Early in the summer of 2008, Chris Kennedy, The Trustees of the Reservations (TTOR) Martha’s Vineyard superintendent, was walking along the beach on Chappy when he heard a metallic clanking cutting through the sound of the surf and screeching terns. Tracing the sound, he came across two young boys banging together two MK-23 training bombs.
“They told me they were getting the rust off the bombs,” Mr. Kennedy said, shaking his head. “We would find them all the time; we called them Chappy doorstops. Locals said they were duds, so we just tossed them into the dumpster.”
But Mr. Kennedy said the incident with the boys took place several months after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Navy EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] personnel toured Chappy and determined the eight-inch-long, three-pound bombs were not necessarily duds. “A Navy lieutenant told me, ‘They might not kill you, but they’ll sure mess up your day,’” Mr. Kennedy said. “Once we heard that, we actively started patrolling the shoreline of Little Neck, which is how I came across the two boys.”
The Army Corps and Navy EOD made their first visit to Chappy not long after TTOR ranger Rick Dwyer found a large round cylinder exposed on the beach at Wasque, which turned out to be a 100-pound photo flash bomb. “We’d been finding the little ones for years, but never anything like that,” Mr. Kennedy said. “The state police bomb squad came out and detonated it, and it made a crater about six feet deep and eight feet wide. That’s when we contacted the Army Corps and said they’d better come out here. They took a look around Little Neck and said, ‘Oh boy, this is serious.’”
Just how serious the situation is came to light again this Tuesday, when crews from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, working for the Formerly Used Defense Sites program (FUDS) discovered a 100-pound photo flash bomb at Long Point Wildlife Refuge, off the Deep Bottom Road entrance to the property.
“This is the first one we’ve found there, and there are possibly more,” Army Corps project manager Carol Charette told The Times. “It’s not a safety hazard, because we’re guarding it.”
On Wednesday, the Massachusetts State Police Bomb Squad and the U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal team from Newport, R.I., detonated the bomb.
A Times intern on the scene said it sounded like an explosive grand finale at the end of a Fourth of July fireworks display. The explosion jolted residents in the region who reported their windows rattling on social media.
West Tisbury Deputy Chief Gregory Pachico told The Times that the detonation went off as planned. A berm was built surrounding the bomb to lessen the impact.
The Army Corps runs the FUDS program under the auspices of the U.S. Army and Department of Defense, to recover old ordnance across the country. There are more than more 10,000 potential properties that may require remedial FUDS action; 2,700 of those either are ongoing cleanup projects or are designated for ordnance removal.
Before heading off to battle in World War II, American pilots stationed at bases on the Vineyard and Rhode Island honed their bombing skills by dropping practice ordnance on Chappy and on Long Point Wildlife Refuge. Being beginners, they often missed their target, sometimes by a wide margin, which has left bomb recovery teams a lot of ground to cover 70 years later.
Little Neck, a marshy spit that juts into Cape Poge Bay on the northern part of Chappy, between Drunkard’s Cove and Shear Pen Pond, was a primary target. It has not been open to human visitors since 1947. Since work began there in March of 2016, 1,707 munitions and explosives of concern (MEC) have been taken from Cape Poge Bay, and 1,984 have been excavated on land.
When Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study (RIFS) work started on the Vineyard in 2010, the “remedial action” was estimated to cost $5.2 million and take about a year. Seven years later, work is still going, and the pricetag is over $20 million, $12.9 million for Cape Poge and $8 million for Tisbury Great Pond.
Ms. Charette said the Vineyard FUDS project is the biggest she’s worked on in her 26-year career. Describing the Cape Poge operation, she said, “We were pretty close to what we thought was the boundary of the site, but we were still finding munitions in pretty good numbers. So we came up with a plan to do what we call ‘step-outs.’ We’ve stepped out another 300 feet on the entire boundary. We’re still not sure how far out the munitions go. Depending on quantity and density of what we find, we may go out another 100 feet and then another. We’ll have to see what we come up with.”
Dive teams dig up to three feet into the silt, which can be as time-consuming as it is grueling.
Little Neck is dotted with small orange flags, marking possible bombs. “We’ve taken a lot of ordnance out of there, and we’re in our final pass,” Ms. Charette said. “It was so dense there we had to do several clearances; we still had to go back several times.”
Vegetation had to be cleared to allow for the geophysics and bomb recovery. Ironically, it’s now become ideal territory for nesting shorebirds, including piping plovers, which is slowing the work down.
Ms. Charette said the step-outs were planned from Little Neck across East Beach to the ocean, but the nesting piping plovers have put that work on hold.
The recovered bombs are stored in a secured building, and will be detonated on Saturdays between 2 and 4 pm. They were detonated on a daily basis, but to minimize the disruption for Chappy residents and their pets, detonations were reduced to once a week.
The surf is constantly unearthing these bombs, which can initially look like pieces of rusted pipe. Ms. Charette stressed that Islanders should know the “Three R’s”: Recognize, retreat, and report. “Call 911 right away if you come across a bomb,” she said. “Practice ordnance has a spotting charge that detonates on impact, so the pilot can see how close he was to the target. Many of those did not detonate, which creates an explosive hazard. We’ve found a lot of intact spotting charges. If you were holding it in your hand, it could certainly take your hand or your arm off. It could potentially kill you.”
At the Long Point Wildlife Refuge, work is being done by a dive team in Long Cove Pond, a portion of Tisbury Great Pond and the land area between the two ponds. Normally, work in Tisbury Great Pond would be suspended from June 15 to Sept. 15 because it’s eelgrass growing season, however, due to the cold spring, the grass isn’t growing yet, and work will continue until the end of the month. The dune, beach area, and open ocean are not due to be mined until September.
If all goes well, Ms. Charette expects FUDS work to be complete by December.
“It’s been a long, long journey, but when the work is done, people will be able to enjoy Little Neck again,” Mr. Kennedy said. “In the meantime, we’re asking everyone to remember the ‘Three R’s.’”