Wednesday, November 19, 2008

As seen in Kansas: Atomic Cannon

If you drive far enough west of Kansas City on 1-70, you eventually come to a bend where the highway cuts south with Fort Riley on the west side and a steep Flint Hills bluff to the east side.

If you're paying attention to the scenery instead of the traffic, you may notice at the top of the bluff just as the highway makes a westward turn, a rather large looking cannon.

And, if you've got some extra time, if you're feeling adventurous, if you need to stretch your legs and if the weather is nice, you can pull off the highway into Freedom Park and find out just what the dealio is with that rather large looking cannon anyway.

When you park, you'll see a park shelter with some historical information and a plaque describing one of the few US Army atomic cannons still in existence. You'll also see the beginning of a switch back trail that leads up to the top of the bluff for a close-up view of this nuclear titan.

As you make your way up the switch backs (which are currently riddled with washouts so watch your step), you'll see an artillery piece rise up out of the prairie grass in front of you.

This isn't the Atomic Cannon. It's a rather run of the mill (though still impressive) M1 155 mm Howitzer. There's another one up the hill, aimed roughly in the direction of south Junction City. The WWII-era gun was used widely by the U.S. through the Vietnam war and is still in use by some countries.

Anyhoo, follow the trail a few hundred yards to the top of the bluff, brace yourself against the ubiquitous Kansas gale and catch your breath.

You have arrived.

The M65 Atomic Cannon, affectionately called "Atomic Annie" by the grunts back in the day, stands guard against the Flint Hills prairie chickens and hawks.

Standing next to the impressive weapon you get a sense of scale that you simply can't appreciate when you drive by at 80 mph on I-70 a couple hundred feet below.

The engineers behind this beast had some serious damage in mind when they came up with the idea of building a cannon that could fire a nuclear-tipped shell over 20 miles.

Yes, 20 miles. In it's current position, that puts the recently tornado ravaged hamlet of Chapman, Kan, well within range. Or, you could point the barrel in the opposite direction and lob a radio active round right into downtown Manhattan, though I don't know why anyone would want to do that.

The M65 was conceived and built to defend Europe from those evil Soviet devils back in a time when people used the word "atomic" rather than "nuclear" (or "nookyoular" for that matter).

It was the army's largest artillery gun, and the one at Ft. Riley is the largest of the twenty M65's made during the cold war. Only eight are still around. The one at Ft. Riley is on permanent loan from The Smithsonian.

Here are a few other fun facts about Atomic Annie:
  • At 47 tons, the gun was transported at a top speed of 35 mph by two tractors which brought the total weight to 83 tons. The army considered it "highly mobile" in comparison to the strategic atomic weapons of the day.
  • The drivers of the vehicles communicated with each other by means of a built-in telephone system.
  • The 11-inch projectile fired by the gun weighed in at 550 pounds.
  • The atomic cannon first went into service in 1952, and was deactivated in 1963.

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  1. That's pretty sweet. I've seen it there a few times from I70 but had no idea there was a park and trail.

    2 hours from nowhere is always a good place to stretch the legs anyway.

  2. how did they plan to get it within 20 miles of the target. or was it just in case we attacked chapman,ks, because that's what we always wanted to do. like 1)build communism in the world 2)take over chapman,ks

  3. m.v.,

    What? Thing moved at a blistering 35 mph. You just drive it up to the East German border and start shooting.

    Interestingly, it was too heavy to be airlifted, so I guess they had to drive it half way across Europe to target the Eastern Bloc.

  4. That cannon is one of six landmarks between KC and Denver on I-70. Thanks to you, Emaw, I can now regale my traveling companions with knowledge. They'll love me for it, I'm sure...

  5. In WW II the Germans had one bigger. It was mounted on train tracks and pulled by 2 locomotives. It took a crew of 20 to operate it.

    They used it to shell England from Germany.

  6. ok, I'm lost. A nuclear-atomic cannon that fires an atom bomb from20 miles away?

    DAH!!!! To close for comfort, wouldn't you say?

    I'm sorry, but I think anyone within 20 miles of a nuclear explosion is in serious jeopardy, ya think? and if they think they can escape the blast going 35mph, well, maybe they deserve to get blown to smithereens...

    Oh my. Note: my captcha word, looking below this box as I type this, is "gablast"!


  7. Wow. Shows you a direction that we could have gone in warfare. That's what's so interesting about history--not just what happened but what didn't happen. What decisions weren't made and what paths weren't followed. Should we have done such and such? I'd argue that if you kill a man, you should have to see 'em. Modern warfare is oftentimes a cop-out in that regard.

  8. HIB, Just wait until I write about another of the six landmarks: The Lion's Den Adult Bookstore near Abilene.

    Mainstream, I'm no military expert, but I believe the idea was that this was tactical nuclear weapon, as opposed to a strategic nook. So the yield would be much smaller and 20 miles would probably be a pretty safe distance.

    Still, I don't think I would want to be the unlucky grunt who had to jam a nuclear tipped projectile into the breach of that beast. Too many things could go wrong, you know? Not to mention handing nuclear explosives all day.

  9. A very special story, thank you.
    Positive mention of the Kansas Flint Hills always gets my attention.
    Hope your readers will stop by for a visit; a truly distinctive place!

    Dr. Bill ;-)

    Personal Blog:

    Our 22 county Flint Hills Tourism Coalition, Inc. promotes experiential tourism visits to the Kansas Flint Hills – the website is:

  10. "Or, you could point the barrel in the opposite direction and lob a radio active round right into downtown Manhattan, though I don't know why anyone would want to do that."

    Oh, I'm sure there might be a *few* people that could give you their good reasons why they would think that to be a good idea.

    Pulling off the main path to check things out along the way is a lost art. More people need to do it, I think...

  11. holy shit that is awesome.


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