BY JOHN M.R. BULL
November 2, 2005
He was carrying rusty old artillery shells he found in the sand.
"Can I keep them?"
They were live. The Delaware beach was evacuated. A bomb squad blew them up.
The country's coastlines are littered with unexploded bombs, rockets and shells that regularly wash up on shore, according to military officials.
While the Army dumped chemical weapons mostly in deep water - as detailed in a Daily Press investigation published Sunday and Monday - the Navy used to throw surplus high-explosive, so-called conventional ordnance overboard, sometimes in relatively shallow water.
These "over-the-side," "routine" dumping operations were official Navy policy from 1952 to 1964, according to a previously undisclosed Navy report obtained by the Daily Press.
After that, the Navy disposed of 31 million pounds of old bombs and rockets for six years in spectacular fashion: Loading them onto ships and blowing them to smithereens off the coasts of eight states.
One of those ships was detonated off the coast of New Jersey in 1964 and produced a blast so massive it was picked up by seismic sensors on land, many miles away, and threw unexploded ordnance in all directions. A year later, a ship blown up off Virginia Beach sent a plume 600 feet into the air - higher than the Washington Monument.
The practice stopped when the Navy lost a weapons-packed ship in the fog in 1970.
Nautical charts sometimes, but not always, mark the locations of conventional ordnance in the ocean. The discarded weapons are extremely hazardous. The military does not know where they all are located. Records are sketchy, at best.
"We've come to the conclusion we need to do a complete archival search," said J.C. King, a retired Army colonel who was chief of ordnance and now works for the Army on explosives issues. "There are some vague reports. The Navy has some hand-written documents. It is logical to assume an archival search will come up with something. But it is possible it will show up nothing."
King has spent the last year trying to find military ocean-dumping records after a clam dredging operation a mere 20 miles from the coast of New Jersey tapped into an undocumented ordnance disposal site that included chemical weapons.
His research uncovered little more than the fact that ocean dumping was standard Navy practice for at least two decades, and that a detailed report exists that documents a six-year, large-scale Navy ordnance disposal operation in the 1960s.
Two weeks ago, the Army authorized the Army Technical Center for Explosives Safety to do a military-wide review of existing records to identify where ordnance - both chemical and conventional - was dumped and when.
This would make possible a future assessment of the risks the ordnance poses to beachgoers, boaters and commercial fishing operations - something the military has never done. The Army is in charge of explosives used by all the military services.
Within the last three years, rockets have washed up on Assateague Island in Maryland; an unexploded antiaircraft shell was found in Dewey Beach, Del.; and a plan to dredge San Diego's harbor was put on hold when unexploded ordnance and a depth charge were discovered near the shoreline.
A beach replenishment project in Virginia Beach last summer off Dam Neck Naval Reservation sucked up three truckloads of old ordnance from the ocean floor within yards of the shoreline, said Roy Hunt, a Navy master chief and explosives expert based in Norfolk.
That was just the small stuff that could fit through the hose that sucked sand off the seabed and sprayed it onto the beach, Hunt said. Rockets and other large munitions remain on the ocean floor at that location, he said.
It is hardly an abnormality on the nation's coastlines, he added.
"Mines are out there. Torpedoes are out there. I know that. There's a lot of ordnance out there," Hunt said. "There are many hundreds of thousands of projectiles. I know this because sand dredging brings it up."
In 1964, the Navy latched onto a novel way to get rid of aging or obsolete bombs and rockets: Load them onto rusty Liberty class ships, tow the ships out to sea and sink them.
It was called Operation CHASE, an acronym for Cut Holes and Sink 'Em.
It was cheaper than the previous smaller-scale dumps, and got rid of both the ordnance and the unwanted ships at the same time in deep water locations, according to a previously undisclosed Navy report titled Historical Summary of Numbered DWD Operations. DWD stands for deep water dumping.
Over six years, 15 ships were packed with more than 31 million pounds of high-explosive ordnance and sunk off the coastlines of eight states - Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, Georgia, Alaska, California and Washington.
The first ship, the SS John F. Shafroth, was quietly scuttled southwest of San Francisco with a comparatively small load of a half-million pounds of rockets, mines and bombs.
The Navy decided to blow up the next ship.
It was spectacular.
The explosion of the SS Village, in deep water off the coast of Atlantic City, N.J., consumed much of the 1.6 million pounds of bombs, grenades, mines and rockets and scattered unexploded ordnance in all directions.
The Sept. 17, 1964, detonation sent "extreme shock waves" in all directions and was so strong it was "recorded at numerous distant seismic stations," the report says.
For the Navy, this was an unexpected benefit - a chance to obtain seismic data on large explosions that "would be valuable to the nuclear test detection program," the report noted.
So for the next three years the ships were blown up at various distances from the shoreline to determine if seismic sensors inland could detect the explosions.
The 1965 detonation of the Coastal Mariner, in deep water off Virginia Beach, created "a severe shock wave" and a 600-foot geyser.
That practice stopped in 1970, after the Navy lost one of its explosives-packed ships off the coast of the Aleutian Islands, part of Alaska.
The ship was carrying more than 6 million pounds of bombs, mines, rockets and torpedoes, and was beginning to sink. Then fog rolled in and the Navy lost contact with it, preventing it from being bombed into oblivion.
For the next 19 hours, the Navy frantically looked for the ship, eventually found it, and failed in an effort to bomb it. The ship drifted into water deemed too shallow for detonation, so it was allowed to sink on its own in 2,800 feet of water, the shallowest of all the CHASE dumps.
The Navy looked the hulk over, decided it was safe enough, and gave up the idea of blowing up future ships in the dump program.
The holds of the eight remaining ordnance-packed ships were flooded so they would sink on their own.
Seven of them, however, blew up on the way to the ocean floor. Pressure on the munitions as they sunk presumably set off chain-reaction explosions that tore the ships apart, scattering the bombs and rockets that didn't go off.
The last ship to be sunk full of conventional weapons was the SS David E. Hughes, sunk on Aug. 29, 1970, in 7,000 feet of water off the coast of Bethany Beach, Del.
With the rise of the environmental movement at the time, the Navy decided enough was enough and in 1971 canceled the program.
"Although the Navy believed the program relatively harmless environmentally as well as being operationally safe and cost effective, it was conceded that the full ecological impact of DWD operations was not documented," according to the historical summary of the program.
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