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M65 Atomic Cannon

Faced with what many officers interpreted as a threat to the existence of their service, the Army undertook comprehensive, total and in retrospect often poorly executed effort to create an atomic-era military force. Both the need for institutional survival and Eisenhowers New Look policy drove the army towards creating the Atomic Field Army [ATFA] which would allow the army to stake its claim on the nuclear battlefield.

Determined to break the Air Forces monopoly and provide its own units with a nuclear capability, the Army rushed into production a massive 280-mm artillery piece. Amid great publicity, on May 25, 1953, Atomic Annie fired an 800-pound atomic warhead at a target over six miles away. Unfortunately, this great photo op was about as good as it got: the 280-mm gun soon proved to be all but unusable in any foreseeable combat scenario.

The "Atomic Cannon", the Army's largest artillery gun, was capable of firing both conventional and atomic warheads. This 47 ton gun (aka "Atomic Annie") was transported by two tractors. The drivers of the vehicles communicated with each other by means of a built-in telephone system. It proved to be a highly mobile weapons system and adaptable to most road conditions. It fired a 550 pound projectile and had an approximate range of 20 miles. Six years after the development of strategic atomic weapons, this road-transportable cannon gave a tactical atomic capability to US land forces.

The M65 was based on the design of the 280mm (about 11") German K5 Railroad Gun. Its design, and name, both derive from the German K5(E) railroad gun "Anzio Annie" deployed against the American landings in Italy in WWII. The M65 was transported between detachable front and rear transport tractors. The Japanese had made a strong impression when they employed 280mm howitzers against Port-Arthur during their war against Russia in 1904-5. The French and the Russians collaborated afterwards to develop a similar weapon.

Picatinny Arsenal received the mission to develop an artillery shell able to carry nuclear payload in 1949. Basically, this meant scaling a 240mm shell, the Army largest field artillery shell in World War II, up to 280mm. The project's entire design team was Robert Schwartz, who completed his preliminary sketches during a period of 15 days spent alone in a locked room at the Pentagon. He sharpened the details in another locked room at Picatinny. The Chief of Staff of the Army at the time, General J. Lawton Collins, thought enough of Schwartz's effort to cite him in his memoirs over a quarter of a century later.

The next problem was to sell the product to the Pentagon. This would not have happened if Samuel Feltman, chief of the Ballistics Section of the Ordnance Department's Research and Development Division, had not pushed the project to approval. This goes along way to explain why Picatinny has a research building named after Feltman. Then, Schwartz had to rush to procure equipment and assemble a staff to carry out the three-year development effort.

Dwight David Eisenhower took the oath of office on Tuesday, January 20, 1953. It was the most elaborate inaugural pageant ever held. About 22,000 service men and women and 5,000 civilians were in the parade, which included 50 state and organization floats costing $100,000. There were also 65 musical units, 350 horses, 3 elephants, an Alaskan dog team, and the 280-millimeter atomic cannon.

A single test shot was fired seven miles at the Nevada Test site at 8:30am, local time, on May 25, 1953. A 15-kiloton test fired from a 280-mm cannon at the Nevada Proving Grounds. Conducted at Frenchman's Flat, Nevada, the Atomic Cannon test was history's first atomic artillery shell fired from the Army's new 280-mm artillery gun. Operation Upshot-Knothole consisted of 11 atmospheric detonations, took place at the Nevada Test Site in 1953. There were three airdrops, seven tower shots and one warhead fired from an atomic cannon. An experiment in this testing was to determine the effects of a nuclear explosion on a B-50 aircraft. About 21,000 military personnel participated in Upshot-Knothole as part of the Desert Rock V exercise.

Views differ on Ike's nuclear threats in early 1953- for example, Maurice Matloff, in American Military History, who saw a general threat being offered to Moscow and Pyongyang, North Korea; Burton I. Kaufman, in The Korean War: Challenges in Crisis, Credibility, and Command, who saw no direct threat being made to China; and Timothy J. Botti, in Ace in the Hole: Why the United States Did Not Use Nuclear Weapons in the Cold War, 1945 to 1965, who saw increased Chinese flexibility at Panmunjom, North Korea, as being "probably influenced by rumors that the administration had let circulate around the Far East that the U.S. was stationing more atomic bombers in Okinawa." Others saw the stately and visible progress of an atomic cannon across the Pacific as a crucial influence.

The first atomic cannon went into service in 1952, and was deactivated in 1963. Throughout the 1950s, the Army deployed nuclear cannons to Europe even though they were obsolete as soon as they arrived. Guarded by infantry platoons, these guns were hauled around the forests on trucks to keep the Soviets from guessing their location. Weighing 83 tons, the cannon could not be airlifted and took two tractors to move its road-bound bulk. It was a glamorous weapon to be sure, but it did not fit into the Pentomic structure of the Army, and it siphoned off precious funding that the Army desperately needed for modernization.

In June 1995, a veteran testified at a personal hearing on service connection for hearing loss that he worked for three months on a nuclear or atomic cannon when he was in the service and they fired the cannon for three months, every working day and approximately three to four hours a day at five minute intervals. The veteran indicated that he was never given ear protection during service. He stated that he received medical treatment during service and was told that his hearing loss and tinnitus "would resolve themselves." The veteran further stated that he has had a "tremendous ringing in both of [his] ears" that "impairs [his] hearing" since service

Twenty were manufactured; eight appear to have survived the Cold War and are on public display today.

  • Army Ordnance Museum, Aberdeen, Maryland (still has the two large "prime movers" attached)
  • Atomic Museum, Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Fort Sill Museum, Oklahoma
  • Freedom Park, Junction City, Kansas
  • Rock Island Arsenal, Memorial Field, Rock Island, Illinois
  • Virginia War Memorial Museum, Newport News, Virginia
  • Watervliet Arsenal, Watervliet, NY -- where they were all manufactured.
  • Yuma Proving Ground, Yuma, Arizona

Weighing 85 tons, it required two tractors to move it and was so unwieldy that it could take an hour of careful maneuvering to get it under a bridge. Its instability and propensity to slide or tip when maneuvered on anything but firm and level ground earned it the nickname the Widow Maker. To complicate the Armys problems further, the gun was very unpopular among Europeans. Within 2 years it had been surpassed by other weapons, and was taken out of service within a decade.

There are arguments over the value of the atomic cannon, especially in regard to range, but General Collins believed the threat of its deployment had a role in bringing about the Korean armistice and did not doubt the presence in Europe "of our nuclear guns has contributed greatly as a deterrent to any offensive by the Soviets."