Specialist-3rd Class Marvin Kelly of North Port was listed as assistant gunner on a 280 millimeter atomic cannon. It was the biggest and baddest artillery piece the U.S. Army every produced during the “Cold War” of the 1950s.
The big gun could fire atomic projectiles or conventional rounds some 20 miles or more with blasts equivalent in size to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan that helped end Word War II. It never fired a single round at an enemy target.
In 1954 Kelly was drafted and wound up in Germany as a member of the 867th Field Artillery Battalion, part of the 7th Army. His unit was one of six American artillery battalions in Europe in the mid-’50s, each with three atomic cannons.
“My job was to help move the gun. I was the rear driver at the back end of the cannon,” Kelly explained. “It took two drivers to move the 83-ton gun down the road.
“We carried an atomic projectile around with us on maneuvers stored in a metal container we never fired and never saw,” he said. “We had a West Point lieutenant and he had a helper, a private, who were responsible for the atomic charge.
“I was in C-Battery of headquarter’s company’s 2nd Section. I was told our section was the only unit to fire an atomic charge from the cannon,” Kelly recalled. “I wasn’t there.”
However, he was on hand when his gun crew fired a total on 21 conventional rounds one day during maneuvers in Germany. After each firing of the 600-pound shell the barrel of the gun was cleaned.
“The atomic cannon was unique. It had several ways of doing everything,” Kelly said.
For example, it could be loaded using a power hoist to move the projectile into the barrel. Or it could also be loaded using brute force.
On incident in which the young artilleryman was involved in is still fresh in his mind. They were on maneuvers along the Czechoslovakian-German border with their big gun.
“I was the guy who aimed the gun that day,” he said. “It was my job to set up the direction the gun would be fired.
“Our sergeant okayed the gun’a direction and so did our West Point lieutenant, who was a very nice guy. Then the range officer stopped everything. We were 180-degrees off on our setting. We were about to fire our gun into Czechoslovakia.”
Since that was in the Russian Sector, it could have caused an international incident.
By the time Kelly returned to the states in 1956, half the atomic cannon’s shelf-life was over. The big guns went into service in Europe in 1952 and by 1963 the Army decommissioned them. When they first arrived in Europe the heavy artillery pieces made a big splash with the public. However, within a short while the Army produced a six-inch atomic cannon shell that could be fired in a standard 155 mm Howitzer that was more operational.
When his two-year enlistment was up, he went back to work with Delco Electronic, part of General Motors Corp.
He and his wife, Jill, retired, and moved to Florida 16 years ago in ’02. They have three children: Cheryl, Garry and Jerry.
D.O.B: 6 August 1933
Hometown: Anderson, IN
Currently: Englewood, FL
Entered Service: 1954
Rank: Private 1st class
Unit: 867th Field Artillery Battalion
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, May 21, 2018 and is republished with permission.
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