WORTHINGTON - After starting off with a bang by garnering support and collecting monetary donations, plans to restore a World War II-era Japanese cannon long displayed in Worthington’s Chautauqua Park are getting back on track after months with little progress.
It was in November 2013 that local veteran and First Covenant Church Minister John Stewart met with the Freedom Veterans Memorial Committee to seek support for restoring the Type 94, 37-millimeter antitank gun. The small cannon was a gift to the community, along with a much larger Japanese cannon that is on display in the Worthington Cemetery. Both arrived shortly after World War II.
Local historian Ray Crippen has said both cannons were captured from the Japanese during the war. It is believed they were given to Worthington to replace a Civil War cannon, which was previously on display in the Worthington Cemetery. That cannon, along with a pyramid of cannonballs, were donated for scrap during the salvage drives of World War II.
Cripped explained that someone in the military was so struck by Worthington’s gesture to donate the Civil war cannon that they assured the community it would get a replacement cannon after the war ended.
“So, they replaced it with a Japanese cannon,” Crippen said in 2013, when it was announced the smaller cannon would be restored.
“They captured thousands of cannons, and what do you do with thousands of them? Send them around the country.”
After it arrived, the smaller cannon was positioned outside Chautauqua Park’s shelter house, facing Lake Okabena. Over the years, the cannon’s wooden wheels slowly sunk into the ground, causing them damage.
Early in the process of seeking experts to restore the cannon, Stewart found a company in Indiana willing to bring the military piece back to its former glory. Now, however, the hope is that with local volunteers, the refurbishing work and painting can be done at a considerable cost savings.
Stewart has since found a South Dakota-based company that may either be able to repair the cannon’s original wooden wheels or craft entirely new wheels if deemed necessary. He hopes to deliver the wheels to the Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop in Letcher, S.D., by the end of February.
So far, $3,000 has been raised to help pay for the cannon’s restoration. With the cost of the wooden wheel repairs to take up a large share of those funds, Stewart said he’d like to raise another $1,000. In addition to restoring the cannon, the money will be used to create a marker to place alongside the cannon.
Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle, one of the committee members planning for the cannon’s restoration, said he’d like to see a granite marker created to share some of the history about the cannon.
“We need to tell the story of why it’s there and what it represents,” Kuhle said. “It represents the sacrifice of our servicemen - the spoils of war.”
Despite being a Japanese cannon - the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, states that just 3,400 of these cannons were manufactured between 1936 and 1941 - Kuhle said it is still a piece of history from the war and should be preserved.
“Our intention has always been to honor veterans,” added Stewart. “Because it’s a wooden-wheeled cannon, it’s ... a pretty rare piece that we have. There’s not a lot of them.”
Since announcing plans for the cannon’s restoration, Stewart said he received several comments about where the cannon should eventually go. Initially, it was suggested to place it on the grounds of Worthington’s Memorial Auditorium.
“With it being a Japanese cannon, there were some folks who were sensitive to people who served in the Pacific (Theater during World War II),” Stewart said. “They didn’t like the idea of putting it at Memorial Auditorium, and several veterans and families of veterans said they were uncomfortable with it.
“Folks didn’t have an objection to refurbishing it, but where it was put,” he added.
Now, the plan is to return the cannon to its former resting site in Chautauqua Park once the restoration is complete. It was removed last fall from the lakeside park and is now stored at a safe site awaiting for refurbishing to begin.
Before it is returned to the park, Stewart said a concrete pad will be put in place to better protect the wooden wheels and slow deterioration from the elements.
It could take up to six months for the wooden wheels to be restored. Meanwhile, Stewart said volunteers are being sought to sandblast the antitank gun. He already has some people lined up to paint the piece once it’s ready.
Anyone interested in helping with the cannon’s restoration may donate funds to the Freedom Veterans Memorial Park cannon fund at the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce.
Stewart is hopeful the cannon can be fully restored and back on display by Veterans Day.
If the restoration is successful, Stewart said there’s a possibility the group may take on a larger project - restoring the French-built, American-used World War I cannon currently on display in Worthington’s Pioneer Village.
“The thought is we’ll see how this cannon turns out and then do the same thing with the Pioneer Village cannon, and then put that at Memorial Auditorium,” he said.