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Historic Naval Weapon Finds its Way from USS Missouri to First State

Decades ago, a stroll along the seashore off Cape Henlopen might have netted the casual visitor a trip to a military brig. Things are different now.

Today visitors are more than welcome at Fort Miles, a military base established before World War II to defend the Delaware Bay. The post now is part of the Cape Henlopen State Park near Lewes. But during the war, it bristled with artillery pieces and more than 2,000 soldiers, ready and trained to wreak havoc upon any Nazi ship or submarine.

A significant wartime artifact found a new home at the fort May 21. Just before 10 a.m. Friday crews began lifting a 16-inch gun that once belonged to the battleship USS Missouri. By the end of the day, the 120-ton gun was safely installed in a new carriage, ready for visitors when the park reopens May 26.

The cannon once fired 2,700-pound shells to support the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa and witnessed the surrender of Japanese forces in September 1945. It had been in storage at the fort since 2012.

"This fort was here to defend the Delaware Bay and Delaware River because of all the industries and the Navy Yard in Philadelphia," said Terrence McGovern of the Coast Defense Study Group, which found and arranged for the transfer of the USS Missouri gun to the fort.

If they had gained access to the bay and river, enemy ships and submarines could have done significant damage to ports in Wilmington, Philadelphia and beyond, all of which were vital to the war effort, McGovern said.

The fort controlled a minefield in the bay and once had 32 various artillery pieces, including mobile weapons and fixed guns. Fort Miles was home to two 16-inch naval guns, mounted inside a huge concrete casement; these, these like the other weapons at the fort, were scrapped at war's end.

Big Mo

The Missouri gun almost met the same fate, McGovern said.

The USS Missouri, or "Big Mo," as it is known, was decommissioned after the Korean War, but reactivated in the 1980s. Modernization stripped the battleship of its weaponry, and the nine 16-inch guns were put into storage. The ship took part in initial operations during the first Persian Gulf War, firing Tomahawk missiles at Iraqi coastal defenses. The ship was retired in 1992 and is a museum at Pearl Harbor.

By 2010, the guns were declared excess and naval officials decided to sell them for scrap.

The battleship's gun was at the Navy's St. Julien's Creek Annex near Chesapeake, Va. when McGovern canvassed several historic preservation groups looking for any interested in preserving the weapon. He hit pay dirt with the Fort Miles Historical Association, which had been searching for a 16-inch gun.

The gun was free, but there still was the problem of how to move it to the Delaware coast, McGovern said.

"At almost 70 feet long and weighing 120 tons, you don't just put it in the back of your pickup," he said. In March 2012, crews from Lockwood Brothers of Hampton, Va., lifted the gun from its resting place placed it on a trailer which was barged across the Chesapeake to Cape Charles, Va. It was loaded onto a railroad car, making stops in Harrington and Georgetown before it reached Cape Henlopen State Park April 18 of that year.

The trip cost about $113,500, money that was raised by the historical association and grants from the state tourism division, Sussex County Council and the General Motors Foundation.

The barrel rested for a little more than four years as money was raised to build a suitable means to display it. With funding from the Division of Parks and Recreation a 45-ton concrete base was constructed in 2014 immediately behind Battery 519, a hardened concrete emplacement buried in sand dunes that once housed two 12-inch guns. The battery is the site of the historical association's museum. To hold the massive barrel, a yoke and slide went atop the concrete pad.

Threading a needle

Crews from Lockwood Brothers, a subcontractor for Kent Construction, and members of Ironworkers Local 451 were on hand Friday to move the gun into position.

"This is very unusual for us," said union business manager Jeff Hendrickson as he watched. "We don't usually move guns. It's still a heavy lift, but this is historic."

As a small crowd gathered nearby and media set up cameras atop Battery 519, large tethers were slid underneath the gun barrel and attached to a 500-ton crane. As a test, the crane lifted the load slightly while a worker used a carpenter's level to ensure the load was properly balanced.

The final signal given, the crane came to life, ever so slowly lifting the gun from the truck bed. Guided by ropes, the barrel was swung out over the site, back behind the concrete pad and gingerly maneuvered into the waiting carriage. Midway through the operation, visitors were startled by a loud crack from somewhere, but it had no effect on the work.

With the barrel in place, another crane was brought in to make final adjustments.

"You're talking millimeters of clearance here," said Mike Dunkes, a member of the FMHA board of directors, as he watched the operation. "It took years of research to make sure all of the parts went together."

Throughout its existence Fort Miles never fired at an Axis ship, although soldiers stationed there practiced regularly. The fort's only known interaction with the enemy came on May 14, 1945, when Kapitnleutnant Thilo Bode surrendered his submarine, the U-858, to officers there.

The Missouri gun will be a major attraction in the fort's Artillery Park, opening later this year. Visitors will be able to take a walkway among artillery with placards that explain each of the guns on display and exhibits showing what wartime fort life was like.

Even though the site of the fort's original 16-inch guns is about a half-mile to the south, visitors standing at the new Missouri gun emplacement will get a view of the Delaware Bay very similar to what artillerymen stationed there 70 years ago would have seen.

The project fits in perfectly with what the association has been planning for years, Dunkes said.

"Our mission has always been to have a representative sample of every type of gun that was here during World War II," he said. "We're developing a world-class World War II museum. There's a lot of history in Delaware about defending our coastline.

"We think it will be a terrific experience."

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