Atop a small hill outside of Junction City and Ft. Riley, Kansas, sits a piece of American atomic oddity. The now quietly rusting cannon represents a strange period of the Atomic Era, a time in the early 1950s before nuclear missiles when bombers and artillery still reigned supreme instruments of strategic battle.
My fascination with the Atomic Era certainly stems from growing up in the tail end of the Cold War. Although the Berlin Wall fell when I was barely 9 years old, I still clearly remember the Reaganite years of nuclear paranoia, stoked by tv movies such as “The Day After”, Star-Wars missile defense, and the ever-present shadow of Soviet nuclear domination raining from the sky. Media such as the video game series Fallout captured this feeling accurately while playing on the irrational fears as parody. Come of think of it, the Fallout series is likely what stemmed my interest in the nuclear nonproliferation career field. At any rate, when I learned my cross-country trip would take me near one of the last remaining nuclear cannons, I had to visit. The M65 Atomic Cannon was designed in 1950s and fielded for trials in 1953. “Atomic Annie” as it was nicknamed was designed to fire 280mm heavy artillery shells, both HE (high-explosive) and the W9 atomic warhead. The W9 was a gun-type device producing ~15 kilotons of force, about the same as the Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima, crammed into a package 11 inches (280 mm) in diameter, 55 inches (138 cm) long. The shells weighed in at 850 pounds (364 kg).
Atomic Annie was tested in 1953 during the Upshot-Knothole series. You’ve likely seen the famous photo or video from the cannon’s tests known as shot Grable. Following successful testing, 20 atomic cannons were ordered from Watervliet and Watertown Arsenals, and atomic artillery battalions were stood-up in Europe. Five such battalions were assigned to USAREUR in 1953 and 1954. A battery consisted of 3 guns, with 3 batteries to a battalion. Remember that at the time the main Cold War fears was massive divisions of Soviet armor streaming into Western Europe through the Fulda Gap. Nuclear weapons were deemed necessary to stop the sheer numbers of Soviet tanks, due to NATO’s disparity in armored vehicles and troop numbers. At the time it was believed that irradiating the passes would slow the Soviet advance. Thankfully the Soviets did not invade, and technology quickly outpaced the cannon, making it useless in just a few years. By 1957 the W9 artillery shell was retired, being recycled into the T-4 semi-portable atomic demolitions munition (the first “backpack bombs” designed for destroying bridges).
Today a small trail winds past relics of times gone by. Outdated field guns and APCs litter the hill, sitting in overgrown grass, never again to threaten anyone. The M65’s barrel can be seen as one ascends the trail, walking underneath the monster’s snout before finally reaching the top.