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Missouri gun barrel now rests at park on Delaware shore

There's a new exhibit waiting to greet summer visitors at Delaware's Cape Henlopen State Park. And it's big.

It's a 16-inch gun barrel that once roared from the deck of the battleship Missouri during World War II, and it now rests — 120 tons, 68 feet long — at the Battery 519 Museum at Fort Miles, which is part of Cape Henlopen State Park.

The gun — officially known as Barrel 371 — arrived at Fort Miles last month. It is similar to the two 16-inch Army guns that defended the coast and the Delaware Bay from German U-boats.

Barrel 371, which was one of the war's more lethal naval weapons, could fire 2,700-pound shells more than 25 miles, with deadly accuracy.

Its new home dates to 1873, when the Army acquired 140 acres along the Delaware Bay and Atlantic for coastal defense. With the coming of World War II, another 1,000 acres were added to the site.

In 1941, the fort became home to the 261st Coast Artillery, whose mission was to defend the E.I. duPont de Nemours & Co. complex in Wilmington, Del., the city of Philadelphia and the oil refineries that lined the Pennsylvania and New Jersey shorelines of the Delaware River.

The fort was named for Lt. Gen. Nelson A. Miles, who had been commanding general of the Army from 1895 to 1903.

In addition to the two 16-inch guns, the fort's defenses included four 12-inch guns in two separate batteries; four 6-inch guns that could swivel; eight 8-inch guns that were affixed to railroad flatcars, with four hidden in bunkers; 16 155-mm mobile guns; three four-gun batteries of 90 mm; and four 3-inch guns that were permanently mounted.

In addition to the heavy armament, 11 concrete cylindrical observation towers, some nearly 100 feet tall, were constructed to spot enemy shipping and help direct the fire from shore batteries. They stretched from Cape Henlopen to Fenwick Island.

Similar concrete towers across from Cape Henlopen at Cape May Point, N.J., were also part of the defense network protecting the bay approaches.

After World War II, the two 16-inch guns were removed (one story said they were cut up to make razor blades), and the rest of the fort was eventually disarmed.

No longer needed for defense, Fort Miles was deactivated in 1958. Six years later, 543 acres were returned to Delaware, including the old fort, which is part of today's Cape Henlopen State Park. The park has grown to more than 3,200 acres of beach grasses, bayberry and black pines.

In its collection, Fort Miles had a 12-incher but not a 16-inch gun, and when volunteers and members of the Fort Miles Historical Society heard that there were eight Iowa-class battleship barrels moldering on the ground at St. Julien's Creek Annex, part of the Navy's Norfolk, Va., complex, they decided to get one for their fort.

"We were trying to get one for the last seven years. It's been a quest for a long time because the Navy wouldn't let them go," said Gary D. Wray, president of the Fort Miles Historical Association. "Finally, in 2010, the Navy declared them surplus."

Wray and his associates knew there were other barrels stored at naval facilities around the country, but many were being scrapped.

Wray and a friend visited St. Julien's Creek Annex, where they were astonished to learn that three of the barrels were from the Missouri. The guns had been aboard the vessel on Sept. 2, 1945, when Japanese envoys came aboard to formally surrender.

The other barrels were from the battleships New Jersey and Iowa.

They had been removed from the Missouri after World War II and the Korean War. The rifling of their liners was worn from many firings and needed to be replaced. Since that time, they had been kept in storage.

The Navy agreed to donate one of the barrels, but Wray and his organization had to pay for its shipment and develop a display that the Navy would approve.

"This was June 1, 2011, and we had no money in the bank, and the Navy gave us six months to get it off the ground," Wray said in a telephone interview the other day.

By year's end, the group had raised $115,000, and "not one bit of it was state money," he said.

"We were very close to losing it," said George Ward, a retired WMAR-TV photographer and engineer, who is a member of the fort's historical society and helped raise money to save the barrel. "I visited St. Julien's, and they had already marked the barrel in orange every 8 feet so it could be cut up for scrap."

Moving an object that large 170 miles by truck, water and rail to Cape Henlopen was no easy matter.

After being loaded aboard a specially built flatbed truck, Barrel 371 departed the naval facility March 7 and was taken to Chesapeake, Va.

On April 3, it was placed aboard a Bay Coast Railroad barge and conveyed across the Chesapeake Bay to Cape Charles, Va., where it was then turned over to Norfolk Southern Railroad for the journey up the Delmarva Peninsula.

At Harrington, Del., the barrel was turned over to the Delaware Coast Line Railroad, whose four-car train transported it (at a speed of 10 mles per hour) from Georgetown, Del., to Cape Henlopen, arriving April 17.

Placed on a 96-wheel flatbed truck because there was no rail line into the fort, it arrived at Fort Miles the next day. Unveiling ceremonies were held April 28 at Fort Miles.

It will take at least two years to complete Barrel 371's restoration, which will include additional parts such as a 50-ton girder, 50-ton slider and a 10-ton yoke. Those can be easily trucked to Fort Miles.

The other barrels from the Missouri will go on display in Cape Charles and at a museum in Arizona.

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