Memories of the Target Ship of Cape Cod Bay

Feb 21, 2017

SS James Longstreet - also known as the Target Ship - as it appears on a vintage postcard.
Credit cardcow.com bit.ly/1Qa5M9i

At a recent dinner with old friends, someone brought up the topic of the “Target Ship.” For over a half a century, the target ship was a familiar and legendary sight in Cape Cod Bay for those of us who lived near the elbow of the Cape. 

The official name of the ship was the S.S. Longstreet. She was one of the so-called “Liberty Ships," or cargo vessels, built during World War II to carry supplies to the Allied troops. At the end of the conflict, this ship was towed out into Cape Cod Bay and deliberately grounded in some twenty feet of water to serve as a target for practice bombing runs by fighter planes from the Otis Air Force Base near the Cape Cod Canal.

For several decades the bombing, by both day and night, attracted crowds of local residents and summer visitors to the beaches of Brewster, Orleans, Eastham, and Wellfleet, where it provided free entertainment and vicarious excitement. When the bombing runs were ended for safety reasons in the early 1970s, the ship, which had unintentionally become an artificial reef for marine life, served as a popular fishing spot for both humans and seabirds.

In later years, as its metal plates fell away, the blackening hulk of the ship became more and more skeletal and ethereal in appearance, and a strange lush jungle of vegetation began to bloom and flow over its remaining superstructure, decks and sides, vegetation seeded and nurtured by the guano of several generations of gulls and cormorants. 

Eventually the remaining vestiges of its crumbling hull disappeared forever beneath the waves, and for thousands of local residents the blue horizon of the Bay was strangely empty the following summer. For many of us it was a loss not only of a piece of history, but also of a visible reminder of personal memories. Here’s just one of the stories told by one of our group:

“You know that forest of plants that was growing up there on the decks?” he said. “Well, some of them were - ‘funny plants.’”

“Funny plants? How so?”

“Well,” he continued, “this was about forty years ago. A friend of mine - he's quite a character -- called me up one evening and asked me to take him out to the target ship in my boat. This was in October. I asked him why and he said, 'Never mind, I just need to get out there.' So I took him out, and it was some cold out there, with a stiff breeze out of the northwest. He climbs up the side of the hull using the bomb holes, just like they did in that movie - what was it? - Waterworld. Yeah, he was a regular Kevin Costner. I used to be able to do that when I was in the service, but already I'd put on too much weight.

"Well, he goes up and I'm sitting there freezing my ass off and after a while he comes down and hands me some plants. They had points on them, y'know - funny plants - and I said, 'Oh, no you don't - I'm not getting caught with these on my boat!' And he says, 'C'mon man, there's supposed to be a frost tonight!'

"Can you believe that? Growing weed on U.S. Government property, in an officially restricted zone, no less! Oh yes, he's quite a character!"

As Robert Finch is taking some time off to work on a new book, we are replaying some of favorite of his essays. This one first aired in February, 2015.