written by Todd DePastino

Little David WWII Gun at Aberdeen Proving Ground

“Little David” was, by measure of caliber, the largest gun ever built (tied with the British 1857 Mallet’s Mortar), and there’s only one, housed for the time being at Fort Gregg-Adams (formerly Fort Lee) after its recent transport from Aberdeen Proving Grounds.

The Veterans Breakfast Club recently heard from a remarkable father-son team, Ralph Grabowsky, Jr., and Eric Grabowsky, who has made it their mission to keep the memory of Little David alive.

Ralph is a Navy veteran and son of Ralph Grabowski, Sr. (yes, his father’s name ends in an “i,” not a “y.”). Ralph Sr. worked on Little David in the 1940s at Mesta Machine Company in West Homestead, PA. Mesta got the contract to build an experimental super-heavy mortar designed to pulverize Germany’s fortified Siegfried Line. It was a secret project. Little David was not needed for the Siegfried Line. It was then included in the invasion plans for Japan.

Little David fired a 36-inch (914 mm) mortar shell weighing around 3,650 pounds. The mortar was transported in two pieces: the 80,000-pound barrel and the 93,000-pound base. The base would be set to a depth of 13-feet, allowing the barrel to be lowered level to the ground for loading.

The war ended before Little David could be used in combat. The prototype was retired to Aberdeen Proving Ground. After the museum closed, the mortar was shipped to Fort Gregg-Adams (formerly Fort Lee).

It was there, last month, that Ralph and Eric got a first-hand look at this ancient beast for their ongoing research into the weapons made at Mesta Machinery.

The pair took these remarkable photos, shared with the Veterans Breakfast Club by their friend, Jim Nowalk.

The first photo shows Ralph with the tube or barrel. Note the tire covering the barrel’s 36″ diameter opening.

Ralph Grabowski standing next to Little David, looking small

Photo is Courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History

Another photo shows more of the barrel, including the cross section that fits into the base.

WWII gun base at end of barrel

Photo is Courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History

Ralph says to look at the back left of the picture. You see a tank. This was the first Japanese tank captured by the Americans in World War II. It happened in 1942 on the Aleutian Island of Kiska. The tank will eventually be refurbished and displayed.

The base itself is shown in the third photo, just a metal case designed to be sunk into the ground.

Base box of Little David, WWII's largest gun

Photo is Courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History

The final photo shows the projectile the gun fired. It’s a heavy mortar that could be fired a maximum of six miles.

Large projectile Little David fired

Photo is Courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History

Ralph says that the Army plans to refurbish and display Little David so that this one-of-a-kind history can be enjoyed and learned from by future generations.

“In my view,” says Ralph, “a display at Fort Gregg-Adams of Little David will provide a tribute to the employees of Mesta Machine Company during World War II. Mesta was given an excellence award and then five stars by the Army-Navy Production Board. In addition, such preservation of history will be an important learning opportunity for the descendants of these dedicated Mesta employees.”

Ralph and Eric are grateful to the U.S. Army for the opportunity to visit Fort Gregg-Adams. They credited Weldon Svoboda (Supervisory Museum Curator and Collections Manager, U.S. Army Center of Military History) for hosting their visit and sharing historical information. Some of that history is featured by Ralph and Eric in this article. 

We look forward to hearing more about Little David from Ralph and Eric as their research progresses.

In the meantime, enjoy this Signal Corps newsreel about Little David from July 1945, weeks before the Japanese Surrender.