Lest We Forget

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Although nothing like these German monsters, the U.S. Navy had some very powerful long range guns as well. Unfortunately, they were mounted on battleships, and the Western Front, where the AEF would be deployed, was nowhere near the waters where this firepower could be brought to bear. But Rear Admiral Ralph Earle, who commanded the Navy's Bureau of Ordnance, had another idea. He suggested mounting 14-inch naval guns onto railway cars.

The idea was quickly approved. Work began immediately on creating these strange hybrids, and then-Captain Charles Plunkett was appointed as the overall commander of this unusual task force. Special railway cars were designed to mount the giant guns-one to a car-along with auxiliary cars that housed workshops, ammunition magazines, radio spaces, offices, and accommodations for the 334 Navy crewmembers who would be needed to serve the guns. More than 20,000 Sailors volunteered for this unusual duty.

In August 1918 the guns arrived at St. Nazaire on the western coast of France. By 6 September the guns were at the front and firing their first shots. Although it had been hoped that these guns would be able to destroy the enemy's Big Berthas, the Germans had removed them from the front by the time the Americans had arrived, presumably because of some mechanical failures. Nonetheless, the American railway guns proved useful. Firing several hundred rounds at distances from 18 to 23 miles, they successfully hit targets at several German-held railway yards and various other enemy positions. The Germans returned fire on several occasions, and one Sailor was killed as a result.

After the war, guns were shipped back to the United States and kept in reserve. The rise of air power made them too vulnerable to ever be used again. Captain Plunkett went back to a more conventional career, subsequently serving as commandant of the New York Navy Yard and retiring as a rear admiral in 1928. He is interred at Arlington National Cemetery, and one of his railway guns is today on display at the U.S. Navy Museum in the Washington Navy Yard.

Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several books, including A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy and Brown Water, Black Berets.

Thomas J. Cutler is a retired lieutenant commander and former gunner's mate second class who served in patrol craft, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. His varied assignments included an in-country Vietnam tour, small craft command, and nine years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he served as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Seamanship & Navigation Department and Associate Chairman of the History Department. While at the Academy, he was awarded the William P. Clements Award for Excellence in Education (military teacher of the year).

He is the founder and former Director of the Walbrook Maritime Academy in Baltimore. Currently he is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy with the Naval War College and is the Director of Professional Publishing at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Winner of the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Naval Literature, the U.S. Naval Institute Press Author of the Year, and the U.S. Maritime Literature Award, his published works include NavCivGuide: A Handbook for Civilians in the U.S. Navy; A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy [one of the books in the Chief of Naval Operations Reading Program]; The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal & Riverine Warfare in Vietnam; and the 22nd, 23rd (Centennial), and 24th editions of The Bluejacket's Manual. His other works include revisions of Jack Sweetman's The Illustrated History of the U.S. Naval Academy and Dutton's Nautical Navigation. He and his wife, Deborah W. Cutler, are the co-editors of the Dictionary of Naval Terms and the Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations.

His books have been published in various forms, including paperback and audio, and have appeared as main and alternate selections of the History Book Club, Military Book Club, and Book of the Month Club. He has served as a panelist, commentator, and keynote speaker on military and writing topics at many events and for various organizations, including the Naval History and Heritage Command, Smithsonian Institution, the Navy Memorial, U.S. Naval Academy, MacArthur Memorial Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Naval Institute, Armed Forces Electronics Communications and Electronics Association, Naval War College, Civitan, and many veterans' organizations. His television appearances include the History Channel's Biography series, A&E's Our Century, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, and CBS's 48 Hours.

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Events and Conferences

Guest Lecturer
12:30pm, “Shifley Lecture Series,” U.S. Naval Academy Museum, 118 Maryland Ave., Annapolis, MD /... Read More
Videotape Interview
10:00am, “Veterans Oral Histories Series,” American Veterans Center, 1100 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington,... Read More


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Fri, 2016-07-08

You are cordially invited to: Delivering on the Vision for the Future of Submarine Warfare A discussion with Rear Admiral Charles...

2016 Naval History Conference

WEST 2017

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

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