On Saturday, May 25th, along with hundreds of others, including scores of local veterans, we attended a very moving ribbon cutting ceremony at the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge as part of the placement of a very special gun. A great deal of time and effort was expended, most particularly by Alan Stanz, a US Navy veteran from the Eastern Shore, as well as by Terry McGovern, author of a very fine pictorial history on coastal defense systems entitled “The Chesapeake Bay At War“, to make possible the transfer of this historic gun from the US Navy to the Refuge. Present on the dais were Ms. Susan Rice, Manager of the Refuge, Col. Paul Olsen representing the US Army, Barry White, USN retired, who had actually served aboard the Missouri, representing the US Navy, Vincent Rojas representing the Pearl Harbor Battleship Missouri Memorial in Hawaii, as well as representatives of Senator Mark Warner and Governor McDonald.
This is the story of the voyage of that gun, a single 168 foot long Mark 7, Barrel # 393, from her initial deployment to her final resting place here at the National Wildlife Refuge at the southern tip of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. She proudly sailed on one of the most consequential battleships of WW II, USS Missouri, the “Mighty Mo“, christened in January, 1944 by then Senator Harry Truman’s daughter, Margaret. Fittingly, the “Mighty Mo” was initially stationed in nearby Norfolk, VA , swiftly cutting through the waters of the Chesapeake Bay during her shakedown and battle practice before setting sail for Pearl Harbor in December of that year. The gun of our story was one of only nine aboard in her class, a 16″ 50 Caliber Mark 7, constituting part of the main battery on the Missouri. But she was destined to play an important place in history, firing her heart out as the “Might Mo” participated in the invasion of Iwo Jima, then in the invasion of Okinawa as the Third Fleet flagship of the great Admiral Halsey and in the final assault on Japan in her home waters. This particular gun was a silent witness on V-J Day to the momentous surrender of the Empire of Japan on Sept. 2, 1945 as the world heaved a great sigh of relief when Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur came aboard the USS Missouri shortly before 9 am to sign the Surrender Documents on behalf of the United States of America. And this gun, # 393, with the ribbon cutting ceremony at the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge over the Memorial Day 2013 week-end, has now become ” Our Gun”. At 168 feet long, firing a 16″ shell weighing 2100 pounds, capable of hitting a target at a distance of 23 miles, she is at last peacefully quiet, resting in her final emplacement, in Bunker # 2, which once wielded an identical 168 foot long Mark 7 gun during deployment at Fort John Custis from 1942 to 1945 as a part of its gun battery for the critical coastal defense system.
A bit more history…. During WWII, the defense of the 15 mile wide mouth of the Chesapeake Bay against possible attack by enemy warships was of the highest priority to the US military, particularly in consideration of the strategic importance of protecting the US’s largest Navel Station in Norfolk only a few miles away, the very important shipyard in the Hampton area as well as the necessity of keeping ports and the critical shipping channels between Norfolk and Baltimore secure and open. The upshot of this concern was that in September, 1941 a fort was established by the US Army at the very southern tip of the Eastern Shore. It’s mission was to work together with Fort Story on the Virginia Beach side of the Bay and Fort Monroe in Hampton to create a series of coastal fortifications of the highest level at the mouth of the Chesapeake. Originally designated Fort Winslow, re-named Fort John Custis in honor of a local Eastern Shore hero in 1942, at peak staffing over 1000 troops were stationed there, manning a variety of gun batteries, state of the art radars, controlled mines, searchlights and tall fire control towers, 24/7.
And just a teeny bit more history…. After the War, the Army closed the Fort Custis but in 1950 it got a new lease on life when purchased by the US Air Force, re-named the Cape Charles Air Force Station, home station of the 77 1st Squadron. Here about 500 airmen during the 1950′s & 60′s were stationed, manning very specialized equipment as part of the military’s new national air defense radar network . In 1963 it became a joint use facility with the FAA but in 1981 all these missions were moved to the Navel Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, and the Cape Charles Air Force Station faded into the sunset. Enter the US Fish and Wildlife Service which in 1984 purchased part of the property to establish the now totally awesome Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge. This pretty much brings us to the present except to say that currently the Refuge owns 1340 acres at the Shore’s very beautiful southern tip, including all of what was once Fort Custis. And to quote from the program handed out at the ribbon cutting: “The Refuge staff continues history’s theme of protection– not one of protecting the Chesapeake Bay as Fort John Custis, nor protecting the skies as Cape Charles Air Force Station, but one of protecting the waters, the land and skies for wildlife and their habitates for the continuing benefit of the American people.”
So the Ribbon Cutting Ceremony wasn’t just about this impressive and historic gun, it was about remembering the sacrifices of those who fought and those who died to protect us and to keep this nation free. As Col. Paul Olsen, representing the US Army at the Ceremony, said so eloquently, not every warrior returns from war. And Memorial Day is the time for we the living to contemplate the abstract idea of freedom and to remember those who paid for it with their last full measure of devotion. And not just those who fought in battle or those who died, but also those who sacrificed in so many other ways. I’m sure that almost everyone in my generation has a relative who was touched by WWII in a very personal way. For myself, I would like to pay tribute to my father, now passed on, captured by the Germans, managed to escape, awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, who struggled the rest of his life with medical issues from his war wounds. And to my mother, who after graduation from college went to work, not in her chosen profession, but in an aircraft assembly plant, noisy, dirty, difficult but like so many other women across this country, worked her heart out for her country. And so on Memorial Day I always think of them, of their sacrifices, as well as of our debt to those who died. It’s because of my parents and the millions of men and women just like them all over this nation, the Greatest Generation, we are all still free, still speaking English– not German, not Japanese. Thanks, Dad. Thanks, Mom. We can never repay our debt to you.
Tags: Cape Charles Air Force Station, Cape Charles Virginia, Coastal Defense System during WWII, Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, Fort John Custis, Memorial Day on the Eastern Shore, USS Missouri Battleship