Loose Cannons of Walla Walla

Loose Cannons is the name of a committee that I had taken a small part in to restore two World War I, French built, cannons rusting away in Walla Walla. This is not really a Blue Family story, but I believe through my research, I have sufficiently connected the Blue Family dots to make it acceptable for the website. Most of this story was written by Cleve Parker one of the board members of “Sons and Daughters of Oregon Pioneers”,, who I met by attending a meeting in Echo, Oregon. This group normally meets in Clackamas County and in the Portland, Oregon-city area. My research of the western migration of my Blue Family and Cleve's Parker family showed our ancestors taking a remarkably similar route getting from the east to the west coast and finally to Walla Walla, all in about the same time frame.

Both sets of Great Grandparents arrived by the Oregon Trail in Jacksonville, Jackson County, Oregon circa 1851-1853, but apparently not on the same wagon train. Both families had lots of babies in Jackson county before migrating north and both families had at least one birth in Linn County, the Parker family in 1854 and the Blue family in 1870. From there the Blue family continued, probably up the Columbia River and through Walla Walla County to Whitman County where they farmed until 1888 when great Grandmother Sarah Blue died. They then moved into Idaho south of Lewiston where one of my uncles died at the age of 19. In 1910 my grandfather brought the family to Walla Walla where my Great-Grandfather, Amos Blue and Cleve Parker’s Great-Grandparents are buried at Mountain view Cemetery in Walla Walla.

Cleve Parker wrote the story of his grandfather after our meeting and his trip to Walla Walla. What follows is just Part of a much longer story. Part One is mostly from his grandfather’s diary that he kept throughout his deployment to France. It is an extremely interesting story but does not include the Blue Family, so I chose not to include that part here. However, I do like to tie my stories of the Walla Walla Blues to our roots in New Jersey and New York and I finally found that connection in his grandpa's diary. Cleve's grandfather lived on his father's ranch in Prescott, a small town about 20 miles north of Walla Walla and he joined the Army at Fort Walla Walla.

This band of Walla Walla troops of Battery D and the rest of the 146th F.A. boarded the White Star Liner “Lapland” on 24 December 1917 in Hoboken, New Jersey. Grandfather Parker noted in the War Diary that he kept, that they had set sail at 3:30 p.m. and that they soon passed by the Statue of Liberty. He was supposed to be in the hold but he had found an empty stateroom up on deck where he could hide and watch the departure. His terse Christmas Eve departure comment after recording that he had seen Lady Liberty was “Wonder if I will ever see it again."

Cleve Parker's story begins here:

It is time to fast forward this tale to late September 2018 because I promised a story about my Grandpa Parker's guns. The feeling of serendipity has not happened to me very many times in my life. But what happened to me in September of this year can only be described by using that word. On a Saturday, Nancy and I attended a meeting in the small and historic town of Echo, Oregon for an organization that we both belong to. It has a strong interest in Oregon Trail history and the Oregon Trail goes right through the middle of Echo. Both of us are descended from ancestors that came across the Oregon Trail. My family came in 1852 and my wife’s family came a year later in 1853. At this meeting, we met, for the very first time, Jim Irwin. Jim has been a long-time member of the organization and lives in Walla Walla. However, he had never been to any meetings of the group but decided to attend the one in Echo since it was only about 40 miles away from him.

We told him that we were planning to visit Walla Walla the very next day as neither of us had ever visited the site of the Whitman Mission and we also wanted to look for the graves of my paternal great-grandparents who are buried in Walla Walla’s Mountain View Cemetery (Cleveland Parker’s parents). We did find their graves late Sunday afternoon). He asked if we would like a Tour Guide and we accepted with some alacrity!

On Sunday, after leaving the Whitman Mission which was on our way into town, we called Jim and he met us at the Fort Walla Walla Historical Museum. After looking around for a bit, we all went to lunch and then Jim gave us a driving tour of Walla Walla, including a stop at the historic (and lavish) Marcus Whitman Hotel where he wanted to show us a series of paintings that depicted the history of the Marcus and Narcissa Whitman Mission and subsequent Whitman Massacre. Jim had owned an art gallery before his retirement, and he knew this artist well.

Jim also showed us several bronze statues around town that he had been involved with, including a life-sized bronze of General Jonathan “Skinny” Wainwright who had surrendered the Corregidor in The Philippines after Gen. Douglas MacArthur was ordered out by FDR. He spent the war in a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp but was liberated in time to be present on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbor to witness the surrender of the Japanese. Wainwright was born at Fort Walla Walla and kept a close connection to it his entire life. Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska is named for him and we lived close to it during our time in Fairbanks. The Headquarter building has Wainwright’s Class A tunic on display, with all his stars, insignia, and decorations. Seeing his life-sized statue, at his birthplace, was extremely exciting for us.

Our last drive-by, before Jim dropped us back off at our car in the Fort Walla Walla Museum parking lot, was at the World War I Memorial located just outside the Fort Walla Walla Cemetery. I took one look at the monument from the road and immediately demanded that he stop the car and let me out.

The hair on the back of my neck was standing up as I approached two very large cannons situated on a large concrete pad. I recognized the cannon from grainy black and white photos that I had seen in my Grandfather’s unit history. They were French 155mm G.P.F. cannons. Knowing that my Grandfather had enlisted at Fort Walla Walla and that these were the sort of cannon that he had labored on, I started to hope that these two big guns might have been his.

As I approached the site, I noticed that flying above the cannon and concrete pad were two large flag poles flying the Flag of the United States of America and the Tricolor Flag of the Republic of France. Now my neck hair was not only standing on end, but chills were literally running down my spine.

The first thing I did, by now convinced that these were the guns belonging to the late Grandfather I never knew, was to run my hands over them – almost in a caress. My wife, watching from Jim’s waiting car, knew something was up. The second thing I did was to start reading the various bronze plaques that were placed in and around the Memorial. The very first plaque that I read confirmed that these two guns were, in fact, two of the four guns belonging to Battery D, 146th Field Artillery. They DID BELONG to Grandfather’s very unit. Knowing that he had been the Chief Mechanic for the unit, responsible for their proper maintenance and servicing, I had to bite my lip to hold back the tears that were inexplicably appearing in the corners of my eyes.

These were my Grandfather’s guns, and I knew that he had been all over these giant machines of war and destruction. When I closed my eyes, I could imagine my namesake crawling all over them. Because he died before well before I was born, Grandpa Parker has never been entirely real to me, even when, as a child, I accompanied my Grandmother to his grave on Memorial Day to leave flowers and post a well-earned American Flag. In that moment of touching his guns, his big French 155 mm guns, Grandfather truly became alive for me – for the very first time in my life. In touching and caressing Grandpa’s guns, I honestly believe that I felt his spirit with me that day.

These two guns survived, likely quietly rusting away somewhere, until a small group of Walla Walla civic-minded and patriotic citizens decided that the remaining two 155mm guns would make a dandy and highly appropriate World War I Memorial. They formed a small committee, known by all as “The Loose Cannons.” The Loose Cannons restored both remaining cannons, got the various permissions and permits, built what must be an incredibly thick and massive concrete pad (to hold the immense weight) and then dedicated their Memorial to all Walla Walla boys who served, but most especially to the men of Battery D, 146th Field Artillery.

My second surreal and serendipitous moment of the day? The very first name on the plaque honoring the Loose Cannon Committee was that of my new friend and chauffeur, Jim Irwin, who was patiently waiting for me in his car while I spent an exceptionally long period of time communing with my Grandfather. And his guns.

At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh

month, one hundred years ago this very day, the Armistice ending World War I was signed, and my Grandfather’s guns fell silent."

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