Army in Montauk: For Third Time in 125 Years, a Unit Helps Save the Day

Montauk Dune Project
Photo: Richard Lewin

The U.S. Army is in downtown Montauk this week, overseeing the start of an enormous $9 million Army Corps of Engineers project to build a 15-foot-high re-enforced sand dune along the back of the beach for a half-mile from the Montauk IGA to the Atlantic Terrace Motel. Trucks, heavy equipment and huge quantities of sand and sandbags are now in the Kirk Park Parking Lot, which will be the supply depot for the work as needed. The work should be done by the end of January or mid-February.

This is the third time that the U.S. Army has deployed units in Montauk.

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The first time was in August of 1898. At that time, 36,000 men from the U.S. Army came to Montauk aboard troop ships at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, which the Americans had fought and won in Cuba during the prior three months.

The Army, all volunteer, had previously been up in the mountains of Cuba overlooking Santiago, where down below beaten Spanish generals and other government officials were working out the surrender to the Americans. Cuban people would be free of the Spanish yoke. They would be able to form their own government under the protection of the United States.

Many soldiers in the American army units in the mountains, however, were suffering from a wide variety of tropical diseases, such as malaria, typhoid and Yellow Fever, some of which could cause a plague in America when the troops came back to their homes.

There were no effective medicines against tropical diseases back then. Obviously, the men needed to withdraw from Cuba. And so it was decided, by order of President McKinley, that troopships should carry them to a particular windswept, sparsely inhabited peninsula called Montauk sticking out into the Atlantic where, with the fresh ocean breezes, the army could encamp, and, in time, recover or succumb.

There were no paved roads leading to Montauk then. But as it happened, a few years earlier a railroad line had been constructed connecting Montauk to Manhattan. Nurses, doctors and medicines could be brought out to tend the sick aboard special trains.

The troop ships began arriving in Montauk at a dock sticking out into Fort Pond Bay. Members of the press were brought out from the city for the occasion. Aboard one troopship were Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, heroes of the war.

From the railing, as the ship arrived, Roosevelt shouted down to the reporters, “I am feeling disgracefully well…I feel positively ashamed of my appearance when I see how badly off some of my brave fellows are—oh, but we had a bully fight.” Soon, not only the soldiers, but also their horses and cannons were brought ashore.

For the next two months, over 5,000 white tents dotted the landscape between what is now downtown Montauk and the Montauk Lighthouse, home to both the healthy and sick. The healthy, carrying regimental flags, went on maneuvers on horseback through the hills. President McKinley visited the troops. As it turned out, most of the soldiers recovered, but 300 of the men died. In the end, all went home, mostly to parades and speeches from the proud citizens of American towns happy to have their boys back.

The next time the Army came was in 1941, at the start of World War II. For the entire duration of the war, an army encampment of several thousand men occupied 1,000 acres of land on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean just to the west of the Montauk Lighthouse. Inside this camp, Camp Hero, there were three enormous 16” guns, the same as the big guns on battleships, bolted down inside concrete bunkers and aimed out to sea. A shell from one of these guns could travel 23 miles. There were also anti-aircraft guns and machine gun nests in Montauk as well as lookout towers and concrete ammunition bunkers in the dunes at various places around town. No German invasion, which they were here to prevent, ever came.

Today, the U.S. Army is here in peacetime. And its U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is building this protection to keep the ocean from flooding Montauk during times of high tide and violent storms. Three years ago, seas did begin to breach the dunes. In that emergency, the fire department and highway departments were called in, and men driving bulldozers pushed the sand up where the breaches had begun to occur, to save the town. Later that year, it happened again.

Montauk Dune Project
Photo: Richard Lewin

After that, the Federal Government was called and asked to help. Tides are rising all over. U.S. Army experts confirmed help was needed urgently and this project was the result of that. And so, as of last week, they have come.

The Army Corps of Engineers was founded as a division of the U.S. Army in 1775. Since that time, whenever the country goes to war, units from the Army Corps of Engineers are nearby to build bridges, harbors and temporary landing strips to keep the military on the move. The Army Corps of Engineers was particularly praised for the work it did in 1944 for the Normandy Landings, building the docks and floating piers along the northern coast of France so our invading army, along with the British, could drive the Germans out of that country. This was done under heavy enemy fire. Also built under fire was the pontoon bridge at Remagen, which allowed for the first crossing of the Rhine by American soldiers into Germany to hasten the end of the war.

The Army Corps of Engineers is also called in to construct civilian projects along seafronts and waterfronts in peacetime. The Corps appears in both uniforms and civilian clothes. In 1993, after the ocean broke through the barrier island at Westhampton Beach, isolating 300 homeowners, the Army Corps of Engineers sank huge 30-foot-high corrugated steel plates vertically down into the seabed to stop the sea. With that accomplished, they pumped sand onto this steel, both on the ocean side and bay side, to permanently stabilize it. After that, the homeowners voted to create their own Village there, and it is there today as the Village of West Hampton Dunes.

For Montauk, the new project will be 15 feet tall, a half-mile long and be made of tens of thousands of sandbags placed in a chain for the entire half-mile distance. The underside of this sandbag chain will be below sea level to anchor the project. The rest, above the level of the beach, will be covered with between four and six feet of sand topped with beach grass. None of it is what is called a “hard structure,” which is illegal by town code. But it should stay in place for 50 years.

You can see what this is going to look like, because between the IGA and the Oceanside Beach Resort to the west, a naturally high dune blocks the town from the sea. To its east, the rest of this dune was torn away by the sea during the last 20 years, and this is what is being re-created artificially with the underground sandbag anchor.

Three elevated boardwalk walkways will lead over the new dune and down to the ocean beach on the other side. The pilings for these walkways are to be the first thing constructed. Midway along this new protective dune there will be an opening where you could walk straight through without having to go over the dune. This is between The Sloppy Tuna and the Royal Atlantic Beach Resort. Of course, when a storm surge threatens, the Town will come in to use bulldozers to seal up this passageway temporarily with sand that is being stored nearby for that purpose.

All in all, in spite of many local objections, it is a pleasure to see the downtown secured in this way.

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