Thursday, April 2, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - SS James Longstreet Cape Cod's Target Ship


     For more than five decades a giant rusting hulk loomed large over Cape Cod Bay. It was battered, beaten, and bruised yet remained a stoic relic to a bygone day. It was created for World War II and named for a Confederate Civil War general. Though not visible anymore it is still there lurking just below the surface. A Liberty Ship, a ‘target ship,’ a day-trip boating adventure, this is the story of the S.S. James Longstreet.

     The man behind the ship’s name was born in South Carolina on January 8, 1821. He graduated West Point in 1842 and would be given the rank of Brigadier General when James Long street joined the Confederate Army in 1861. He gained the trust of General Robert E. Lee however grew opposed to Lee’s strategic moves beginning with the frontal assault known as Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg. In the end anywhere from 5,800-6,200 of the 12-13,000 Confederate soldiers were killed on that fateful day.

James Longstreet, the man
(Gamaliel Bradford, public domain)

     Longstreet held several federal offices after the war beginning ironically under former Union General Ulysses S. Grant. He was an ambassador to Turkey as well as a U.S. Marshal for the state of Georgia. Rumors of corruption led to his removal from the latter post in 1884.

     His post-war affiliation with the former enemy earned Longstreet some scorn from the Confederate loyalists. This was only exacerbated with his criticism of Lee and his memoir From Manassas to Appomattox in 1896. In 1897 Longstreet married Helen Dortch, a woman more than 40 years his junior. After being severely wounded in battle in 1864 Longstreet was told he would likely not live another decade. He persevered though and lived another forty years, finally succumbing to pneumonia January 2, 1904 just days shy of his 83rd birthday. His wife Helen lived until 1962, making her a living Civil War widow nearly a century after the war had ended.

     Known as the ‘Confederate War Horse’ James Longstreet’s name would not completely fade into the history books.

     After the outbreak of World War II in 1941 2,708 cargo ships, known as ‘Liberty Ships’ were built to help move supplies overseas. One such ship was a 417-foot long, 7,000 ton steel beast named after James Longstreet. It was assembled in Houston, Texas and put into wartime service in October 1942. The vessel would only make 3 journeys abroad though they did include stops in Australia, India, and England.

James Longstreet, the cargo ship, on active duty circa 1943

     The end of active service for the S.S. James Longstreet came during the fall of 1943. It was one of four ships to be forced aground at Sandy Hook, New Jersey on October 26, 1943 in gale force winds. The ship sat on the tidal flats for a month before finally being refloated on November 23rd. Upon being towed to New York for further repairs it was deemed a total structural loss and decommissioned. It was sent to a ship graveyard.

     In early 1944 the Navy acquired the Longstreet as a target ship for surface-to-air missiles. It sat in New York Harobr until another big storm ripped it from its moorings and sent it drifting away. For weeks the ship was missing but when found on December 4th it was towed to Norfolk, Virginia. It was around this time that the Navy began ‘Project Dove’ a guided missile project. They had been using areas of Monomoy Island and Camp Wellfleet, east of Lecount Hollow Road, for land tests and desired a target ship for water testing. The S.S. Longstreet provided the perfect answer.

    On April 25, 1945 just as World War II was coming to an end the former Liberty Ship was towed into Cape Cod Bay. It was anchored in shallow water off of Eastham on a spot called New Found Shoal, an oval shaped spit. The Longstreet was ballasted with more than 10,000 steel drums and scrap metal as it was partially sunk, becoming the newest Cape Cod resident.

     The bombings of the ship went on day and night during the summer. The times were never known to residents of the surrounding towns of Eastham, Wellfleet, Orleans, and Brewster, only the rumbles of approaching aircraft gave them any notice. Aircraft from as far away as Rhode Island came and lay waste to the behemoth in the shallows. July Fourth bombing raids were of particular thrill to tourists and children. Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s countless tons of ammunition was fired into and upon the vessel until it looked like steel Swiss cheese. The pilots prepared for the Korean War and later the Vietnam War by practicing on the Longstreet.

     Not everyone was enamored with the Cape’s oddest tourist attraction though. The noise and rumbling of windows of homes in the surrounding areas was bad enough. However the occasional errant bomb was a different problem. Most well known of those such incidents was when a bomb exploded near the front door of a home on Shurtleff Road in Eastham on Mother’s Day 1951. Nobody was injured but it was a jarring experience for a rural beach town such as Eastham.

     Time passed and the S.S. James Longstreet, rusted and full of holes, was retired in 1970. The reasons were both due to the proximity of the public to the bombings and the closing of the Quonset Point Naval Station in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. Despite it no longer being peppered with live rounds it remained a hugely popular attraction for photographers, painters, and even some graffiti artists who in 1966 spray painted a large Playboy bunny logo on the side of the ship. Slowly over time the Longstreet looked less and less like a proud wartime cargo ship. Some calls came to officially sink it fully underwater, however time did that on its own.

After decades of service as a target ship.
(Truro Historical Society)

     In a fitting piece of full circle irony, a large storm finally did in the Longstreet much as had ended its active duty in 1943. April 1996 saw a storm finally submerge the hull of the former Liberty Ship. Occasionally the ship comes back to the forefront, either at very low tides when it peeks its head above water, or more chilling when an unexploded ordnance is discovered either on the surrounding beaches or by divers and fishermen in the waters around the ship’s resting place.

The location of the SS James Longstreet in relation to First Encounter Beach.

     Outside of those moments the S.S. James Longstreet has been but a memory for nearly 25 years. It was once one of the most photographed locations on Cape Cod and thus has been immortalized in countless images. For those looking to perhaps catch a glimpse of this sunken legend it sits approximately two miles off the coast of Eastham, nearly due west of First Encounter Beach. Its GPS coordinates are: 41.8255416978 -70.0398798405.

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View my previous blog postsIn Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Bartholomew Gosnold

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