Saturday, January 23, 2016

Atomic Annie

The Geary County Convention and Visitors Bureau recently made a donation to the Historical Society of historic paperwork involving the creation of Freedom Park. The 202 acre park was built in the 1970s as a symbol of the peace keeping efforts of our military units at Fort Riley.
You never quite know what you are going to find when you start going through files.  These files held a real gem that shed some light on a unique military treasure that almost everyone in the area has seen at one point but very few know the history of: the atomic cannon.   
It was on October 14, 1975 in the dead of night that a railroad car pulled into Fort Riley. If anyone had seen the railroad car they would have been hard pressed to guess what was concealed underneath the tarp covering the load. The massive object hidden under the tarp was “Atomic Annie”, a M65 280mm Motorized Heavy Gun more commonly known as an “atomic cannon”.
Mystery surrounded the cannon due to antiwar sentiments of the time. Local officials were concerned that the cannon would be vandalized if word of its location got out.  In fact an article written by Bob Honeyman during the rehabilitation of the park states that Fort Riley “first denied the presence of the cannon on the military post after inquiries were made by The Daily Union.” Fort Riley eventually relented and allowed the press access to the area where the cannon was kept. It seems that their fears were founded as minor vandalism plagued the construction of the park and candle light vigils were staged by “Peacenick” students from Manhattan to show disapproval for the project.
It is interesting to note that the cannon overlooking Freedom Park was used as “a deterrent to conflict and was never fired in combat.”          
Atomic cannons were developed in 1950 for the U.S. Army in response to the Cold War. An online history of atomic cannons states that 20 of these guns were manufactured from 1951 to 1953 by the Dravo Corporation, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“Atomic Annie” is the largest “roadable” cannon in the world. It measures 42 feet in length and weighs in at 42,500 pounds.  During transport, the cannon was suspended between two trucks which could travel at 35 miles an hour. Once the gun arrived at its destination, it could be set up for firing in approximately 12 minutes, and returned to the traveling mode in approximately 15 minutes. An informational write up on the cannon states that it can shoot a projectile 11 inches in diameter over 20 miles, hitting within 20 feet of the target. 
The cannon placed at the summit of Freedom Park was in service from November 17, 1952 to August 1963. Press releases of the time note that when the Smithsonian placed the cannon on permanent loan to the Spirit of ’76 Inc. for display at Freedom Park, the cannon was one of only three such artillery pieces. When the M65 280mm Motorized Heavy Guns were decommissioned in 1963 most were scrapped.
The cannon was brought up the back of the hill with a moving rig using two cranes.  If anyone has information or photos of this feat please bring them by the museum so we can make copies to include them in our archives.  
Writer Bob Honeyman relates an amusing story concerning the placement of the cannon in one of his “bits of honey” articles. It involved the selection of the atomic cannon’s target. Many good natured suggestions were thrown out at the time including Manhattan, Ogden and Abilene as suitable targets. After much laughing and joking it ended up being aimed at the home of Jack Lacy. Jack was an ardent supporter and was instrumental in accomplishing the project.

Due to restrictions, you can no longer visit Freedom Park. But next time you travel I70 near Marshall Field look to the top of the hill and smile because now you know the history of “Atomic Annie”.