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Recalling the Fireworks

For 25 years, the SS James Longstreet was used as a “target ship” in Cape Cod Bay

Recalling Fireworks

ART CONTEST WINNER • Watercolor & Ink by McKayla Caswell • Grade 11, Falmouth High School

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.

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