A very interesting thing to do in the fall out here on the East End is visit Camp Hero, an utterly unique state park in Montauk, on the bluffs overlooking the ocean out by the Lighthouse. It was, for nearly half a century, a military base with big guns and artillery to defend Montauk from attack first by the Nazis and then, later, from the Russians. You can walk through it and see these installations, including an enormous 80-foot-tall radar tower, storage areas where the giant shells were stored for the big guns and the barracks, officers quarters and gymnasium, still there, disguised as a church with a steeple on top to try to fool the pilots of enemy planes into thinking it was just a fishing village. You can also see the reinforced concrete hoods that were built to shelter the big guns that were there—16-inch guns that had originally been built for battleships.
In the summertime, the entry road to Camp Hero has a manned booth where a park ranger sits to take donations and hand out brochures and roadmaps. You can just drive around in there if you want rather than park and walk around—there are plenty of roads. But this time of year, the entry booth is unmanned and the gate to the place is wide open. You are welcome to see it all on your own. And you will find roadmaps in a protected outdoor kiosk there for the taking. You are also free to park your car in the large parking area at the edge of the bluff. Down below are rocks where you can often see harp seals resting and sometimes honking at one another. And if you want to walk down a path out to the rocks—stay away from where the seals are—you can surfcast for striped bass and blues, which can often be seen leaping out of the water excitedly as they attack schools of smaller fish.
Camp Hero, over 400 acres in size, was developed by the military in 1942, shortly after reports came to the attention of President Roosevelt that Hitler intended to bring Nazi saboteurs by submarine to our East Coast beaches to blow up military installations inland. Submarines had to surface. Big guns could blow them out of the water. Roosevelt ordered naval ships to patrol the shores, he ordered Coast Guardsmen to patrol the beaches and in Montauk he built this big military installation. He thought remote, lightly populated Montauk, which it was at that time, could be a prime target for such an enemy landing.
Camp Hero seems a dramatic name for a military installation. But the name came from a more mundane source. A Major General Andrew Hero, Jr. had been the Chief of Coast Artillery for the Army between 1926 and 1930. He died in action in 1942, one of the earliest military casualties of the Second World War. This camp is to remember him.
Because the reports to the President implied that such incursions were imminent, the big guns had to be brought in on a hurry-up basis. The first four that arrived and were installed in those concrete bunkers, were unused 16-inch naval “rifles,” among the largest guns ever built, originally intended for large battleships but never used because stronger longer range ones had made them obsolete. These, however, could fire a shell 20 miles, quite adequate for coastal protection guns.
A rectangular concrete tower, called a fire control center, was built directly in front of the Montauk Point Lighthouse, between the Lighthouse and the sea—it is still there today—and up in it men with binoculars scanned the ocean for enemy ships. Fire from these guns could be directed from there.
Other guns on the site included four 50-caliber machine guns in a concrete pillbox on the cliff face below the lighthouse (now gone into the sea) and large 90mm and 120mm artillery pieces. There was also an anti-aircraft gun on the site, mounted on a circular concrete pad, between the lighthouse and the bunkers. (In the late 1960s, I climbed around on one of those circular concrete pads. The guns were gone, but bolts stuck out of the concrete. There was also a trap door in the ground that led to an underground passage where ammunition was kept. It was flooded up to the door.)
To keep all this from the prying eyes of possible Nazi spies in boats offshore, the barbed wire fence that surrounded the facility was camouflaged with vines and foliage on the ocean side and the big guns were covered with camouflage netting. Nazi spies arriving by boat in those years would have seen only what looked like a peaceful New England fishing village (it even had its own power plant), with its church with the steeple, little houses (barracks) and ball fields (for recreation).
And outside Camp Hero, there were other lookout towers along that coastline. They too were made of reinforced concrete, but they had windows painted on the sides and ornamental roofs and fake dormers. Further west, in Westhampton, there was built a military airport (now Gabreski Airport.) If warplanes needed to be scrambled, off they would go.
As it happened, during World War II, not a shot was fired in anger from any of these facilities, although there was a landing of saboteurs on the beach in Amagansett 12 miles to the west on June 13, 1942. The facilities in Montauk and Westhampton participated only in a support capacity.
After the war ended in 1945, Camp Hero was abandoned. Though all the guns, big and small, were removed, all the structures were left as is. For a while after that, it was used as a training facility for the Army Reserve.
By 1946, it was apparent that the United States faced a new enemy in the Soviet Union. In 1949, the Soviets tested an atomic bomb in the remote wastelands of Kazakhstan. They were now a nuclear power. It was also learned that the Russians had designed and built long-range Tupolev Tu-4 bombers capable of flying across the ocean and arriving in the skies of America. Camp Hero was ordered re-opened, but now as an Air Force early detection radar unit base. By August of 1948, a small radar had been placed at Montauk, to be linked up by radio to a primitive control center at Roslyn Air Force Station in western Long Island, and soon thereafter, a new Air Force Squadron of about 50 men was formed to operate the facility at Montauk. Also, because it was no longer an Army base, it got renamed. Beginning in the 1950s it became known as the 773rd Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron and that was the name over the guardhouse at the entrance to what had been Camp Hero. No aircraft runway was at this base, although helicopters could come and go. New guns were brought in, although not anything the size of the big battleship guns used earlier. But as before, Montauk was still hooked up to Westhampton Air Force Base.
This was the state of affairs out there when my father bought White’s Montauk Pharmacy and moved our family there. I was 16 years old and I was curious to explore at least the old abandoned concrete military buildings in the community not behind the barbed wire of the 773rd Air Force Squadron. Some friends and I explored the abandoned concrete lookout towers along the ocean disguised as private homes. We were also able to explore the abandoned facilities on the cliffs at Montauk Lighthouse. It turned out that the most easterly part of the base was where the extensive wooden barracks buildings had been for the old Camp Hero. They were now rotting to ruin, I was told. In 1956, the military gave that eastern part of the base to New York State and it became open to anyone wishing to walk into the woods there. In doing so, I not only saw these barracks buildings (fishermen’s homes) covered in vines, I also discovered in there a dirt road that apparently, years earlier, had been the old Montauk Highway. It was now also overgrown. Much of the pavement had broken into pieces. And there was an entire abandoned gas station, a Mobil gas station, all covered in vines and in ruin. This was the easterly end of the old Montauk Highway, apparently in use until the Montauk Parkway was built in the 1920s. It veered off to the right of the Parkway as you went east out by the ranch, continued on as a busted up road and ended at the barbed wire of the 773rd. It also continued on through to the Point, though off limits to the public. Soon thereafter the State had the Montauk Fire Department come in and burn down these old barracks buildings in this dangerous condition.
In the spring of 1960, I came home from college to discover that a new 80-foot-tall radar tower had been built at the 773rd. You could see it from our house. It loomed over the trees six miles away. Not only could you see it, you could hear it. If you happened to have a radio on anywhere in the house, which my dad often did listening to music or news, there would be this strange buzz that would be broadcast about every 20 seconds. It coincided exactly with when the radar tower moved around to face us.
We put up with that buzzing for that summer, but by the next summer, it had stopped. I later learned it was some unintended consequence of this enormous, new sophisticated radar tower they’d built. But they had fixed it.
In the mid 1970s, the government announced that it would soon shut down the 773rd Squadron. I learned of it when I went into my dad’s store that summer and saw the lieutenant in charge there, talking to my dad with tears in his eyes to say goodbye. The Soviets by this time not only had an arsenal of guided missiles, they also had satellite surveillance systems. So did we. Systems much more sophisticated than this radar tower’s 200-mile range needed to be in use.
As for the lieutenant, with 50 men on the base, there was often a need to fill prescriptions, sometimes in the middle of the night. My dad had cheerfully done what he had to do, even personally delivering the medicine, and the lieutenant considered him a good friend.
I couldn’t wait to see what was behind all that barbed wire. I was not disappointed.
When the time came and the Air Force was gone, my friends and I simply walked in. We walked into cinder block buildings with desks with computers still on them, green screen computers but computers nevertheless. We found elaborate manuals swept onto floors, radios and televisions and blackboards and laboratories with chemicals still in the closets and wiring everywhere. It looked like something from the future or something from a science fiction magazine. We could have walked up seven flights of a metal staircase to the top of the radar tower if we had wanted to, but we were too scared. The huge radar dish at the very top, 38-feet high and 126-feet wide, banged and rattled in the wind. Soon thereafter, we left. And I later learned that the radar tower was left free to turn so it would not eventually tear off the hinges to the concrete tower or destroy the tower itself.
Twenty years later, when I was in my 50s, I went out there again with John Keeshan, the Montauk realtor who was also in his 50s. I recall John drove a motorcycle then, something I chalked up to a midlife crisis.
In any case, much of what I saw earlier was still there, either too heavy or too uninteresting to be of interest to looters.John climbed to the top of the facility’s water tower and bellowed out a hello to the world. I did not go up. I get vertigo easily. But we both remember this remarkable day and often talk about it.
In 1981, the site was still completely abandoned and open to the elements. At that time, it was turned over to the State of New York who in turn handed it over to the New York State Department of Parks. The Parks Department let the whole thing continue to be overgrown and wild for the next 20 years.
In 1992, however, two writers, Peter Moon and Preston Nichols wrote a book called The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time that became a sensation. The book stated that they had learned this property had been used to carry out secret experiments in time travel that included the attempted but disastrously unsuccessful teleportation of a Navy destroyer from Montauk to Philadelphia. The authors said all local people knew about this but had been sworn to secrecy.
As a local person, I wrote that I published the local newspaper in that town during that era and everything they wrote was nonsense. In a follow up book, they quoted me. My newspaper was in on the scam. What could you do?
Eventually, a dynamic woman named Bernadette Castro, the daughter of the man who made a fortune with his invention of the Castro Convertible Sofa, became the Parks Commissioner. Because myself and others at an earlier time had urged the Parks Department to turn this toxic base into a military park that visitors could see to honor our fighting men, she looked into it, researched it, put me on a committee of people who could help make this happen and eventually did do exactly that. It opened for business in 2002 and has been this amazing military park since.
Two things. When I was home as a teenager, I sometimes could hear at our house the big 16-foot guns being fired out to sea in naval exercises late at night. Incendiary flares would light the night sky. Bernadette told me those were other guns, but not the big ones. Her research had informed her these big guns had been dismantled by the date I said I’d heard them.
Finally, I learned that indeed state-of-the-art experiments had been going on at the Montauk base. There were studies being done about magnetic memory for storage, light pens, keyboards, computer memory and modular circuit packaging.
Maybe Moon and Nichols were right after all.