ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. – The 946-acre island in the middle of the Mississippi River is home to many sights and scenes that tell the story of the Army’s resilience, sustainability and manufacturing power. Perhaps one of the most notable of these is the gun display at Memorial Field here, but few guns on display capture as much awe as the M65 Atomic Cannon on display.
On April 18, ASC historians had the honor of hosting Marine Pfc. Bill Wieberg (1956 – 1958), a machine gunner, who was stationed on Okinawa following the Korean War. He was joined by his son, Ken Wieberg, and friend, Joe Ammann. The group toured Memorial Field and got a peek at the RIA archives, reliving a large cross-section of Wieberg’s history.
“I’m flabbergasted with the variety of artillery on display as well as all the great archival documentation,” Wieberg said.
Wieberg is one of the few remaining individuals with us today who can recall the monolithic atomic cannon firing. It was no surprise that the bulk of his visit was spent standing in the shadow of the titan at Memorial Field and combing over drawings and technical data in the archives.
Amid the excitement, Wieberg recalled “We had yellow alerts and red alerts all the time,” highlighting the strategic importance of Okinawa. “We got so used to it that you’d see people being served sandwiches while aiming their guns at the runway,” he said, chuckling.
Wieberg described the blast that the gun fired over the South China Sea as “incredible,” launching the projectile some 30 miles before bursting just over the surface of the water. “They yelled at us to ‘get down and cover your ears!’,” Wieberg said. “There were plenty of guys who didn’t, and they weren’t hearing anything for at least a day or two after.”
Moving the system into position to fire was a feat. The effort required two large semi-trailer trucks in coordination to navigate the weapon to its designated firing space. In Okinawa’s Kadena Circle, Wieberg described the effort as “extra”, recalling that “the Army would have to remove all of the road signs around the circle, drive the weapon through, then put all of the signs back.”
Wieberg enlisted in the Marines at age 17. His father had served in the Marine Corps in the 1930s and then as a Civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in the 1940s. He recalled the significance of service and how it prepared him to do “whatever [he] wanted.” He was stationed in Okinawa in 1958 with the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division where he was co-located with Army artillery elements.
“Atomic Annie,” as the gun is called, was deployed with Army forces in Europe and Asia from 1953 to 1959 as part of the American deterrence strategy. These massive 280 mm guns could fire an atomic projectile of up to 20 kilotons up to 10 miles away or more depending on elevation. It was a different time amid rising Cold War tensions.
The M65 guns that were on Okinawa were assigned to the 663rd Field Artillery Battalion. Three batteries of two guns each were present there during the peak of their deployment. Most emplacements required special consideration due to the almost 50 tons of weight plus the recoil of the gun.
By 1959, the system was replaced by smaller and more maneuverable devices, such as the M115 203 mm Howitzer and M28/29 Recoilless Rifle. Of the 20 guns produced from 1951 to 1953, only eight remain at other U.S. military installations.
The only atomic shell ever fired from one of these guns was the “Grable” shot, part of Upshot-Knothole in May 1952. The resulting blast produced was 15 kilotons, approximately the same as the bomb that fell on Hiroshima in 1945. But despite its terrifying capabilities, the weapon was never fired in anger and generally stuck to conventional rounds for training, such as the shot that Wieberg was able to witness.
Kadena Air Base and the larger military facilities on Okinawa served as a strategic site for the U.S. through the Cold War and extended the reach of American forces throughout the entire West Pacific. Much of the island’s functions were transferred from the infamous Tinian Island following the close of World War II. All branches of the U.S. Armed Forces have all called Okinawa a home base since.
“I wouldn’t trade the Marines for anything,” Wieberg said. “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”