The flashing lights of the lead car gave the impression of a dignitary’s procession, winding its way down Bunker Road toward Marin County’s serene Fort Cronkhite.
As the convoy edged closer, the precious cargo came into view -- a massive gun barrel strapped to a flatbed trailer. Visitors stood with their backs to the ocean, gazing and photographing as the load inched past at a snail’s pace.
“This gun was rescued from the scrap heap,” said Stephen Haller, historian with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
With all the fuss, it would be hard to imagine such a celebrated gun barrel, once mounted on the Battleship USS Missouri, had almost met its doom in a Nevada scrapyard.
Despite its pedigree having been present at the surrender of the Japanese to end World War Two, the gun was among sixteen guns scheduled to be destroyed.
“They were cutting them up for scrap,” said GGNRA Superintendent Frank Dean. “So we said, ‘well we’d better grab it before it’s gone forever.’”
The gun’s destination was the historic Battery Townsley near Rodeo Beach, one of four hilltop military gun sites built to defend the San Francisco Bay from intruders during World War II.
The USS Missouri gun was identical to the twin 16-inch guns once mounted at Battery Townsley and aimed toward the Pacific below. The battery’s guns were themselves sent to the scrap heap more than six decades ago.
“Having a gun battery without its weapon is like a railroad museum without its locomotive,” said John Martini, a retired park ranger who now leads tours of Battery Townsley. “This is really the heart and soul of what this was about.”
It took three days for crews to haul the salvaged gun barrel from Nevada to Marin County. The job fell to Bigge Crane, which was the same company that hauled up the battery’s original guns in 1939.
Battery Townsley’s guns had a range of more than 20 miles and were fired often during the war as practice. The percussive explosion was said to be heard and felt for miles.
“The dairy ranchers we’ve interviewed said their cows wouldn’t give milk for a couple days after target practice,” said Martini.
The idea of mounting a massive gun in a pristine area known for its hiking and sweeping ocean vistas may seem a bit off-kilter. But GGNRA leaders said it was important to acknowledge the military’s long history in the area – especially since it helped preserve the future National Park site from development.
“It’s entirely appropriate that we bring it here,” said Haller, “where people come to our national park to enjoy the history and the scenery and the views.”
The gun will go on permanent display at Battery Townsley, which is slowly being restored by volunteers. Dean said the fact it was present at the end of World War II seemed to fit Marin County’s peacenik vibe, noting Battery Townsley’s guns were never fired in war.
“The most historic moment of this gun’s history was one of peace,” said Dean.