When someone mentions an atomic bomb, you probably conjure up images of 10,000-pound World War II-era behemoths like Fat Man and Little Boy, gigantic mushroom clouds stretching 60,000 feet into the air and equally gigantic planes like the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay to carry the payload to its intended target. What you probably didn’t conjure up was three guys in a Jeep with a portable recoilless rifle and an atomic projectile weighing just a hair more than 75 pounds.
Davy Crockett & the Atomic Watermelons
Alas, the Cold War and Atomic Age was an intriguing era full of all kinds of new weaponry, and the portable atomic bomb weapons system that became known as Davy Crockett and the Atomic Watermelons was, by far, the most intriguing of them all.
In the years following World War II, advances in nuclear-related science had enabled the size of atomic bombs to shrink dramatically. No longer was the effectiveness of nuclear weaponry resigned to leveling entire areas with the aid of heavy aircraft. This size reduction would allow nuclear weapons to be used by ground troops in direct combat situations. The weapons would be more maneuverable and able to be applied in more localized operations. In theory, this would make nuclear combat more precise, targeted and effective.
The Atomic Energy Commission announced in 1957 that they had created a nuclear warhead that yielded less than a kiloton. This was, they said, perfect for use as front-line weaponry. Work began on the project, known as the Battle Group Atomic Delivery System (BGADS), at more than a half dozen arsenals across the United States.
By mid-1958, the project had officially begun referring to BGADS as Davy Crockett, the frontiersman best known for his role at the Alamo in 1836. Why, exactly, they adopted the name is unclear. Perhaps because the weapon would be embarking on a new frontier? Or maybe because Crockett’s name was code, and his legacy was the last thing anyone would associate with atomic bombs. We may never know for sure.
Davy Crockett was an “all-hands-on-deck” project, with various aspects of the work being done in the arsenals at Springfield, Rock Island, Detroit, Watervliet and Picatinny, as well as places like the Aberdeen Proving Grounds and others.
Light Or Heavy
The project moved along at a quick pace. By May 1961, the first Davy Crocketts were ready for use. Available in two sizes—light and heavy—the M28 variant (light) utilized a 120mm recoilless rifle with a range of 1.25 miles. The M29 variant (heavy) used a 155mm recoilless rifle with a range of 2.5 miles. Both the M28 and M29 fired M388 atomic projectiles weighing 76 pounds.
The projectile measured 31 inches long and 11 inches in circumference. Its oblong shape earned it the nickname of “atomic watermelon” by soldiers who worked with it. Most importantly, the atomic watermelon’s M338 projectile was outfitted with the W54 warhead, which weighed 51 pounds and had a yield of 0.1 to 0.2 kilotons. By comparison, the Fat Man bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki weighed 9,700 pounds and had a yield of 21 kilotons.
M28 and M29 rifles weighed 185 pounds and 440 pounds, respectively. They could be transported manually via “port-a-packs” by their three-man crews if needed, but they were generally transported by Jeeps or armored personnel carriers (APC).
Jeeps that were outfitted with the Davy Crockett system could launch their atomic watermelons from their vehicle mounts. APCs, on the other hand, could not launch from the vehicle. Regardless of the mounting system, Davy Crockett could also be fired from the ground via tripod.
The heat, blast force and nuclear fallout were considered to be an effective trifecta of attacks against the enemy. But the system was not without danger to the men launching it. Since the atomic watermelons were launched remotely, their crews were encouraged to position themselves a safe distance away and keep their heads down.
In The Field
Units in Germany, Guam, Hawaii, Japan and South Korea were eventually outfitted with the Davy Crockett Weapons System, and plenty of dummy training rounds were fired. However, it was never fired in an actual combat situation with a real nuclear warhead.
Instead, only two actual atomic watermelons were ever detonated—both in July 1962. In keeping with the World War II tradition of naming atomic bombs, these two were called “Little Feller I” and “Little Feller II.” Detonation of Little Feller I was from a static drop point; Little Feller II’s detonation was a full-scale display of the bomb being launched from the Davy Crockett in front of military and political VIPs, including then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
Unfathomable given today’s knowledge of nuclear fallout and its lasting effects, the crowd watched the display from bleachers less than two miles from the detonation site, and their only means of protection was eye goggles. The soldiers performing the demonstration were just half a mile from the detonation site.
The following year, in June 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed an agreement with the Soviet Union and other nations that put a prohibition on how nuclear weapons could be tested. This would prove to be the beginning of the end of the Davy Crockett Weapons System.
MOST COSTLY MELONS IN HISTORY
The BGADS project had a total budget of $78.1 million between the Fiscal Years of 1958 and 1963. R&D ate up $19.9 million; ammo, weapons, propellant, and mounts accounted for $49.2 million, and the rest went to operations, maintenance and, in true government fashion, miscellaneous expenses.
Adjusting for inflation, the project would have cost $676.5 million today. That’s a lot of money for a weapons system that had quite the short life. Of course, knowing what we do now about the effects of nuclear weapons, that’s probably a good thing. If atomic watermelons had gone into regular use by the United States and other nations, there is little doubt that the world would be a very different place than it is today.
Of course, that’s not to say that nuclear weaponry did not have an appropriate place in history; it most certainly did. When funding ended in 1963, the program advanced little in the coming years. In 1967, the Army began to withdraw Davy Crockett and its atomic watermelons from posts around the world.
By 1971, the system had been officially retired, thus ending the saga of one of the most unusual weapons systems to come out of the Cold War and the Atomic Age. Besides, “Davy Crockett & the Atomic Watermelons” sounds much more like a musical side project of Davy Jones from The Monkees than a nuclear military weapons system anyway!
This article originally appeared in the April-May 2021 issue of Tactical Life magazine. Get your copy or digital subscription at OutdoorGroupStore.com.