What better way to honor Veterans Day than with a trip to see Fort Riley’s Atomic Cannon. Visiting a friend, now located in Junction City, was the perfect opportunity to climb into the Flint Hills just off I-70 to see this relic of the Cold War.
Built in the 1950s, the mobile cannon and its carriage weighed a hefty 83 tons. With the help of two independent tractors, the cannon could arrive at a site and be readied to fire in 15 minutes. In 1953, the one and only 15 kt nuclear shell ever fired from a cannon detonated at a test site in Nevada.
Obsolete before it ever could be deployed, 200 Atomic Cannons, using non-nuclear ordnace, still saw duty in Europe and Korea until 1963. Today only three remain. Climbing switchbacks upwards to the highest bluff in Freedom Park slowly reveals the enormity of the cannon. Driving by at 70 mph, with thought of just blowing past Junction City, is not the way to appreciate the cannon.
Lots of jokes are made about Junction City. Sadly seeing a billboard with our President’s face next to the words “Wannabe Marxist Dictator” doesn’t dispel them. However, Fort Riley, and its remarkable history dating back to 1853, is something all Kansans should cherish.
The Fort’s creation is tied to the settlers making their way west on the Oregon, Santa Fe and Mormon Trails. It has served as the military home to General George Armstrong Custer. Its cavalry training center was used by the famed Buffalo Soldiers. During World War I, 50,000 soldiers were stationed at Fort Riley, and for years the legendary Big Red One has called the Kansas Fort home. Today, Fort Riley spreads over two counties, and its daytime population tops 25,000. Cannon blasts from the Fort’s artillery ranges can still be heard.
The lonely cannon, sitting high on a Flint Hills bluff, was created during a time of nuclear fear. In one respect, it represents what my daughter Kelly referred to as the “over-zealous spending of our military.” Yet, the cannon is also one huge reminder that our country’s freedom that allows us to speak freely – as the billboard does and my daughter did – have been defended by countless men and women doing their duty to serve our military at home and in many theaters of war.
To the once, present and future veterans, we say thank you with the same loud report of a blast from that Atomic Cannon. God bless you all.