Editor's note: This article was written by a Townsquare Media Northern New England contributor and may contain the individual's views, opinions or personal experiences.

If you've ever been to Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth or to Peaks Island, you've seen the remnants of gun batteries and lookout towers. These were used in WW1 and especially in WW2 to protect Portland Harbor. You may think that World War II was fought far away from Maine, so you may be surprised by how close those nasty Nazis really got.


How Busy Was Portland Harbor in World War II?

The harbor was a hotbed of activity! The South Portland shipyards built over 235 Liberty ships between 1941 and 1945. That's around 5 ships a MONTH. Thousands of Navy men were trained on Casco Bay Islands, and the harbor was an important refueling spot. Portland Harbor was the most important harbor on the East Coast because it was the closest to Europe. It was to be protected at all costs.

How Was Portland Harbor Protected?

Once the war started, Portland Harbor was covered in explosive mines to take care of any German submarines that got too close.

The islands were busy too. Peaks Island alone has over 55 military structures, including Battery Steele. The 16-inch guns at Battery Steele were so loud and powerful that when they went off, all the windows on the island would shatter!

Fort Williams had several gun batteries and lookout towers. It's a great spot to bring the kids today, as they can climb around what's left of these important structures that defended our beloved Casco Bay.

How Close Did the Germans Get go Portland?

Closer than you think. We think of the battles being far away, but there were German U-boats REALLY close to Portland. In fact, in April of 1945, the USS Eagle exploded just three miles off the coast of Cape Elizabeth, killing 49 and injuring about a dozen. For 50 years the Navy claimed that a boiler explosion had caused the incident. Years later, the real cause came out...a torpedo from a German U-Boat! Just 3 miles away.

Listen to this amazing story of a man who was on that ship and lived to tell the tale. Freedom isn't free!

In addition to the USS Eagle, a US Navy blimp over Maine was shot down during the war. The K-14 sub-chaser blimp went down in Southwest Harbor. It was found riddled with bullet holes, but the Navy to this day blames the crash on pilot error. Many believe it was a Nazi submarine that shot down the blimp!

National Archives
National Archives

Were There German Spies in Maine?

I've heard stories over the years of German subs going up the Presumpscot, but I can't find anything that confirms that. You can be sure though, that there were Nazi spies in Maine and New England. We know of two that were dropped off by a German submarine in Bar Harbor. They were later found in New York City.

When the Germans surrendered in May of 1945, four German U-boats that had been in the Gulf of Maine surrendered at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Close indeed!

Check out this cool video of the batteries of Fort Williams.

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