This Week in Block Island's history, December 8, 1941: The Armed Forces prepare to fight a war, on Block Island
This week in history, December 8, 1941 — the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor — William Doggett, the owner of Beacon Hill, was visited by an Army officer in Dedham, Massachusetts, and informed that his Block Island property had been commandeered for the duration.
After removing personal belongings, six years would pass before the Doggett family was allowed to visit their beloved stone home again. They were paid a rental fee — but one based on the low “Depression era” rates then prevailing on the island.
Beacon Hill, the highest point on Block Island, was one of six locations here that the Army chose for the construction of eight lookout towers. The men posted in the towers would — if they spotted enemy warships — help control the firing of mainland guns used for coastal defense.
These 16-inch naval weapons were hidden in massive concrete emplacements scattered near the mouth of Narragansett Bay, at Fishers Island in nearby Connecticut, and at Montauk Point on Long Island.
They were the largest caliber cannons ever produced by the United States, and could fire projectiles weighing as much as an automobile toward distant enemies 25 miles at sea. If desired, the shells could arch high over Block Island, easily screaming, for instance, to the site of the windmill farm currently proposed to be constructed off Mohegan Bluffs.
Two 16-inch guns, designated as Battery Hamilton, were located near Point Judith at Fort Greene — part of which is now a state camping area — that automobile drivers pass just a mile before reaching the ferry dock.
On Beacon Hill, the lookout tower — called a “Fire Control structure” by the government — was built into the westerly slope of the hillside, next to the Doggetts’ stone house. The word “fire” had nothing to do with looking for forest fires, but rather referred to the firing of the mainland guns. The new building was disguised as a summer cottage, with the cottage section built of wood, and the tower — unobtrusively protruding from the western end — made of concrete. The goal was to protect, to the west, the Long Island Sound entrance; and, to the northeast, the great naval installations of Narragansett Bay.
Fire Control structures were outfitted with Depression Position Finders — sophisticated telescopes that would allow the distance and compass angle of any sighted ships to be communicated to the mainland gun batteries. The Beacon Hill Fire Control used two DPFs — both faced westward, one on each of the top two levels of the cement tower.
Although the island’s Fire Control structures may have helped in test firings of the guns, no shots were ever fired at enemies. Block Island’s facilities were already in a caretaker status when, in May 1945 — on the day before Germany surrendered in World War II — the German submarine U-853 was sunk by Navy and Coast Guard ships seven miles east of the island. But it was Sonar, a new electronic invention carried aboard American warships, that located the submerged U-boat.
After the war, the Doggetts made a swap with the government. Rather than have the new Fire Control building removed, or have the damage and vandalism to their stone tower repaired, each party just called it even.
Of the eight concrete lookout towers built on Block Island during World War II, designed in various styles, only four remain. All are now private homes.
On Beacon Hill today, the Fire Control tower, as well as the Doggetts’ original stone tower, still tower over all other buildings on the island.