there. What an interesting story about the important role it played at a time when the entire country was united against a common enemy! I wish I had known that history when I sang WWII-era Cole Porter songs there. I’m very happy to see that the building is still there. Thanks for this story.

Who do you know in this PHS Class of ’38 photo?

PHS Class of 1938, Mt-Vernon Class Trip, PHOTO COURTESY OF CHERYL JOHNSON SMEKAL, DAUGHTER OF ELWOOD C. JOHNSON

The young men and women in this May 3, 1938 photo of a Palmyra High School class trip to Mt. Vernon belong to that generation that grew up during the deprivation of the Great Depression.

As these mostly 17 and 18-year-old seniors moved closer to the end of their high school careers, Action Comics #1, dated June 1938, featured the first appearance of  Superman—and sold for a dime. (A mint copy of Action Comics No. 1 sold for $3,207,852 on an eBay auction in 2014.)

However, faraway events already in motion would soon crush their innocence and abruptly thrust these youngsters into adulthood.

Around the world the seeds of World War II had already been sown some time before.

The causes of the war – the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, Japanese territorial expansion, and Germany’s military aggression – coalesced as America, still mired in the Great Depression, tried to stay neutral from the European conflict.

WWII Honor Roll Veterans List from The New Era, Sept 14, 1944

Pearl Harbor was still 3-1/2 years away.

The PHS Class of ’38 came of age in the United States during World War II, and its graduates would either fight in the war or strive on the home front to help win it.

Television journalist and author Tom Brokaw first coined the term “The Greatest Generation” to describe those who came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modern America. The people in this photo and in the Honor Roll at right were among that Greatest Generation.

Who do you know in this eight decade old photo? -JMc

Addition, 10/20/2020: Here is another photo of a PHS Class of 1949 trip to Washington, DC. Can you find anyone you know? PHOTO COURTESY OF ED GILMORE

PHS Class of 1949 at Mount Vernon

Class of ’49 graduation photo PHOTO COURTESY OF ED GILMORE

PHS Class of 1949 PHOTO COURTESY OF ED GILMORE

 

 

Scary times? It could be worse.

Imagine the emotions of the townsfolk of Riverton, Palmyra, and Cinnaminson as they gathered in the Parish House of Christ Church at this December 17, 1941 meeting, ten days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The purpose of the meeting was to prepare the community for an air raid drill to be held the next night at 11:30 pm.


In September, 1944, The New Era, Riverton’s hometown newspaper published a list of persons serving in the conflict that still had a year to go.

WWII Honor Roll Veterans List from The New Era, Sept 14, 1944

I see the names of Carl McDermott and his two brothers about a third down the second column.

McDermott Bros L-R – Bill, Paul Carl

THANK YOU for your service, Carl!

Who do you know in this list? (PDF here)

screen capture from an issue in our online newspaper collection

The New Era of August 16, 1945 issue records the jubilant celebration over the war’s conclusion and gave a sober reminder of the supreme sacrifice given by those “so that this Nation might live.”

We sincerely thank Kate Washington Hickey for gifting the Society the air raid fliers seen above as well as many other items, some of which we will show here another time.

postcard scan courtesy of Mrs. Betty Hahle

We are proud to be caretakers of Riverton history and invite you to join the conversation with your recollections and remarks. This archive is made richer every time another part of local history emerges and readers can simply learn from it or even contribute more to it.

While we enjoy getting likes and comments on Facebook, your thoughts are more likely to become part of the record here. If you think the history of our community is work keeping, scroll down to the bottom of this post and click on the link – Leave a comment.  – JMc