On October 1st, a 16-inch naval rifle that once loomed over the surrender deck of the U.S.S. Missouri as World War II ended was saved from the blowtorch and delivered to Fort Cronkhite for display at historic Battery Townsley, one of the park’s outstanding collection of seacoast fortifications that line the scenic hills on both sides of the Golden Gate.
The giant weapon, 68 feet long and weighing 236,000 pounds, had been stored at the Naval Weapons Depot in Hawthorne, Nevada, since the end of the Korean War in 1953. It is nearly identical to the kind of weapons mounted at Battery Townsely to defend San Francisco Bay from 1940 until 1948. These were the largest guns ever used by the United States military and the last of a long line of defenses that protected San Francisco Bay from the bronze cannon of the Spanish colonial era to the Nike missiles of the Cold War.
The battery was active throughout World War II, manned by up to 150 soldiers who lived inside the cavernous halls and galleries – but never fired a shot in anger. When these defenses became obsolete, the former Army posts were saved from development and became the heart of the park lands at Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
As Superintendent Frank Dean remarked, “these park lands, once used for coastal defense, have been repurposed for environmental defense.”
Since 2007, a group of dedicated volunteers has joined with the park to restore the once-abandoned and vandalized battery and open it for public programs. In turn, the volunteers work with educators from other park partners, such as NatureBridge and the Point Bonita YMCA, to teach students about the broad range of stories in the park – Native American, ranching, military and natural history. These outstanding volunteer efforts were recognized in 2008 with the Regional Judd Appleman Award and in 2011 with the National George Herzog Award.
Moving the giant weapon was accomplished by Bigge Crane & Rigging, which is the same firm that delivered the original guns to Battery Townsely in 1939. The move was made over a number of days using a ten-axle, 175-foot long “over the road transport” trailer, pulled and pushed simultaneously by two diesel tractors up the steep road to the battery, some 500 feet above the Pacific.
Dean coincidentally lived at Hawthorne Naval Weapons Depot as a teenager in 1969, when his father was the ordnance officer supervising its last overhaul.
“We are not celebrating war here,” he said as the gun moved uphill, “but acknowledging an important chapter of our nation’s history.”
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