Recalling the Fireworks
For 25 years, the SS James Longstreet was used as a “target ship” in Cape Cod Bay
The SS James Longstreet has slipped beneath the surface of Cape Cod Bay, but not so long ago, this Liberty Ship was a practice target for US Navy bombers—and a source of entertainment for some Outer Cape residents and visitors.
On summer evenings in the 1960s and early 1970s, families would put the kids in pajamas, pack a picnic dinner, pile into the car, and head for one of the bay beaches to watch the “target show,” recalls Julie Craven Wagner, a North Falmouth resident who summered in Wellfleet as a child before moving to the Cape in 1970. “Some families would have bonfires. They’d eat dinner around the bonfires, watch target practice, finish up with s’mores, and go home. It was the poor man’s version of the drive-in.”
Target practice consisted of Navy pilots dropping bombs on the rusted ship to gauge the accuracy of their trajectories. From the beach, Wagner says spectators would hear what sounded like thunder and see bright flashes of light, similar to the flash bulbs on old-fashioned cameras. The practice would last 30 to 45 minutes, she says, with maybe two dozen explosions in that space of time.
How did the Longstreet—built in Houston, Texas, in 1942, named after a Confederate general, and used as a cargo carrier in World War II—end up on the wrong side of practice bombs in Cape Cod Bay? It’s a long story, and one that is told in painstaking detail in a series of books by Eastham resident and Cape Cod historian Noel W. Beyle: The Target Ship in Cape Cod Bay (1978), The Target Ship in Cape Cod Bay Illustrated (1992), and The Target Ship Goes to War! (1993).
Upon returning from its third voyage abroad, the Longstreet was blown aground during a nor’easter on October 26, 1943, at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, Beyle relates in his 1992 volume. Welders repaired the damaged hull, and the ship was towed to New York and put in drydock. But the damage proved too extensive to repair, and the ship was ultimately declared a “constructive total loss” as of the date of the grounding at Sandy Hook.
That should have been the end of the line for the Longstreet, but the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance was looking for a “target ship” on which to test new bombs it was developing, Beyle writes. In summer and fall of 1944 the ship sat in New York Harbor, the target of Navy practice bombs. Once again weather attacked; in November 1944, the ship broke its moorings during a strong gale and drifted until rescue ships spotted her December 4 and towed her to Norfolk, Virginia.
About that time the Navy launched another guided missile project called “Project Dove,” according to Beyle, using Monomoy Island in Chatham and an Army base in South Wellfleet for testing. They needed a target ship for testing the bombs over water, and the Longstreet fit the bill. “On the morning of Wednesday, April 25, 1945,” Beyle writes, “the SS James Longstreet was towed to ‘New Found Shoal’ off the Eastham-Orleans-Brewster shoreline and scuttled at 9:46 a.m. From that time since, the fireworks folks here have enjoyed over the years is history ….”
Robin Smith Johnson of Mashpee, now the newsroom librarian for the Cape Cod Times, lived in Orleans as a young girl in the early 1960s. Her home wasn’t close enough to the beach to see the show, but it was close enough to hear it. “I remember that I was sleeping and would wake up to hear the bombing,” she recalls. “It sounded like a supersonic boom. … Dad would tease us, saying it was the giant out in the bay. He was a big joker.” The sound was unsettling at first, she says, “but after a while it was almost comforting, because we knew what it was.”
Around 1965 Richard Holmes of Dennis took his then-fiancé and now wife, Agnes, to First Encounter Beach in Eastham to watch the target practice. “There were three or four fighter planes, and they laid right into that ship,” he recalls. “It scared the hell out of me at first. It came out of nowhere.” An Army veteran, Holmes was stationed at Fort Richardson near Anchorage, Alaska, just before the Vietnam War. Though he did not see combat during his enlistment, he says that watching the bombing from the beach “kind of shook me up for a couple of minutes.”
Target practice on the Longstreet ceased by the early 1970s. In his 1992 book, Beyle reports that the Longstreet Preservation Society, the organization he founded to document the history of the ship, requested that U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy ask the Navy why the bombing had stopped. Kennedy told the society that he received the following reply on June 6, 1978: “It appears there were two primary reasons for the bombing halt at James Longstreet target. First, the proximity of the target to civilian population centers made the target unsuitable for jet aircraft. Secondly, the closure of the Naval Air Station Quonset Point and the departure of the S-2 (propeller driven) aircraft removed the only potential user of the target in the immediate area.”
According to local newspaper reports, sentiment began to turn against the practice following an accident in 1970. On May 30, 1970, a bomb removed from the target ship by several Dedham youths exploded, causing one 17-year-old boy to lose his finger, according to an article in the next day’s Sunday Cape Cod Standard-Times. Wellfleet police reported that five boys had gone out to the ship in a motorboat and returned to shore with five bombs. While one of the boys was trying to dismantle a bomb using a hammer and screwdriver, it exploded, severing a finger. An ordnance team from Quonset Naval Air Station in Rhode Island was dispatched to clear the ship of explosives.
In a follow-up article published a week later, the newspaper quoted Lt. C. D. Santelle, public affairs officer at Quonset Point, as saying that most bombs dropped on the target ship were of a low charge. He described some as “steel bombs with a charge the size of a 10-gauge shotgun shell” and said that others “have charges of black powder ranging from three to five pounds.”
On June 10, the newspaper reported that Navy Commander Daniel Buckley, weapons officer, said that the charge in the head of the practice bombs “is only enough to make a puff of smoke to determine where the bomb landed.” Practice bombs could be loaded with plaster, water, or sand; when they struck, the spotter charge was ignited, so the pilots could determine whether or not there was a strike, according to the story.
A few days later, an editorial in the Cape Cod Standard-Times noted that the Longstreet posed a continuing threat to pleasure craft and had long been a popular teen sea rendezvous (posted warnings notwithstanding), then asked the pointed question: “T-ship: a dangerous dud?”
What finally wiped the Longstreet off the map was the April Fool’s Day Blizzard of 1997. The intense storm sank the rusty ship, which now lies in about 22 feet of water off Eastham in Cape Cod Bay.
Ellen Albanese is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Waquoit.