KEARNEY, Neb. — Poker games. Buddies polishing their boots. Peeling potatoes behind the mess hall.
These and dozens of other scenes from the barracks and drill grounds are typical in many photo albums of veterans. They’re a large part of Con Smith’s black-and-white memories of his military duty in the post-World War II U.S. Army.
But Smith’s photo collection of his duty from 1953 to 1955 goes beyond the scenes of basic and advanced training. The Kearney man’s collection includes photos of artillery crews firing what became known as the “Atomic Cannon.”
The giant cannon was designed to lob atomic bombs into enemy territory and represented one of the U.S. military’s first technological steps into the Cold War that pitted the United States against its communist enemy, the Soviet Union.
Smith snapped hundreds of photos of soldiers loading, firing and moving the cannon.
The cannon’s concussion shook the ground so violently that a cloud of dust rose several feet in the air around the monster weapon.
Smith said that although it’s unlikely the Army would allow soldiers to snap photos today of advanced new weapons, he carried a camera under his shirt and took photos about anytime he wished. He then processed the photos in his base’s darkroom.
“There was never anything to do, and I wasn’t a partier, so I did photography,” Smith said about the hobby he pursued during training at U.S. bases in Arkansas and Oklahoma and during deployment in Germany.
At the time of Smith’s service, Germany was divided in two: The communist East Germany and the democratic West Germany.
Smith said fears of invasion of Europe by the Soviet Union prompted the development of the “Atomic Cannon.” The bore measured about 11 inches, and the cannon’s long barrel could hurl highly explosive 600-pound rounds seven miles and more.
The atomic rounds weighed 800 pounds.
Smith said, that to his knowledge, only one of the destructive atomic projectiles was ever fired. The test shot was in New Mexico, and the cannon that fired it became known as “Atomic Annie.”
Smith said only eight of the cannons were ever placed into service.
A team of more than a dozen soldiers was needed to fire and reload the weapon. Smith’s job as a “computer” had him working with three other crewmen whose mathematical computations were used to aim the cannon.
As with most artillery, the computations involved distance, wind drift, altitude, air density, gunpowder and air temperature and the earth’s rotation. Because of the great distances the cannon could hurl its projectiles, the computations had to be precise.
“They had to be figured by hand because the results from a slide rule weren’t accurate enough,” Smith said about the math techniques employed in the 1950s.
When the firing direction team did its job well, he said, the cannon was almost as accurate as today’s smart bombs. During final training, his team fired a round that flew 7½ miles and landed within 35 feet of the target.
Smith said he never envisioned himself to be a math whiz.
He was a heavy equipment operator near his hometown of Butte in north-central Nebraska when he was drafted.
Smith said aptitude tests revealed his proficiency in math, and he was sent to artillery training. He advanced to corporal before his discharge.
Smith recalls the global tension that led to the Atomic Age and nuclear arms race.
“The Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, was belligerent. He was taking over all of Eastern Europe.”
Smith said Americans feared the possibility of a nuclear war. “I remember people who built bomb shelters.”
Looking back on his military service, he said he is grateful the Cold War ended and that the cannon never was used in war. Instead, it became an oddity representative of that period of international tension.
“Thankfully, the Atomic Cannon is something not many people know about,” he said.