‘Atomic Annie’ finds resting place on base

  • Published
  • By Sheila Rupp
  • 377th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Next to the former National Atomic Museum, sits a piece of history. Kirtland is home to one of eight surviving atomic cannons that the Department of Defense tested in the 1950s.

Nicknamed Atomic Annie, the atomic cannon was a 280 mm cannon capable of firing nuclear warheads. In total, 20 atomic cannons were produced, each weighing over 83 tons, with cannon and carriage, and more than 80 feet in length. The first went into service in 1952. They were the largest pieces of mobile artillery ever built and according to the National Nuclear Security Administration, each cost $800,000. Crews could set the cannon up and be ready to fire in less than 15 minutes, but the atomic cannons were never used in nuclear warfare.

During May 1953, the DOD held a series of weapons tests at the Nevada Test Site called Operation Upshot-Knothole. More than 20,000 DOD personnel participated in the tests and in total there were 11 detonations, including air drops, tower shots and probably most importantly, one nuclear warhead fired from the cannon.

At 8:30 a.m. on May 25, 1953, the atomic cannon fired a MK-9 artillery shell as part of the Grable Test. The shell was projected seven miles and detonated more than 500 feet above an area known as Frenchman Flat. The shell exploded with a yield of 15 kilotons and was the first and last nuclear device to ever be fired from a cannon.

The Army deployed the atomic cannons to Europe, but they never fired a nuclear warhead again. The cannons were difficult to maneuver and because of its weight, it could only be driven on normal roadways or packed ground. The tractor carriages that transported the cannons were driven much like those of a fire tiller truck; the drivers communicated using a telephone system.

Jim Michalko served as a crew member of one of the cannons in Germany in 1955. "They couldn't turn well and the streets of Germany were narrow so we had a hard time moving it around," Mr. Michalko said. He said he remembers that several buildings were destroyed at one point when the cannon had no where else to go.

The atomic cannons were deactivated from service in 1963. The Atomic Annie cannons had become obsolete due to the weight of the equipment, the difficulty of moving the cannon and the development of smaller calibers of artillery.

Of the 20 atomic cannons constructed, eight remain today. The one residing here will eventually be moved to the site of the new National Atomic Museum on Eubank Boulevard, which is soon to be renamed the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.

(Information for this story obtained from the National Nuclear Security Administration and GlobalSecurity.org.)