Arcata's Cannon

by Bob Felter

I grew up on the east coast in areas once in the midst of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, so old cannons were everywhere and not much of a novelty. In their original setting, bristling from a fort or looming over a strategic inlet, they can elicit strength, but mostly they’re just obsolete iron tubes.

When I first saw the cannon in Arcata I was impressed with its graceful, long, lean lines and that some of the gadgetry for it to aim and fire remained. I wondered where came from and why is it here? Asking around I heard the same stories. One was that it was a captured WW2 Japanese cannon, and the other that it had once been hauled up to Humboldt State University by mischievous students. I also remember being concerned with its wooden spokes and wheel rims exposed to Humboldt’s wet climate.

I had an old house to restore, another to build, and then reentered the workforce, but the gun stayed in the back of my mind. Not that I have any affinity for cannons, but that one seemed worth saving. The steel would never rust away but without its wheels much of its historic fabric would disappear.  It wasn’t until recently that I had time to think about Humboldt’s largest gun again.

Another visit revealed more rot in the wheels than I remembered and I was determined to soak the wood with preservative. It wasn’t mine, however. I wanted permission from whoever was in charge, also hoping to learn the gun’s history. I mentioned this to Winnie Trump at a breakfast and she pointed to Al Toste, saying “there’s the man to talk with”. Al said he’d bring the rot issue up at an American Legion meeting, and that the one person who’d know the history was Marino Sichi. “You should do it soon though, he’s in Timber Ridge Senior Center and his days are numbered”.

That was on a Friday. Sunday afternoon I went to Timber Ridge and asked for Marino. Despite some reluctance by the receptionist, I explained my presence and she led me back to the Nurses Station. As tears came to her eyes the nurse stammered “Marino passed away this morning”. I think everyone who knew him loved him. Rotten timing, I walked out in disbelief.

A call to Alan Baker, the Commander of the VFW/American Legion Hall connected me with Ben Curtis, an active member of the Legion. I explained my concern about the rot and during our conversation it became apparent since kids climb on the cannon it would be a tragedy if it were to collapse. Ben also brought the issue up at the next American Legion meeting and it was decided they needed to do something.  As he said, “we can’t let it go under our watch”.

The Legionnaires jacked the cannon up and placed a welded support underneath. I was then OK’d to paint on preservative. Laws have affected what is available in California, and what’s in the stores now has only 8% copper napthenate and is water based and green. This contrasts with what was on the shelf two years ago; solvent based, green, brown or clear, and three times the amount of the same active ingredient. I didn’t want to use a green color on historic wheels, nor one that would leach out in our winter rains. Coincidentally, on a job I came across an old gallon can mostly full of clear “good stuff” and made a trade with the owner.

Now it was time to learn about the cannon. Linda, a researcher at the Humboldt County Historical Society said that she also had once looked into it but found nothing. A stop at Arcata’s library also came up dry, and HSU’s Humboldt Room, where local historic documents are kept was closed for the holidays. I next thought about the old Arcata Union; they must have printed at least a mention when the cannon arrived in town. An email to Susie Van Kirk, another possibility who knows “everything” historical about Arcata, offered that she’d been through every issue of the Union since 1940 and had never seen anything.

Ben Curtis mentioned another possibility who had left the area, so I made one more call to Alan Baker. He provided the phone number of Virgil Freeman, who now lives in Freemont. Virgil had been in the Post for decades and was a past Commander of the VFW/American Legion Hall. Born in 1920, he spent 40 months in the Pacific Theater during WW2 as a Code Clerk, sending and deciphering communications. He joined the Lodge about 1955 when the cannon was already there, but knew some of its history. It’s likely that this was the last chance to learn by word of mouth.

Virgil explained that before the war, a small cannon sat on the Hall’s lawn. As hostilities grew, the government called for scrap metal and the cannon was sent to the smelter. Much of America’s history met a similar fate. Perhaps the government remembered or was reminded of Arcata’s contribution, because after the war our replacement was sent here. But in an era with P-51 Mustangs and B17 Bombers being left behind or pushed off the decks of ships as they crossed the ocean, why would an old iron relic such as this come to the States, I asked?

He replied that the ships returning home needed ballast. Anything heavy they could find was set down in the holds to keep the ships upright, and that a cannon would do a fine job of that. It arrived in the port of Richmond, and came north on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad at a cost of $17. Virgil thought the Bill of Lading was somewhere in the VFW Hall. The gun was offloaded at the California Barrel Factory (where Wing Inflatables currently resides), and towed up to the Hall. Originally a flagpole was there and the gun sat to the north of the sidewalk, but was later moved to the south side to allow for a wheelchair ramp. They set bolts in the slab for tie-downs, but never used them.

A significant clue about the cannon was right on the barrel; four lines of mostly Oriental writing above the breech. I wondered who I could find to translate, then remembered a distant cousin who has a son in Japan. Lee said indeed, his son speaks fluent Japanese, and supplied his e-address.  I shot off a couple photos of the inscriptions with a plea for help and a day later I learned more than I ever expected. The top line says it’s a Model 92, 10 cm (4”) cannon. The third line, below the No 136, says it was made by the Osaka Infantry Armory, and the bottom line tells us it was built in 1941. He went on Wikipedia to find a link to the Armory where the gun was built and another link to the gun itself. All is in Japanese, which I can’t read, but the page showed a picture of an identical gun. He deciphered that “the series was first built in 1923 but was redesigned several times until its birth as a Model 92 in 1935. It was valued for its portability, but considered a bit lacking in power”.

I had to laugh about “valued for its portability”, thinking back to the rumor of it once having been moved up to HSU’s campus. The stories I’d heard were that Jim Ely never admitted to being part of that prank, but that he had returned it. While that sounds suspicious, Jim was the sort of guy who might have brought such a thing back regardless, so who’s to accuse?  I considered Jim a friend but he passed away before I thought to ask about it. A call to his sister, MaryAnn, however, led to a phone number for one of his best friends, Norm Eaton, who now lives in North Carolina.

Norm said that he had never admitted to taking the cannon either. Some prodding eventually led to a story. Other than Jim, Norm couldn’t recall who else was involved, nor who had the idea, but one night in 1956 around 3 in the morning, about 4 guys hitched it up behind Norm’s ’46 Plymouth. “I didn’t have a trailer hitch or anything, I think we just tied it to the bumper or somewhere with some rope. We had to drive up the old way to Founder’s Hall, and somehow we got it up on the sidewalk below the front doors with it aimed out over the town. Things were pretty quiet in those days, but there were street lights and we couldn’t believe nobody saw us”. I asked Norm if what he revealed could be mentioned. “Yes, go ahead, I don’t think they’ll be coming after us, now”. When I forwarded the story to Virgil he recalled, “Yes, people used to say the gun should be turned a little and aimed toward City Hall”.

Virgil mentioned another story that supposedly took place about 1955. The Sheriff’s Department had a call from a citizen that a cannon was being towed up Hwy. 101. They caught up with the vehicle nearly in Orick, where the culprits were made to bring it back. After those incidents he said they used a long pipe wrench and locked the brakes tightly, which are probably rusted together by now. Later, a museum in Oregon persistently tried to purchase it, but the Lodge wouldn’t let it go.

My original quest to talk to Marino wasn’t in vain. I contacted his daughter, Janet Kelly to learn if she had come across any information in his estate. I commend her for the time she put into digging through the papers of a man who I was told “never threw anything away”. A couple of days later she called back to say she had found had some information.

Indeed, Marino had contacted the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco in 1995 and the Vice Consul, Koji Tsuchiya had replied with information that verified what I’d learned. “The Model 92 is readily recognized by its long slender barrel and tail (the entire gun is 27’ long, the barrel almost 16’), and it has been designed for long-range fire. Other distinctive features are the pronounced length of the sleigh and the three step interrupted thread breechblock. The recoil system is hydropneumatic. Mounted on heavily constructed wooden wheels with solid rubber tires, the weapon is normally tractor drawn but may be drawn by a 5-ton truck. It is capable of firing a high explosive (long pointed shell), chemical or armor piercing projectile. Time fuses are provided for the smoke, incendiary, and chemical shells. Total weight is 3,730 KG (8,206 lbs). In addition to the barrel being able to tilt upward to 45 degrees and downward 5 degrees, it could swing 36 degrees (right or left).” It had a range of about 18 km (something like 11 miles; Hello Humboldt Hill!, Greetings Westhaven!).” The weight of a typical shell was 15.76 kg, close to 35 lbs.

The Vice Consul must have contacted a fellow countryman, because a second letter from a Syogo Hattori, History Division; National Institute for Defense Studies arrived in Marino’s mail several months later from Tokyo. It contained identical information, but added that because “the position of the center of gravity was considered, these cannons were towed by automobiles”. In addition, Mr. Hattori added “many type 92 cannons were used by the Japanese Army in WW2, including the Battle of Bataan, Philippines”. He did not know exactly where our serial No. 136 was used during the war.

One question still lingered in my mind. Why is the second line on the breech, the ”No 136”, seemingly in English? Earlier, one bit of false information had sidetracked me into thinking the cannon was actually British, supplied to British-held Singapore, then captured by the Japanese when they invaded China. The last line, the date of manufacture implies numbers in Japanese and it didn’t make sense. I decided to email Matt in Japan again. He replied, “As for the numbers on the cannon, after the Meiji Restoration in the 1860’s, lots of ideas and technology from the West were actively sought out and imported. It was during this time that Arabic numerals made their way here. Even so, they didn’t completely replace kanji (Chinese writing system adapted to Japanese) numbering, which is still used today alongside Arabic numerals.”

One facet I did not research is the stenciling in durable red ink on the breech close to the Japanese engraving. I can only guess the Z2 FMAR 198 was put there by our government to identify the artifact as it was requisitioned or entered our country. I felt I’d learned enough, however and can let that question lie.

 (Originally published in Humboldt Historian, Winter 2012. Cite this as Felter, B. (2012). Arcata's Cannon. Humboldt Historian, 61(4), winter 2012, 24-33.)