Asia copes with unexploded bombs from World War II

Thursday, August 15, 2002

HONG KONG -- When workers dredged waters around Hong Kong to reclaim land for a Disneyland theme park, they scooped up dozens of unexploded bombs and artillery shells along with mud.

World War II ended with Japan's announcement of surrender 57 years ago Wednesday. But despite the passing of time, Asia remains littered with millions of pieces of lost and discarded ordnance.

The bombs found south of Hong Kong did not go off, and bomb experts played down the danger to the Disney site being built on an outlying island.

Even so, chance discoveries of corroded and unstable explosives frequently fray nerves at building sites that dot frenetically growing Asian cities and also on the sleepier islands of the South Pacific, which were the scenes of some of the war's most desperate fighting.

Disposal teams say few of the old bombs go off nowadays. But some do and many found still contain live explosive charges.

It's a problem for Asia that is compounded by unexploded ordnance and land mines dating from more recent conflicts in places like Vietnam, Cambodia and Afghanistan.

Tons of ordnance left

"We routinely find the stuff around our installations," said Lt. Col. Kevin Krejcarek, a spokesman at the U.S. Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, where World War II's last major battle ended with U.S. forces raising the American flag in June 1945.

"When you drop bombs from planes, do they all go off?" Krejcarek said. "Some lodge in soft ground. Other times, ordnance just gets pushed aside and the jungle takes over. They've been discovered continuously here since the end of the war."

Japan disposed of 106.3 tons of unexploded ordnance last year, the government says.

Much more is thought to be still around in other parts of Asia.

The former British colony of Singapore was bombed first by the Japanese and later by the Allies. In July, a World War II bomb was found just off its swanky Orchard Road shopping district -- forcing a mass evacuation before a bomb squad made it safe and removed it.

Two years ago, Singaporean navy divers safely detonated a bomb found on the seabed near a busy ferry terminal.

But, the city-state hasn't always been so lucky.

A family picnicking on a beach there in 1991 came across an old bomb. Thinking it was a dud, they used it to prop up a grill to cook fish. It detonated in the heat, killing a boy and injuring other family members.

The Philippines capital, Manila, was devastated by wartime sea and air bombardments.

Sea shells

The head of its police bomb squad, Senior Inspector Lorenzo Molato, recalled last week how a scavenger recovered a cannon shell five years ago and sold it to a junk shop. A worker at the shop later tried to cut it open with a saw and was killed when it exploded.

"Our problem is finding them," said Philippine Marine Capt. Renato Daracan of the military's Office of Chief Ordnance and Chemical Service. "During the war, they just fired away without recording where their targets were, where the shells landed or whether they exploded or not."

Indonesia's northeastern islands have seen a number of deadly explosions of old ordnance. Some were triggered by villagers trying to open bomb casings to remove the explosives for illegal fishing.

One of the world's most famous pieces of war wreckage, John F. Kennedy's sunken patrol boat, was recently discovered in waters off the Solomon Islands, where U.S. and Japanese troops fought a bloody battle for the island of Guadalcanal. Much of its wooden superstructure had rotted away, a torpedo remained intact still loaded in its firing tube.

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