By 1963, the United States nuclear arsenal contained twenty M65 280mm atomic cannons.
Deployed to Western Europe and Korea during the Cold War, the largest cannon built by the American military was designed for long range delivery of conventional and atomic warheads plus mobility. It’s antecedent was a Krupp K5 railway cannon, developed by the Germans during World War II and deployed in the mountains over Anzio, Italy. The Germans mounted two of these guns on rail cars, then hid them inside tunnels after firing to evade Allied spotters. The soldiers under fire on the Anzio beach named these guns “Anzio Annie.” This mobile, long range fire power delayed the Allied invasion of Italy by six months. Their effectiveness left a lasting impression of the US military command.
The Krupp design made its way to the US after World War II. The development of the atomic cannon is a dead end on the evolutionary line of tactical nuclear weapon research. Mounted on two 375 horsepower tractors, the M65 could deliver a conventional or nuclear warhead to a target at thirteen miles.
Her mobility allowed “Atomic Annie” to make a debut appearance at President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inaugural parade on January 20, 1953. She rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue like some shy, eighty-foot long, olive drab debutante. Annie was not a cheap date. Each of these guns cost $700,000 in 1953, roughly $6,000,000 in today’s dollars.
Code name for the gun’s sole firing during Operation Upshot Knothole was the Grable shot. Annie belched an atomic shell seven miles over the Frenchman’s Flat range at the Nevada Test Site on May 25, 1953. It erupted in a fireball documented in an official film since declassified.
Now, sixty year old Annie is just a museum piece in some locales, a roadside attraction in others. There are eight of these guns on display across the United States. The above gun sits outside the Yuma Proving Ground, an ordnance range in Yuma, Arizona. It seems like a nice place to retire.
This Atomic Annie cowers in the yard at the Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Yellow caution tape hangs like the tattered sash on a distant runner-up in a backyard beauty pageant. The gun awaits a makeover in the museum’s Heritage Park section. A 1958 visit to Korea predated her eventual retirement from active duty five years later.
The other weapons on display in this fenced yard are a mean bunch. They loom like bigger, prettier and more deadly playground bullies waiting to pick a fight. Squat, ugly thermonuclear devices brag about their destructive power.
Mothballed missile systems, jilted by Uncle Sam for younger, sleeker models, stick up their noses at the flightless, sixty-year old cannon. The M65 may have been the largest piece of mobile artillery created by the US military, yet the power and fury of the other weapons in the yard humbles Atomic Annie.
Still, this retired gun exhibits a quiet pride. She points her barrel toward the museum’s gift shop.
There, visitors can see her “model” grand kids – maybe even take one home, for a few spare bucks.
JUNCTION CITY, KS
The Atomic Annie in Junction City, Kansas sits across the Interstate from Fort Riley, on the top of the hill in Freedom Park. A random display of artillery pieces line the park’s switchback path up to the imposing weapon.
The path itself looks more dangerous than the plugged guns on display.
Dwight D. Eisenhower designed the Interstate Highway system with rapid military deployment in mind. Annie commands a vital east-west stretch from her high vantage point. A shell is fused to her limber, a reminder that this old girl still has teeth, even if most of them are missing.
Visitors ask the sleeping old beauty the same question when they finally reach the summit – “How did you get up here?”
She just naps unmindful of the power and beauty of her strategic position across from Fort Riley.