Every day onboard Naval Support Facility (NSF) Dahlgren, engineers and scientists work to refine the next generation of the naval combat systems vital for the nation's defense. On an installation as historic as Dahlgren, however, focusing on the future sometimes makes it easy to overlook icons of the past.
One such icon is on its way to Phoenix, Ariz. where it will assume a place of honor in a state with a name forever associated with Dec. 7, 1941.
For decades, the 14-inch/45-caliber Mark 12 gun number 41 that once called USS Arizona home lay forgotten near the gun line of the Potomac River Test Range (PRTR), the Navy's premier site for proof testing and calibration of naval guns. The 74-ton barrel, breach and yoke was not on the Arizona when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941; the gun was removed in 1938 for an upgrade and later saw extensive action onboard USS Nevada, which fired hundreds of 14-inch shells at D-Day and Operation Dragoon in southern France.
The latter battle, so often overshadowed by other operations in the European theater, included a duel with a formidable Nazi coastal defense battery known as "Big Willie." FCCM (SW) Steve Skelley recounted the action a 1995 article in the Dahlgren Bullet. According to Skelley, "Big Willie" missed a roughly 30,000 yard shot at USS Nevada by 500 yards. A return salvo from Nevada, the Free French battleship Lorraine and HMS Ramillies destroyed one of "Big Willie's" guns and most of the battery's range finding and targeting equipment.
After firing 244 shells, gun 41 was removed from the USS Nevada in 1944, relined and placed into storage. Naval guns of the era were designated by number, followed by the number of times the barrel was relined. Number 41 served onboard the USS Arizona in L configuration and the USS Nevada in L2 configuration. After relining a third time, the gun went into storage designated gun 41L3.
USS Nevada saw more action at the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa without gun 41L3. In its place, two other 14-inch guns recovered from the USS Arizona were fitted to USS Nevada.
Destined for World War II memorial
After leaving NSF Dahlgren by truck, the gun will travel by rail to Phoenix and become a centerpiece of a World War II memorial planned for Wesley Bolin Plaza near the Arizona State Capitol. Gun 41L3 will be joined on the mall by a 16-inch barrel that served onboard USS Missouri and was present at the Japanese surrender in 1945. The naval guns of the memorial will serve as "bookends" to the American effort in World War II.
In the 1990s, Arizona Senator John McCain sought barrels from the USS Arizona, but the barrels in question went to a memorial in Pennsylvania. Military history enthusiasts in Arizona kept up the fight and approached the Dahlgren History Project in early 2011.
Though the Dahlgren History Project was initially unwilling to part with such an iconic piece of naval weaponry, the decision to permanently loan the gun to Arizona came easily when Navy historians heard about plans for the memorial in Phoenix. "It sounded very impressive," said Wayne Harmon of the Dahlgren History Project.
"We applaud the preservation of historic Navy artifacts. They would take the barrel and clean it up, shine it up. That's something that takes a lot of money to do."
In the case of the 16-inch barrel from the USS Missouri, Arizona's planned memorial saved the barrel from being scrapped. "We view this as a successful preservation effort," said Harmon.
Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett played a lead role in his state's effort to obtain both barrels "It's going to be a great addition to our capitol mall complex," he said.
Honoring Arizona's veterans
"We have a couple of [other] artifacts from the USS Arizona: an anchor, the signal mast head. But we realized we had never dedicated a World War II memorial in the state capitol mall. The barrel idea came and we're going to have pillars with all the Arizonans' [who were killed in World War II] names."
Veterans returning home from World War II changed the face of Arizona. "I hope it says a lot about our state," said Bennett, whose father-in-law served during World War II.
"Arizona was really built by veterans coming home from World War II and [the wars] since. When veterans started coming home from wars, especially World War II, that's when Arizona experienced its explosive growth; it went from half a million people to now, almost six and half million people. Veterans obviously have great meaning to our country as a whole, but to Arizona, they built the state."
Bennett expressed gratitude to all the individuals and organizations in Arizona who helped fund the effort. "We've been doing all of this with private funding," he said. "The budget has been around half a million dollars. We are well on our way, but still raising tax monies. We're not using any tax dollars; everything is coming from private contributions."
The Arizona National Guard will spearhead the refurbishment of gun 41L3 and state officials hope to have the gun ready for ceremonies Dec. 7, 2012.