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Explosive Beach Objects-- Just Another Example Of Massachusetts' Charm

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Back away from the UXO.
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Speculation ran wild in the days following that Rhode Island beach explosion, and one of the early theories posed that it might have been an old military munition buried in the sand. But just how likely is it that unexploded military artillery would be found on a New England beach?

It’s fairly common, it turns out.

This time last year, a small crowd gathered at Marconi Beach in Wellfleet to watch from a distance as the state bomb squad detonated a 14 inch projectile found buried in the sand.

The unexploded ordnance – or UXO – was still live, despite the fact that it was some 70 years old. Sargent William Qualls, who heads the Massachusetts state bomb squad, explains that during World War II there were large-scale Naval exercises on the coast with shooting ranges on the islands; a mock German village was even built on the Cape to prepare soldiers for urban warfare. As you might imagine, the area was crawling with munitions. As it turns out – it still is.

“It would be beyond me to speculate,” says Qualls, “but it’s common knowledge that there were large amount of ordnance dumped off into the water, into the deep seas.”

And Dave Foster, spokesperson for the United States Army says “Chemical warfare munitions sea disposals occurred between 1919 and 1970 when it was both an authorized method of disposal and remained an accepted practice.”

Perhaps the biggest haul came after World War II, when tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of tons of surplus artillery and munitions were dumped into the waters off the Atlantic coast.

Including but not limited to artillery shells, 37 millimeter projectiles, 75 millimeter projectiles, bombs, mark–23s some drop munitions, mines, grenades… and a couple of pyrophoric rounds.

In short, a whole lot of nasty stuff. And some seven decades later, Qualls says it’s still finding its way back to shore.

“If you average out our number we respond to about 15 military calls or military item requests per month on average,” he says.

A majority of those are actually house calls. Someone’s cleaning out their parent’s – or grandparent’s home and finds a grenade or a mortar shell in the basement. Still, beach calls happen all the time.

Ninety percent of the items that wash up on our shores or are discovered in sand dunes or beach areas are from World War II era.

The majority of these UXOs prove to be inert, but not all. And Qualls and his 12-person team know exactly how to deal with most of them. Still there is the occasional surprise, usually found by fishermen– further out in the water.

“A torpedo was brought into Provincetown port,” Qualls says. “We had a depth charge brought into Gloucester; We had mustard munitions brought into New Bedford…those are the most notable ones…”

There’s a reason for this. The more dangerous and noxious weapons were dumped further out, at greater depths. And Army spokesperson Dave Foster says that in recent years, they’re increasingly being dredged up.

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A map of the Massachusetts Bay Disposal Site. After WWII, a lot of dangerous--and often active-- munitions were dumped in deep water off the coast.
uxoinfo.com

“The fishing industry is no bringing them up with their catch,” says Foster “because the technology. The advanced technology allows them to go further out, go deeper.”

Foster says the Army works closely the fishing industries to put safety measures and procedures in place. But, of course, Massachusetts has a vast vast coastline And that’s why Sgt. Qualls stresses that if you find something curious on the beach, whatever you do don’t touch it.

“Treat it with the utmost respect,” says Qualls “treat it as live until proven otherwise by the professionals. To mark it, to make notice of the location and then to contact the local authorities immediately.”

Thankfully injuries are exceedingly rare, still Qualls stresses that even the smallest movement can cause a UXO to do harm. After all, that’s exactly what they were designed to do.

If there is something in the news that you are curious to know more about, email Edgar at curiositydesk@wgbh.org. He might just look into it for you.

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