The Pennsy Guns at the Pennsylvania Military Museum

Trailheads presents information and details about the exhibits, events and programs hosted by the historic sites and museums on PHMC's Pennsylvania Trails of History.
One of the Pennsy Guns destined for the Pennsylvania Military Museum is seen here in 2008 at Dahlgren, Virginia. It was made by Midvale Steel Co. of Philadelphia in 1912. Pennsylvania Military Museum

One of the Pennsy Guns destined for the Pennsylvania Military Museum is seen here in 2008 at Dahlgren, Virginia. It was made by Midvale Steel Co. of Philadelphia in 1912. Pennsylvania Military Museum

State Museum curator Robert D. Hill’s article about the USS Pennsylvania (see “Keystone Flagship: USS Pennsylvania Leading the Navy through Two World Wars“) mentions that the ship underwent a significant refit in 1945. The ship’s wartime armament included a dozen 14-inch guns, arrayed in four 3-gun turrets (“14-inch” refers to the diameter of the projectile). Among other work, the refurbishment involved replacing the guns that had been on the ship at Pearl Harbor with those salvaged from another battleship.

The Pennsylvania’s gun tubes were relined and laid in storage at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia, about an hour and a half south of Washington, D.C., along the Potomac River. The center was established in 1918, known then as Lower Station, Dahlgren Naval Proving Ground, as a testing facility for naval guns. Some of USS Pennsylvania’s guns were heavily modified for use in ballistics tests. Others, simply left to the elements, were “rediscovered” during an inventory in 1999 and were designated for scrapping.

Fortunately, the guns came to the attention of the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg, Centre County, which is part of the Pennsylvania Trails of History. The museum’s mission encompasses interpreting the stories of the various naval vessels called USS Pennsylvania, and PHMC’s collections already included a silver service (1903–4) and personal items belonging to sailors who served on board. Beginning in 2002, PHMC and the Friends of the Pennsylvania Military Museum, led by board member David Rhoades, worked with the U.S. Navy to secure a loan of three gun tubes identified as having been removed from USS Pennsylvania.

The Friends launched a fundraising campaign to support moving the guns from Dahlgren to Boalsburg, while PHMC budgeted funds to build a permanent mount for them on the grounds of the museum. The mount was designed to echo the turrets in which the battleship guns were originally arrayed. Subsequently, a delegation that included conservators from B.R. Howard & Associates traveled to Dahlgren to assess the condition of the guns. Their report (which is summarized on the firm’s website) noted that one of the tubes was not structurally stable, so it was eliminated from the project. The coatings on the other two were failing and had exposed the iron surface to some damage. When the tubes were mothballed, the ends were closed with canvas that was coated in a tarlike substance. These coverings had also failed, allowing moisture and debris inside the tubes and leaving a coating of tar on the surface. Lab tests showed that the paint on the tubes contained lead but that the canvas coverings did not contain asbestos.

One of the guns makes the turn from U.S. Route 322 on its way to the museum grounds, May 20, 2009. Pennsylvania Military Museum

One of the guns makes the turn from U.S. Route 322 on its way to the museum grounds, May 20, 2009. Pennsylvania Military Museum

Riggers move the first gun onto a temporary platform for restoration, May 21, 2009 (permanent mount is visible on the right). Pennsylvania Military Museum

Riggers move the first gun onto a temporary platform for restoration, May 21, 2009 (permanent mount is visible on the right). Pennsylvania Military Museum

Museum staff worked with the conservators to develop a plan for cleaning the tubes before moving them, so that they could be immediately placed on their mounts when they arrived at the museum. Several options were explored for removing the tar, but it proved to be too labor intensive to complete at Dahlgren.

In May 2009, the 66-ton gun tubes (one made at Midvale Steel in Philadelphia, the other at Watervliet Arsenal in New York) were wrapped and loaded onto special trucks to begin their move from Virginia to Pennsylvania. As Rhoades explained to reporter Torsten Ove in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of December 7, 2008, “It takes two months just to get all the state permits [from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania]. It’s a logistical nightmare.” The convoy of trucks and support vehicles arrived in Boalsburg on May 20, and the guns were transferred to a temporary platform next to the concrete mount created for their display.

In the months that followed, the surface coatings of paint and tar were removed, and the gun tubes were repainted. Tampions were fabricated to close the muzzles and keep the weather out. Teflon patches were applied to the notches in the mount to create a barrier between the guns and the mount, and metal bands were designed to hold the guns in place. The rigging company returned to the site to hoist the guns into position. And with that, the two surviving 14-inch guns from the USS Pennsylvania’s World War II service had found their new home.

On October 24, 2009, the “Pennsy Guns” were dedicated in a ceremony that included museum staff and board members, local dignitaries and naval personnel. PHMC executive director Barbara Franco and Rear Adm. Joseph Horn, U.S. Navy, were the featured speakers. Penn State Navy ROTC midshipmen provided an Honor and Color Guard for the event. Selected items from the USS Pennsylvania silver service were exhibited for the occasion.

The first Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day Tribute was held beneath the Pennsy Guns on December 7, 2009. A tribute ceremony takes place each year, regardless of the weather.

To learn more about the USS Pennsylvania, the Pennsy Guns and other military equipment on the grounds of the museum, visit the Pennsylvania Military Museum.

 

The first Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day Tribute beneath the Pennsy Guns took place on December 7, 2009. Pennsylvania Military Museum

 

PHMC recently announced the appointment of Tyler Gum as site administrator for the Pennsylvania Military Museum. Gum has worked as a National Park Service ranger, a history lecturer at Penn State Altoona and, most recently, director of client relations and legislative liaison for Benefit Management Group Inc. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Penn State University and a master’s degree in history from Shippensburg University. Gum succeeds Karl “Chuck” Smith, who retired in April after a PHMC career that also included serving as site administrator for Bushy Run Battlefield and Fort Pitt Museum.

 

Amy Killpatrick Fox is a museum educator in PHMC’s Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums. She writes a weekly blog also called Trailheads.