Recollections of Service at Fort Tilden, New York
April 6, 1955 to September 20, 1957

Headquarters Battery
505th AAA Missile Battalion

by

Richard A. Rice

December 15, 1987


INTRODUCTION

Returning to Fort Tilden on April 25, 1987, nearly thirty years after my discharge, I was warmly greeted by a Ranger Frank of the National Park Service, current owners of that former army post. He listened to my ramblings about the nearly 2 and 1/2 years of army duty I performed there during the 1950's. Concerned with the history of Fort Tilden, Ranger Frank asked if I had any pictures or anything that would add to its history. In the days that followed I contemplated how best to contribute to the history of Fort Tilden.

Ultimately I concluded a written narrative of my experiences would best serve those who are interested in this history. Names, units, missions, and personal reminisces are a part of this writing to the extent of my memory. It must be noted, however, that this work is flawed to the extent that thirty years have certainly dimmed that memorable era of my life. Much of what I have written is from memory rather than carefully researched historical facts.

Also, Fort Tilden has (or had) a long active military existence and my reminisces relate only to a relatively short period of that history. The era of April 1955 to September 1957 was "my time" and one an aging (50 plus a little) veteran likes to call the modern era. Missiles were in and anti-aircraft guns were on their way out, while the coastal defense guns were long gone. We felt a little pioneering spirit as the missile facilities were being built and the equipment put into operation.

Remnants of earlier coastal defenses in the form of Battery Harris (gun emplacements for 16" guns),abandoned and partially covered with underbrush, looked no different then than they do now in 1987. The sparkling new missile launch sites and support facilities of my era have suffered the same fate of obsolescence and the all-conquering underbrush that the old gun batteries did. Not much is left to show future generations the many roles Fort Tilden played over the years in the defense of our nation.

Included as appendices are copies of some of the military orders I received while stationed there. Since orders of this type typically show personnel actions on many persons, I felt that including them would add names of some who served at Fort Tilden, and when. Also, the orders issued by Brigade and Group headquarters give information on the various units, their locations, and whether equipped with missiles or guns. The Headquarters Battery (505th) Thanksgiving menu for 1955 is attached, although the actual food served probably bore little or no resemblance to the printed word.

It is hoped that this short work will portray for those interested, life at Fort Tilden as seen by a typical soldier in the mid-1950's. Several times after my discharge I have met persons that I served with at places like a Sears store in Rockledge, Florida, a General Electric plant in Pennsylvania, and an Air Force base in Northwest Florida. I solicit communication from anyone who served with me, or anyone writing on their experiences at Fort Tilden.

EXPERIENCES AT FORT TILDEN

I landed at Fort Tilden on April 6, 1955, via basic training at Fort Knox, KY; Engineer Equipment Maintenance school at Fort Belvoir, VA; and a few days processing at Fort Wadsworth, NY. Destiny must have decided my stationing at Fort Tilden since a one-week stint in the hospital at Fort Belvoir had cycled me back two weeks in school and rescinded my orders to Germany. Then, arriving with two other recent graduates at Fort Wadsworth, I was selected to go to Fort Tilden, while they were "banished" to Fort Hancock, NJ.

New York City was overwhelming to a 19-year old small town kid who was born and reared in Portville, NY, nearly 400 miles upstate. The three of us arriving late from Fort Belvoir rode the Staten Island Ferry most of the night. We were awed by the people, lights, and the free ride, since military personnel in uniform were not charged. We thought our orders to Fort Wadsworth meant that we were to be stationed there permanently.

Initially the 52nd AAA Brigade personnel office advised that I would be transferred to a missile battalion, but in my mind I couldn't grasp the reason(s) for needing Engineer Equipment mechanics. The training at Fort Belvoir had been on cranes, power shovels, graders, and other large construction equipment. I was to learn that missile battalions had power generators, frequency converters, compressors, underground elevators, all of which were considered engineer equipment.

Although I had no experience on the electrical part of myjob, I was a pretty good mechanic from civilian experience. Assigned to Headquarters Battery, 505th AAA Missile Battalion, I found myself in battalion level maintenance under two fine people. SFC Jay F. Sullivan was my immediate superivsor and really did a lot in helping me develop on the job. CWO William H. Russell was the battalion motor officer and also supervised Sergeant Sullivan and I. On the surface Mr. Russell was gruff, but underneath he was a fine, good person. After I had been there a year or so he had me running errands and doing other things for him. He retired on April 30, 1957, with 30 years of service.

Battalion Headquarters and the Headquarters Battery Orderly Room were in a large brick building next to the parade ground. think this building is used as Ranger headquarters now and called Building #1. Behind the headquarters building were wooden structures (gone now) that housed the dispensary, dental clinic, and two barracks. Apparently all of the wooden buildings had once been a hospital since they had interconnecting corridors (including a corridor to Battalion Headquarters) and other hospital-like features. My barracks were parallel to and adjacent to the Post Chapel.

My first work station was in a brick building across the road near the Coast Guard Station. Ultimately we moved into what we were told was an old balloon hanger in the tactical area. This building was near the civilian road leading to Breezy Point and no longer existed in April, 1987. With the furor over asbestos today, I remember this building as a metal structure with all of the inside coated with asbestos, or what looked life sprayed-on asbestos material.

The 505th AAA Missile Battalion then shared Fort Tilden with part of the 737th AAA Gun (90mm) Battalion. One line battery, Headquarters Battery, and Battalion headquarters of the 737th were on post. Another battery was located near the end of Riis parking lot on the road toward Rockaway. If my memory serves correctly, another line battery was near Floyd Bennett Field. There was a little friendly rivalry between our units, but we had missiles and, at least in our minds, felt a little superior.

Fort Tilden had a small town atmosphere as compared to larger installations. One thing I remember is the phone system which consisted of an operator, three digit numbers, and dial-less telephones. The operator knew her system and most of the time all one had to ask for was the unit or office rather than the number. She did a real good job.

The post office was a different matter. The lady who ran it obviously did not like military people. There was a civilian side and a military side to the facility since it straddled the fence almost directly across.from the Coast Guard Station. One day I went in to buy a money order and watched and listened to her chit-chat with a friend on the civilian side for what seemed to be 10-15 minutes. Trying to get her attention by clearing my throat, shuffling my feet, and other means, yielded no results. Finally, her meaningless conversation ended, she turned and before I could say anything slammed the window shut, saying, "we're closed."

All of the 505th AAA Missile Battalion was on Fort Tilden in April of 1955 when I arrived. I don't remember which batteries were on temporary sites except "C" Battery which later moved to a permanent site at Lido Beach. Ultimately, other Nike-Ajax-equipped batteries of the 505th were relocated to sites at Amityville and Northport, Long Island. These were later moves and my memory is a little clouded on when they occurred.

As a battalion-level maintenance person I had a lot of responsibility as well as latitude concerning when and where (short of emergency repairs) I went. Often I would go to the Engineer Field Maintenance unit at Fort Wadsworth for parts, repairs, etc. On a few occasions when we were in dire need of a part and they were out of it, I would be sent to the commercial source, usually in Brooklyn or Queens.

Sometimes I would be dispatched to other military posts for various reasons. I remember going to Fort Hamilton, Fort Totten, Miller Field (on Staten Island), and Belle Meade General Depot in New Jersey.

While most of my memories of Fort Tilden are positive, I can not remember much of anything good about the food. Somehow Headquarters Battery never could procure a mess sergeant with enough imagination to make the issued rations palatable. On the other hand, "C" Battery at Lido Beach had a good mess sergeant who not only prepared good food but improved the interior decor of his mess hall. He had the ability and push to go to the extra mile and I always tried to schedule maintenance duties at "C" Battery around the noon meal hour. One big advantage he had.was that he drew rations from Mitchell Air Force Base and they were far more generous than Army sources.

Quite often military and civil service personnel did not get along very well, however, I developed some good relationships with the Engineer Field maintenance personnel from Fort Wadsworth. I've long since forgotten their names, but the field technicians, or mechanics were real good. They never hesitated to answer my questions, show me how to repair something, or to explain the operation of a piece of equipment. I was able to develop into a more skilled technician because of them.

Realizing that I was limited to mechanical repairs on the engineer equipment I was responsible for, I left Fort Tilden in January of 1956 for a temporary stint at Fort Gordon, GA. There, I spent 10 weeks in a generator repair course and returned in April with a much greater knowledge of the electrical aspects of my job. Also, the rat-race of that large, sprawling installation made me appreciate Fort Tilden all the more.

I do not know much of the 505th history but will relate what I can. Our battalion crest had an arrow, circles, the words "Super Omnes," and a red background. The red was to denote the color for artillery, Super Omnes is Latin for "above all," the arrow indicated an anti-aircraft mission, and the circles denoted (I think) map symbols for airfields. The unit was supposed to have seen action defending airfields in the South Pacific during World War II. I seem to recall Sergeant Sullivan saying that before the 505th was activated at Fort Tilden he was stationed there with the 259th Gun Battalion.

Fort Tilden is located on an ocean-front sand bar and the combination of sand and damp salt air made maintenance on some equipment very difficult. The power generating equipment that was exposed to the elements had many malfunctions directly related to the atmospheric and topographical conditions. I was called out many nights and weekends for repairs that would not have been required under better circumstances.

Also, contributing to the problem was the Army's purchase of some cheaper brands of equipment instead of staying with the time-tested brands used by gun battalions for years. Eventually the cheaper units were replaced by the older, but better equipment, and we had fewer maintenance headaches.

The tactical area, as we called it, was everything west of what is now Hero Road. That was where the launch sites, missile assembly building, fueling area, generator buildings, motor pool, Battery Harris, and a variety of other buildings and bunkers, etc., were located. Most of my time was spent in this area, although at one time one of the line batteries had a generator shack on the beach near Riis Park.

There were miles of communication wires strung all over the area and one had to watch where he drove or walked. As the line batteries left Fort Tilden for their permanent sites, the need for most all temporary lines and facilities diminished.

Getting sick at Fort Tilden could be a problem since there was only a dispensary. One time I became quite ill and did not respond to the routine APC (we called it All Purpose Cure) treatment. After a few days I was transported to the infirmary at Fort Hamilton. Not responding to an additional three days of care, I was sent to Fort Jay, Governor Island, a regular Army Hospital. I quickly responded to their treatment and was back to work in what seemed like just a few days.

Early in 1957 there were rumblings of reorganization of the 505th unit. Headquarters Battery, Battalion Maintenance,Personnel, and other battalion-level functions were to be transferred to group level (23rd AAA Group) at Fort Totten. Also, a selection process was initiated to pick personnel from the New York Air Defense Sector co help in summer missile training at West Point. As a selectee, I spent from June through August at West Point, returning to find most of the reorganization complete.

Sergeant Sullivan had been transferred to Fort Totten while, along with others, I had been reassigned to a line battery on Fort Tilden. Life there was not as pleasant as it had been in Headquarters Battery, hence, my decision not to reenlist when my time was up in September.

Another unit located on Fort Tilden was the 503rd Signal Detachment. They operated and maintained radar units atop Battery Harris where I'd occasionally be called to repair their generators). I seem to recall that they were administratively attached to the 737th but spent a lot of time in our barracks. It seems the "old school" 737th First Sergeant did not believe anyone should be sleeping in the barracks during the day, regardless of his duties. The 503rd people worked around the clock, but working all night was not excuse enough to be sleeping in "his" barracks during the day.

In the battalion headquaters building there was an AntiAircraft Operations Center (AAOC). I rarely mingled with their personnel,hence, did not know much about their duties or mission. The center was manned by members of both the 505th and the 737th, if I remember correctly.

Because of its size, Fort Tilden depended on other military installations for support services. Laundry, for example, went to Brooklyn Army Base, while field maintenance of vehicles was done at Fort Totten. The commissary was located at Fort Hamilton for married personnel, and the nearest military exchange gasoline station was just across the Marine Parkway Bridge at Floyd Bennett Naval Air Station. Most other support services were mentioned earlier, while others existed of which I was not aware.

The civilian community around Fort Tilden was fairly tolerant of soldiers and I experienced very little of the civilian-military friction found around many installations. Perhaps it was because our numbers were relatively small and we seldom wore uniforms off post. The New York Police were especially tolerant of us when we drove military vehicles. Trucks, even pickups, were banned from most parkways and the police overlooked many of these infractions. Possibly it was because they realized we were mostly out-of-towners and would have great diffiuclty finding our way through the maze of city streets.

Many of my off-duty hours were spent working part time in the Park Theater on 116th Street in Rockaway. The business was owned by a Mr. Jack Rochelle and I worked for him for what seemed like a long time. The building still existed in April of 1987, but it obviously had not been a theater for sorie time and was boarded up. Most of 116th Street had deteriorated since 1957, and not much was recognizable.

Fort Tilden was operated, to some extent, by the First Army. The Post Commander, Engineers, Military Police, etc. were responsible for housekeeping, security and other support functions. The 505th, however, was the largest organization and our operations overshadowed others. Our batallion commander seemed to "pull more weight" than the Post Commander although they were both Lieutenant Colonels. The Post Commander lived in a large house behind battalion headquarters.

Leisure time activities were real good at Fort Tilden. In the summer the beach was available to military personnel and wasn't crowded like the other beaches. Theater tickets were available for everything from Radio City Music Hall to Off-Broadway productions. All one had to do was walk out the gate, take the bus to the Flatbush subway terminus in Brooklyn, get on the subway and go into Manhattan. The USO at Times Square distributed the tickets on a first-come-first-serve basis.

At that time the Dodgers were in Brooklyn and the Giants and Yankees in New York. Military personnel in uniform were admitted free to all baseball games. Although I am not a baseball fan, a friend once asked me to go, and we saw the Giants and Dodgers play at the old Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.

There were many good people stationed at "The Fort", as it was called by local civilians, when I was there. At one time there were three lawyers in the 505th who chose to serve in the enlisted ranks since accepting a commission would have added a year to their active duty time. Many other draftee college graduates were assigned to the battalion offices of personnel, intelligence, training, supply, and others. Also, there were many capable career personnel as well as other first-termers (enlistees and draftees) assigned to the 505th.

Lieutenant Colonel Matthew E. Chotas was the battalion commander most of the time I was there. A Major Gause was the Executive Officer, and I remember both of these men as very people-oriented leaders. I feel they kept in check some of the real gung-ho spit-and-polish officers and NCO's who would have otherwise tried to turn missile technicians into combat-ready infantry soldiers. Many of the older NCO's and younger officers, especially recent OCS graduates, could not understand that highly-trained and skilled soldier-technicians are motivated differently than persons with lesser skills and abilities.

In summary, my years at Fort Tilden were generally rewarding. I came a Private and was discharged a Sergeant. I came with little hands-on electrical experience and left with additional knowlede in that area. I came very young with very little world-of-work experience and left, still young, but with a lot more preparation for the life I was to lead.

Because of Fort Tilden's smallness, a person was more of an individual and job-development was stressed more than rock painting and other typical army busy work. Many of the old soldiers would say that duty at Fort Tilden was not like the real army - it was too easy.

LIFE AFTER FORT TILDEN

Subsequent to my army discharge on September 20, 1957, I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. I was sent to Patrick Air Force Base (worked at nearby Cape Canaveral), Florida where I worked on the BOMARC Interceptor Missile research and development program. After a year the program was transferred to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida where I remained 3 and1/2 years.

Returning to Cape Canaveral I was assigned to the Titan II ICBM research and development program. My last three years in the Air Force were spent assigned to the Gemini space program. Retired for disability in March of 1967 after nearly 12 and 1/2 years of active military duty, I worked three years on the Apollo moon program for General Electric, a NASA contractor.

Eventually through attendance at night school I earned a couple of degrees, left the rat-race of Florida, and settled into a high school teaching position in rural, relatively peaceful, tranquil Middle Tennessee. Along the way I got married, had five children, all of whom have college degrees or are presently in college. Their degrees are, or will be, in Bio-Medical, Interior Design, Psychology, Civil Engineering, and Data Processing.

It is hoped this work will contribute something to the history of Fort Tilden. Perhaps it will bring back memories to some who served there. Hopefully, it will challenge others to contribute something to the history of this small, but once-important military installation.
Follow-up questions:
August 22, 2000

Thanks for your response. I'll try to answer your questions as best an old soldier can remember. I have no objections to adding my name/email address as I'd love to hear from some other old troops ( heydad@waverly.net ). My answers are keyed to the numbers of your questions.

Q1. Where were the 90mm guns emplaced at Ft Tilden?

A1: I remember the 737th had an on-post battery behind the post theater, but do not remember any others on post. It was quite common for a loud voice right in the middle of an exciting movie to announce an alert for Battery D ( I think) and they would all get up and leave. I still seem to remember the 737th Battery within 100-200 yards of the theater.

Q2. Were there temporary Nike launcher sites at Fort Tilden prior to the construction of the underground magazines?

A2: There were temporary Nike launch sites for C Battery and another battery (possibly A Battery), however, this was after construction of the underground sites. When I arrived in the spring of 1955 the underground sites were complete and occupied by B and maybe D batteries. The temporary nike sites did have their own generators, radar, and IFC. One of the batteries (C, I think) was located as follows: Upon entering the tactical area turn right at the first road or thereabouts. Then the road makes a sharp left turn, ultimately leading past the balloon hangar area, etc. The battery was located on the right at that left turn. I well remember servicing generators there. Another temp site was near the center of the tactical area. Proceeding down the tactical area entrance road it was on the left.

Q3. Was a radar antenna mounted on the top of both casemates of Battery Harris (part of the 503rd Sig Det)?

A3: I remember the Typsy radar antenna atop Battery Harris operated and maintained by the 503rd. Their generator was at the base of of the battery. Although I was an Engineer Equipment Mechanic and their generator was a Signal Corps unit, often I would service and repair it. The 503rd had 3-4 enlisted personnel and a warrant officer.

Q4. Was a generator or a radar van positioned in the hallway of the west casemate of Battery Harris?

A4: I always had the impression that the 503rd people worked at the top of Battery Harris. Now that you have tweaked my memory a bit, I seem to remember a van at the base of and near or in the battery entrance. The 503rd people were real nice.

Q5. What was stored in the balloon hanger along the road to Rockaway?

A5: Shortly after my arrival, the 505th battalion motor pool was moved from a building across the road and next to the Coast Guard station to that building, and was still being used as such when I left in Sept 1957. This building was close to the fence, however, there were what looked like at least one large building foundation and concrete floor just east of this building that was used to park vehicles. We were told the motor pool building and parking area had been balloon hangars. The motor pool building was gone when I was there in 1987. The old motor pool building had a sprayed-on coating of asbestos on the interior walls for insulation. That probably hastened its demise in the asbestos era.

Q6. Where was the 737th AAA 90mm gun battery located "near the end of the Riis parking lot"? Was it always manned and did it have a fence and security?

A6: I vaguely remember a 737th gun battery about where the road split. The left fork went along the bay and the other through a residential area to 116th street. I think it was fenced and guarded.

Q7. Before the other batteries of the 505th moved to Lido Beach, Amityville, and Northport, where were their launchers and radar located?

A7: I don't remember specific locations, but they were in the tactical area. We had a lot of extra maintenance on the equipment exposed to sand and the humid salt air. It was C Battery that moved to Lido Beach, but I don't remember which batteries went to Northport and Amityville. B Battery stayed at Fort Tilden.

Q8. Were any units at the current Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge at Cross Bay Blvd near Broad Channel (in the middle of Jamaica Bay)?

A8: I don't remember any, although it was not uncommon to see gun batteries around the area. I think the 737th had a battery near Floyd Bennett Field.

Q9. Were any of the bunkers used for any purpose during your time there?

A9: There was a bunker in use near the motor pool, but I don't remember what was stored there. Being in Battalion Engineer Equipment Maintenance I didn't have much to do with exotic fuels/propellants, ammunition, warheads, etc.

Q10. Do you recall any Navy personnel or operations on the post? Two bunkers were leased to the US Navy during the 1950's and 1960's, but we don't know what they were doing on the Army post?

Q10: I don't remember seeing any Navy personnel on post during my tenure. It is quite likely they stored ordnance items in support of the fighter aircraft stationed at Floyd Bennett.

It is unfortunate that my old friend, Jay "Sully" Sullivan died a few years ago. He was a Fort Tilden fixture from about 1952-57 and served in both guns and missiles. I found him a few years ago retired in Maine and was able to visit one weekend. His daughter recently contacted me and I wrote her of my fond memories of him. Ultimately I would like to place some more information about him on your site. Hope this helps - let me know if you need anything else.

Click here to contact the author at: heydad@waverly.net

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