As steam engines, cars and floats line up on Saturday for the 63rd annual Thomas-Mashburn Steam Engine Parade, one float will have a little more firepower than the rest.
A common sight at parades and other events attended by members of American Legion Post 307 in Cumming is the group’s OTO-Melara Mod 56 105 mm howitzer cannon, affectionately known to the group as Howie.
According to information gathered by Terry Dodd, Howie was built in 1957 for the Italian Army’s mountain artillery regiments. The weapon was eventually sold to Iraq, where it was captured by the U.S. 3rd Army before making its way to Canada, being purchased by a retired U.S. artillery office in Jackson Hole, Wyoming to preemptively set off avalanches for skiing operations and was later passed between several military-related organizations before being adopted by Post 307.
Post Commander Gary Ely said other than the information found by Dodd, the rest of Howie’s history is a bit of a mystery, even the timeframe when he came to the Post.
“Well honestly, since I took over as commander, we’ve researched and gone back to all the people that I can talk to that’s still living, and it was donated by somebody and we can’t tell who and we don’t have any title work, no papers, no nothing except what Terry dug in and found out,” Ely said.
One story Dodd found from Howie’s time in Wyoming involved a two-man crew who were in charge of remotely firing Howie to trigger an avalanche, but due stormy weather and miscommunication, the pair was swept away by a second avalanche caused by reverberations.
Howie’s tires provided a protective barrier for the two and the gun sticking up out of the snow where they were buried made them easy to spot.
Ely said these days, Howie has become popular for pictures, fundraising and other uses for the Legion.
He recalled one day, as members were doing a fundraiser along Market Place Boulevard, one member was having issues getting donations until a previous post commander brought in Howie, then “his bucket started filling right up.”
“People love the cannon, the kids love it and a company has agreed to refurbish the trailer and do whatever they need to do to refinish the cannon and get everything looking back in great shape for us because we’re going to use it as our major fundraiser focal point,” Ely said.
Ely said the fundraising plans would involve getting local businesses or groups as sponsors and putting their names on the trailer as Legion members drove it around town and another project is being planned to bring Howie back to his original glory.
“If you look at war films, a lot of those cannons have deflector shields where the troops can hide behind them if someone is shooting at them, but it’s missing,” he said. “Terry’s done a lot of research and got a lot of people involved in finding out what’s going on with this, but somebody had blueprints for those shields and gave him and address where he could contact him, [then] we can find a sheet metal worker around here make us one of those up and get them reattached. People are getting involved. They think it’s pretty cool.”
Along with getting fixed up, Howie has also received a “Purple Heart,” a 105 mm shell casing with the engraving, “Honoring HOWIE the HOWITZER for Serving Humanity.”
“Interestingly, [Dodd] did get a shell casing that was, I believe, remanufactured,” Ely said, “but it was polished and made up with information about the howitzer.”