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120-ton battleship gun barrel from WWII will get second life in Virginia Beach

USS Iowa (Pacific Battleship Center - Battleship USS Iowa/Facebook)

A battleship gun barrel used by the Navy in WWII that seemed destined for the scrapyard will get a second life in Virginia Beach.

A nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving U.S. defense equipment, Coast Defense Study Group, plans to relocate the historic armament to Joint Expeditionary Base Fort Story at Cape Henry soon.

The 120-ton gun barrel, which was used on the USS Iowa battleship, is the last of nine that remained at a storage facility in Chesapeake. It fired projectiles weighing 1,900 to 2,700 pounds with a range of up to 24 miles.

The Navy brought the USS Iowa, as well as the group of Iowa-class battleships, back into service in the 1980s but retired the gun barrels permanently a decade later.

In 2011, when the Navy was preparing to purge its inventory from the battleships, the nonprofit stepped in to find the barrels new homes. They enlisted the help of veterans groups and other organizations to preserve most of them, which are now on display at memorials and parks in various states.

“They’re historic artifacts,” said Terry McGovern, spokesperson for Coast Defense Study Group. “Why just cut them up into chunks of steel?”

Here in Hampton Roads, McGovern is working with the veteran’s group associated with the USS Iowa to relocate the last barrel. It’s no small feat. Lifting and transporting the barrel, which is 68 feet long, will require special permits and equipment.

The USS Iowa battleship was based in Norfolk. The veterans group wanted to relocate it to the USS Iowa Memorial at Naval Station Norfolk, which is dedicated to the 47 sailors who died during an accidental turret explosion while training in 1989.

However, limited public access to that naval installation, and unfavorable soil conditions for displaying it there, forced the group to look elsewhere.

Fort Story, where visitors take tours of the historic Cape Henry Lighthouse, was selected instead. Plans are underway for the battleship barrel and two 16-inch projectiles to be displayed in a field next to the lighthouse parking lot.

The site will feature signage about the USS Iowa and its heritage.

“We’re glad to give it a home,” said Capt. Michael Witherspoon, commander of Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story. “All this history to sit in one location is going to make it a pretty amazing place.”

Cape Henry is the site of the First Landing, when the English settlers arrived in 1607, before moving on to Jamestown. The original Cape Henry Lighthouse, authorized by George Washington, was the first federally funded public works project of the newly formed U.S. government.

Fort Story has deep roots in Virginia Beach, too. It became a military installation in 1914. In WWII, American soldiers at Fort Story defended the Virginia coast and the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay.

McGovern thinks it’s a natural fit. The barrel was the first one produced for the Iowa-class ships during WWII, and was mounted to the ship’s main turret in 1942. After the ship returned from Korea in 1955, the barrel was removed.

To date, approximately $100,000 has been raised for the project, which will be used to paint, transport and display the barrel. McGovern is trying to raise an additional $50,000.

“Adding a 16-inch barrel to the current memorial area at Fort Story will honor the veterans that defended our homeland in both WWI and WWII, and will allow Fort Story visitors to experience the massive size and power of these coast artillery guns,” he said.


Other barrels that were relocated

Eight Iowa-class battleship barrels that were at the St. Juliens Creek Naval Annex in Chesapeake have been relocated. The last one will be moved to Cape Henry, Virginia.

  • A USS Missouri barrel went to the Cape Henlopen State Park (location of former Battery Smith at Fort Miles) in Delaware to be part of the Fort Miles Museum as a complete gun and carriage.
  • Another USS Missouri barrel went to the U.S, Fish and Wildlife Refuge at Cape Charles, Virginia, (location of the former Battery Winslow at Fort John Custis) to be placed in the battery’s casemate.
  • Another USS Missouri barrel was taken by rail to the State Capitol in Arizona to become part of their World War II memorial (where it is joined by a 14-inch barrel off the USS Arizona).
  • A USS New Jersey barrel went by rail to the Hartshorne Woods Park, Monmouth County Parks, New Jersey, (location of the former Battery Lewis at the Navesink Highlands Military Reservation) to be placed in the battery’s casemate.
  • Another USS New Jersey barrel went to the Philadelphia Navy Yard in Pennsylvania to be displayed on its parade ground.
  • Another USS New Jersey barrel went to the Battleship New Jersey Memorial in Camden, New Jersey, to be a display next to the ship.
  • A fourth USS New Jersey barrel went to the Mahan Collection Foundation in New Jersey to be displayed with its transportation truck and trailer that was used during WWII.
  • One barrel from the USS New Jersey was moved from St. Juliens to Trophy Park at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in the 1990′s.


© 2022 The Virginian-Pilot

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