The SS James Longstreet, known as the “Target Ship,” was anchored off the coast of Eastham in 1945. Bombing raids conducted by the U.S. Navy became part of the scene in all the nearby towns, including South Wellfleet. Just as the guns of Camp Wellfleet echoed in the background of many of our childhoods, so too were the flashes of the nighttime bombings in Cape Cod Bay that lit up the sky.
In April 1945, the ship was run aground on “New Found Shoal” and anchored in place, loaded with scrap metal and steel drums. The United States Navy needed to use the ship to practice bombing over water. For 30 years or more, planes bombed the ship in both day and nighttime raids.
This naval military action on the bay side was matched by the Army’s military actions on the ocean side at Camp Wellfleet, as citizens of this relatively isolated area adjusted to military maneuvers during and following World War II.
Fishermen used the ship to locate fishing grounds, and as a site marking their way home. Numerous fishing columns in the Cape Codder indicate that the stripers were biting off the target ship. Phil Schwind, the writer of a popular fishing column, told stories of fishermen tying up on the target ship and climbing aboard to have lunch. During one such lunch break, bombing ensued and the fishermen had to duck below deck to avoid being hit!
The SS James Longstreet was constructed in 1942 by the Todd Houston Shipbuilding Corporation at the Houston Ship Canal between the City of Houston and Galveston Bay, Texas. She was one of many such Liberty ships built from a standardized model under conditions that allowed quick and inexpensive production during the early years of World War II. She was the 25th of 208 ships produced at this facility.
Major General James Longstreet was a Confederate General, with successes at a number of Civil War battles. He argued with General Lee over strategy at Gettysburg, and came to be blamed for losses there. After the Civil War, he had a career with the U.S. Government as a diplomat and civil servant, becoming friendly with President Grant, and a member of the Republican Party. This did not make him popular in the South, but may be the reason the U.S. Navy named a ship for him. His second wife, who married him when she was 26 and he was 76, worked hard during her lifetime to revive his reputation. She lived until 1962, so she may have been present at the launch of the SS James Longstreet in October, 1942.
The ship made three trips, to Australia, India and Ceylon, to Liverpool, England, and to Southampton, England, in 1943, but late that year was blown aground off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, in a severe nor’easter. She was pulled free, her hull repaired, but remained quarantined, and then assigned to the graveyard.
In 1944, the U. S. Navy was looking for “target ships” for secret experiments involving early air-to-surface guided missile systems. The Longstreet was painted chrome yellow and delivered for duty to a secret location in the summer of 1944. She ended up in Norfolk, Virginia, for repairs, and sent back to the target area where she broke free of her mooring during a November gale, and drifted 80 miles out to sea. After recovery, she was next sent to Cape Cod Bay.
In early 1945, the James Longstreet was chosen again for target practice, this time for new air-to-surface guided-missile experiments involving a heat-seeking system known as the Dove. By the middle of 1946, the ship was no longer required for this program, but continued to be used periodically by the Navy and the Air Force for live ammunition target practice until 1971.
Starting in the 1950s, the residents of Eastham with homes on the bayside would complain from time to time about the “errant bombs” landing near their Camp Ground cottages, as pilots mistakenly released their load too soon. Hard to believe in today’s world that the Navy could apologize, promise not to do it again, and keep up the bombing program near homes with children playing outside.
The bombings were suspended in the early 1970s as they were useless for modern weaponry. With so many more people on the Cape, there were safety considerations as well. So it sat for more than twenty years, a rotting hulk in the bay, good for sunset photos, and a spot to snag a lobster.
Over the next few years, there were numerous news reports about the Target Ship. It was a spot to grow marijuana, an idea that developed as other wind-born seeds settled onto the ship and plants thrived. Then there was the winter of 1977 when four young people decided to walk across the iced-in bay, to see the ship up close, but then had to be rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter before they fell through the ice.
By the 1990s, the Longstreet hulk was nearly in two pieces, with only a small portion of its structure above water. It completely disappeared in a storm in the early 2000s, and now is submerged at high tide. Sometimes its bones can be seen during very low tides under the right conditions. The Coast Guard has put a lighted buoy near it.
Some want to lop off its high points to provide clearance between the highest point of the wreck and the water surface at low tide, but spending money on making changes now to the Longstreet appears to be a low priority. The State Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources recommends that it be left alone.
Noel W. Beyle, The Target Ship In Cape Cod Bay The Longstreet Preservation Society, Orleans, 1992
Wellfleet Historical Society and Museum, Spring 2014 newsletter
Cape Codder online at Snow Library, Orleans
Another blog post about the Target Ship: http://blogs.capecodonline.com/cape-cod-history/2014/09/30/cape-cods-target-ship-a-childhood-memory-2/
The Cape Cod Times.