MOST ARE UNAWARE THAT NANTUCKET WAS BOMBED DURING WORLD WAR II. By whom you might ask? By us—the big U.S. that is. From September 1943 to September 1945, American fighter planes lit up what is today Tom Nevers. Soaring low over the south coast, the pilots honed in on three plywood pyramids, dropping practice rockets on their targets and then returning to Quonset Naval Air Station in Rhode Island.
When training ceased on September 1, 1945, just around the time General Douglas MacArthur formally accepted the Japanese surrender, the south shore of Nantucket was left a minefield of duds. And though sixty-seven years have elapsed since the last bomb was dropped on those sandy shores, this summer the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began what’s called a Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study to determine the footprint of where these test rockets may still be present and to confirm that those left behind do not pose a safety hazard.
During the month of March, traffic signs on Milestone Road blinked the message: “CAUTION LOW FLYING CHOPPER.” No, the helicopter wasn’t in search of forbidden crops as in years past, but was equipped with geophysical instrumentation that scanned the beaches and lowlands like a giant metal detector. Pilot, Doug Christie, had the hair-raising job of hovering his craft three to nine feet above crashing waves and overgrown vegetation, all the while the island’s unpredictable climate throwing fog, wind, and rain through his chopping blades. Accompanying Christie was system operator, Mark Watson, who sat co- pilot and ensured that the craft stayed on its predetermined course. If they strayed from the assigned grid, the data reading would be muddled and Christie and Watson would be back In total, the crew of nine had in the air retracing their steps. approximately 2,500 acres to cover what the Army Corps of Engineers defines as a Formerly Used Defense Site, or FUDS.
Based on the results of the aerial flyover, ten potential cluster areas were identified and called for “focused, ground-based geophysical surveys.” In addition to land and beach teams surveying by foot, a dive team operating out of a trailer equipped with special equipment was set up at beaches just south of New South Road. A single diver entered the water, swam offshore two hundred to three hundred feet, and scanned the ocean floor for metallic objects. Linked to an umbilical cord providing air and tech support, the diver communicated with his support team back on shore while also transmit- ting video to their computers. If the diver detected a metallic item, he began an immediate retrieval, vacuuming away the sand with an air jet and determining if the item was “cultural debris” or a piece of munition.
Despite how cool it may be to see a helicopter buzz low over the beach or a scuba SWAT team dive through the breakers, the inevitable question arises: Why now? Why after over a half- century, with no stories of stray rockets being dropped on doorsteps by golden retrievers, is this project being funded and undertaken? Well, for one, the FUDS program only came into existence in 1986. The United States is littered with around two thousand Munitions Response Sites (MRS), with risk scores ranging in importance from one (the highest risk) to five (the lowest risk). The “Nantucket Beach” sites, which consist of a burial pit and aerial rocket range, were both given a score of three, serious enough to warrant this exhaustive effort.
“In the ordnance profession, no one will tell you that a piece of ordnance, no matter how old it is, is actually safe,” project manager, Carol Charette, says with the brevity of a typewriter.
“Even though we are expecting these to be all practice bombs that were used on Nantucket Beach, practice bombs contain what we call a ‘spotting charge.’ If the spotting charge did not detonate as it was intended to detonate on impact, then it can still be intact and could cause someone harm.” Charette advises anyone who stumbles across a possible practice bomb to follow the three R’s: “Recognize the item as potentially dangerous, Retreat from the area without touching the item and Report the item and its location to the local police by calling 911.”
Over the summer, the results of the remedial investigation will be documented in a report outlining the types of munitions found as well as the size of the area holding them. “Human Health and Ecological Risk Assessments will also be conducted to determine the risk to humans and the environment associated with munitions found on site,” explains Charette.
“A feasibility study will then be conducted to identify and evaluate various technical alterna- tives to address the munitions on site.” Depending on what comes back in the report, the Army Corps of Engineers could conduct a full-blown removal, thus digging up pieces of a Nantucket past that have long since been forgotten.