Henry Osmers, author of "American Gibraltar: Montauk and the Wars...

Henry Osmers, author of "American Gibraltar: Montauk and the Wars of America," a new book about the history of the military in Montauk, stands near the radar tower at the Camp Hero State Park in Montauk. (Dec. 15, 2011) Credit: Gordon M. Grant

A childhood trip to the Montauk Point Lighthouse launched Henry Osmers' lifelong infatuation with the eastern tip of Long Island that resulted in him becoming the lighthouse museum historian and publishing four books, including a new one on the community's critical role in the nation's wars.

His latest research effort for "American Gibraltar: Montauk and the Wars of America," left Osmers, 62, of Shirley, "quite amazed that it encompasses military action all the way back to the Indian wars in the 1600s," he said.

Montauk's military importance continued through the Cold War era.

"You had Camp Wikoff during the Spanish-American War when Theodore Roosevelt was there," said Osmers, a former junior high schoolteacher with a master's degree in history from the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University. "In World War I you had a huge hangar out there for blimps and seaplanes flying in and out of Fort Pond. And in World War II the Army built Camp Hero." The Air Force took over the camp after the war to construct a radar installation.

Osmers' 134-page book is filled with historical photographs and excerpts of interviews he conducted with longtime residents and veterans.

Osmers' parents took him to the lighthouse when he was 7. "I was just mesmerized," he said. In 2001 he was hired as a museum tour guide but soon found himself frustrated by the paucity of historical information. He started combing through libraries and archives, and doing oral history interviews to find more information. In 2008, he self-published "On Eagle's Beak: A History of the Montauk Point Lighthouse." He followed it with two more books, one on life at the lighthouse in the 1930s and 40s, and the other on the wreck of the sailing ship John Milton in 1858.

"For the longest time I was intrigued by how much military presence there was at Montauk," Osmers said. So last year he started researching again for the book.

He learned that Montauk was the scene of much fighting in the wars between the Indian tribes on Long Island and those from New England before and after white settlers arrived in 1648.

During the American Revolution, Osmers writes, the British raided the South Fork for livestock, and in the spring of 1776 a naval battle took place off Montauk Point. One British warship, the 170-foot, 74-gun HMS Culloden, struck a reef in a blizzard on Jan. 23, 1781, and sank off what is now called Culloden Point on the north side of Montauk.

In the War of 1812, British ships again conducted raids for cattle.

During the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Navy established a signal station at the lighthouse to watch for enemy ships. The Army established Camp Wikoff as a quarantine station for Rough Riders, the volunteer cavalry regiment commanded by Theodore Roosevelt, and thousands of other troops that began returning to the United States in August 1898.

In World War I, the Navy built a base with an 85-foot-tall hangar to house dirigible airships used to search the waters for submarines.

During World War II, Camp Hero was established just west of the lighthouse. "To protect it from enemy attack, the base was disguised as a New England fishing village," Osmers writes. "The lighthouse was taken over by the Army and a radar tower was built to survey the area for German subs," Osmers said. The empty 65-foot-tall concrete structure is still there.

Because of the growing Cold War threat from the Soviet Union, the Air Force established a radar facility at Camp Hero in 1948. It lasted until 1981. It included an antenna erected atop an 80-foot-tall concrete structure that still stands in what is now Camp Hero State Park.

"The Montauk Peninsula was armed and was considered vital to the defense of the coastline," Osmers said.

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