Wednesday, April 03, 2019

One Big Gun, and Other Surprises Along DC's Waterfront

Everytime I think I've exhausted DC's esoterica, I'm reminded just how packed with random stuff this city is. Next time you're at a Nats Game, consider taking a less than a mile stroll along the pristine Anacostia Riverwalk Trail to 38.871800,-76.994906. Standing at these coordinates you'll be able to glimpse some truly remarkable Military hardware.

There's a Vietnam era Swift Boat you can approach and inspect:

Swift Boats have an unlikely origin story and played a critical role in Vietnam:

The U.S. Navy found what they were looking for in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil rig workers off the coast of Louisiana and Texas were shuttled to and from the rigs in strong aluminum boats built by Seward Seacraft Company of Louisiana. The taxi boats were sturdy, quiet and with a draft of 3 ½ feet, powered by two diesel engines with twin screws and speeds up to 28 knots. With the addition of weapons and living amenities, they were the perfect craft for patrolling the waterways of Vietnam.
Swift boats patrolled the waterways, interrupted enemy supply lines, and participated in complex insertion and extraction operations, while enduring monsoons, riverbank ambushes, mines laid by the Viet Cong, and difficult nighttime operations. Swift boat Sailors brought the naval fight inland and had a decisive role in the fight against the Viet Cong.

There's also the conning tower of the USS Balao, a WWII submarine. Despite earning 9 battle stars while operating during WWII, the sub's claim to fame is related to its movie, not military, career.

It’s real claim to fame came when Balao starred in the popular war comedy Operation Petticoat alongside Cary Grant.

The role itself was a little self-effacing. In the movie a Japanese bomber damages Balao and the submariners repairing it find they have nothing but red and white anti-corrosive paint. When they patch the sub up the gleaming new paint job is hot pink.

Audiences in 1959 screamed with delight at the prospect. The battle-hardened old sea salts of the U.S. Navy in pink? It was unthinkable. “We blushed when we asked for it and almost fainted when the Navy said okay,” the films producer explained in 1959.

Perhaps the most remarkable benefit of taking this walk is the opportunity to see "one of the largest artillery pieces in the world." That's right, parked among other employee vehicles is one of the few surviving World War I Railroad Guns. The 14"/50 caliber gun was originally deployed on battleships, but was mounted on a railroad car to help the Allies compete with German artillery superiority.

Mounting a big 'ol gun on a railroad car wasn't a WWI invention. This approach to fire superiority was conjured up during the Civil War:

The “railroad battery” was first used in Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Peninsula campaign in 1862. Confederates bolted a 32-pounder Brooke naval rifle to a flatcar protected by an iron casemate, the finished car looking much like a land version of the ironclad CSS Virginia. It engaged in artillery duels before the Battle of Fair Oaks.

The Union used similar railroad mountings during the 1864 siege of Petersburg. The most famous of these was Dictator, a thirteen-inch seacoast mortar on an eight-wheeled flatcar. Lobbing 218-pound shells as far as forty-two hundred yards, this behemoth bombarded Southern batteries and bombproofs with telling effect.

While the lifespan of Railway Guns was relatively brief, for a time they were a dominant force:

Before the rise of bombers, missiles, and precision munitions, investments in railroad guns were perhaps justified. In World War I, the guns frequently proved to be fort-cracking artillery par excellence, and superb for long-range bombardment. By the 1930s, their days were numbered: armed forces turned to air power to shatter fortresses (and the guns themselves); to drop paratroops behind fortified lines; and to sever rail links, the guns’ umbilical cord. Ponderous size, camouflage difficulties, and logistical constraints all made the guns vulnerable to air attack. While a viable role remained for cannon artillery on many battlefields into the early twenty-first century, World War II’s end rang the death knell for super-heavy artillery, of which the railroad gun marked the apotheosis.

So did I find it, DC's most unusual site? Knowing this city, not by a longshot.

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