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AK: Exploding History

It’s been more than 70 years since Unalaska came under attack during World War II, but you don’t have to look hard to find the remnants. The community is littered with old gunnery installations, battered Quonset huts and bunkers – some of which are being preserved for posterity.

But there’s history, and then there’s hazard, and the shells and bombs that keep washing up on Unalaska’s shores fall somewhere in between.

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Photo by Unalaska Fire Chief Abner Hoage.

Photo by Unalaska Fire Chief Abner Hoage.

Out on a quiet beach at the edge of the island, Unalaska’s shooting range is where local gun owners go for target practice.

But the team of Army and Air Force munitions experts that have converged on the range aren’t here to practice anything.

They’ve flown in just to examine a mysterious shell that may date back to World War II.

“Let’s go ahead and take a couple minutes and try to get a quick ID,” Air Force Sgt. Luke Mefford said.

He’s the head of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.

The EOD team has come out to Unalaska, Adak and other Aleutian communities over the years to identify and safely destroy leftover munitions from the war.

Usually, these items get picked up beachcombers or fishermen. Even though they’ve have been swimming in salt water for decades, that doesn’t mean these they’re inert.

Army Sgt. Joe Potocki explains:

Potocki: “Some old explosives use, like, nitroglycerin which is highly sensitive. Being so old, not in the state it’s supposed to be in? You mess around with it, it could definitely go off.”

Rosenthal: “That’s scary!”

Potocki: “It is. That’s why we’re around – it’s why we’ve got a job.”

The job that brought them to Unalaska this time was an effort at historical preservation – gone wrong.

The Ounalashka Corporation runs the World War II museum. Their manager, Dave Gregory, says he was out at lunch one day when an employee of a local fish plant dropped off a donation.

“It was about – oh, what – 20 inches long, six inches at the base. And then it kind of tapered down. Kind of a greenish, dirty color I guess,” Gregory said.

Gregory is no stranger to ordnance. He says the museum does like to collect small pieces, to put in its displays. They add some color.

Photo by Unalaska Fire Chief Abner Hoage.

Photo by Unalaska Fire Chief Abner Hoage.

This shell was different, though. It was heavier and bigger than anything Gregory had seen, it didn’t seem like a good thing to keep around. So he called his friends at public safety. They took custody of the shell, and contacted the EOD team for disposal.

In Unalaska, the team is coping with miserable weather. They take turns snapping photos on the windy, snowy beach. One by one, they dart into a running fire truck for warmth while they consult munitions manuals.

Finally, Sgt. Mefford walks up. They have an ID.

“It’s an artillery round, more than likely fired from a naval ship out in the water somewhere,” Mefford said. “Either for target practice, depending on the exact time period, it may have been used against enemy actions.”

Mefford says he can’t share any more information than that, because the rest is classified.

“I can’t really give you specifics on it, just due to our disclosure rules on it,” he said.

The team wastes no time setting up the blast site.

“Are we gonna have enough antenna to get up on top of this, Scotty?,” Mefford asked.

“Yeah we should, because those caps,” Scott Rice, from the U.S. Air Force, said.

They pack the shell in a hole, and cover it with about 6 pounds of C4, a plastic explosive. They poke in some blasting caps, which are tuned into a remote control.

Once it’s set up, we’re directed to take cover several hundred yards away, behind two gravel berms. We’re waiting for the remote control to warm up, when the team asks me if I want to be the one to set off the explosives.

Rosenthal: “Can I?”

Rice: “Yeah, absolutely! It’ll be ready to go in about 30 seconds.”

Mefford: “We’re not doing it yet. We’re gonna let him set his camera up and then give him the go-ahead.”

While we wait for fire chief Abner Hoage to set up his video camera, I get some basic instructions.

Rice: “Alright, so when we get ready to fire this thing, under this cover is one fire button. You just get ready to press and hold one of them, and then press and hold the other. There will be a two second delay and the shot will go off.”

Potocki: “Do you want to tell her what she has to yell?”

Rice: “Ha, oh yeah. Before you set that off, you have to yell fire in the hole three times as loud as you can. Once forward, once off to your left, once off to your right.”

Air Force Sgt. Scott Rice and I trade. He takes my microphone and recorder, and I take his remote detonator.

Without further ado:

Rosenthal: “FIRE IN THE HOLE, FIRE IN THE HOLE, FIRE IN THE HOLE.”

Rice: “Hold it up nice and high! There you go.”

BLAST

Rosenthal: “Oh whoa! That is a giant plume of smoke. Whoa. That’s a rush.”

Bits of shrapnel rain through the air – some of them even flying past the berms, carried by the high winds.

Once the dust settles, the team tells me they like to let visitors detonate the explosives when they’re working in the field.

Rosenthal: “Well, thanks for letting me do that, it was really fun.”

Rice: “Alright, we’re good to go. We can go and check it out.”

All that’s left of the shell, is a 4-foot round hole. They measure it and pack up their equipment pretty fast.

Rice: “Alright well, that’s fun.”

Mefford: “That’s Jenga.”

JBER Pilot: “I know the aftermath isn’t as exciting. There’s a hole in the ground!”

The team heads back to the Unalaska fire house for a quick debrief. I ask if any of them thought about the history of the shell before they blew it up, and they say they did.

Mefford: “It’s just neat to come across something your granddad or great-uncle or whatever might have shot 70 years ago.”

Christopher McDonald, US Army: “Probably looked a lot better, though.”

Mefford: “Yeah, probably shinier back then.”

The EOD team is pretty sure that ordnance will keep washing up in Unalaska for a while.

That’s why, when it it’s time for the team to fly back to their base in Anchorage, saying “see you later” seems like a more appropriate than saying, “goodbye.”

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