WWII bombs wash ashore, surprise Outer Banks
Scientists speculate about conditions causing churn at Cape Hatteras
The sudden appearance of two large, rusty and barnacle-encrusted World War II-era munitions on the beaches of Cape Hatteras, N.C., this summer has puzzled the area’s park rangers and historians.
“We haven’t had these in the past,” said Boone Vandzura, the chief ranger of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a 70-mile stretch of sand and surf that spans from Bodie Island to the tiny hamlet of Ocracoke. Vandzura said he thought it had been more than a decade since an unexploded munition appeared at Hatteras.
But within a week this month, Vandzura received reports of two aging pieces of ordnance. The first — identified by the Navy as a World War II-era bomb — was called in on July 14, while the second, a M38A practice bomb, also from World War II, was found 12 miles south of the first find on July 18. In both instances, a Navy bomb disposal team drove down from Norfolk and got rid of the munitions.
The two bombs at Hatteras make up the entirety of the team’s calls for unexploded munitions this year, said Lt. Kristi Fontenot, a spokeswoman for the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 2. The detachment covers all of North Carolina and Virginia and averages about five calls a year, she said.
Joseph Schwarzer, director of the North Carolina Maritime Museum at Cape Hatteras, said he couldn’t recall munitions appearing on shore since he started his tenure in 1995, let alone two within a week, nor could Dan Couch, a lifelong resident of Hatteras and historian who could remember only a local named Nacie Peele who had an unexploded shell on his porch and stories of shrimpers bringing up ordnance in their nets.
“It’s not surprising, though,” Schwarzer said. Cape Hatteras, a piece of land that juts out into an important shipping lane, has been witness to many historical events that have littered the seabed with tens of thousands of pounds of weapons, including Civil War cannonballs, German torpedoes and practice bombs left over from World War II.
“If anything is surprising, it’s that they only found two,” Schwarzer said. The question, he said, is what “natural phenomenon” brought them to the shore.
Peter Traykovski, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, Mass., said that a team of researchers working with the U.S. Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program is trying to figure that out.
“It’s about the economics of a response,” he said. “If we find that they are highly mobile, then a larger, more expensive cleanup effort is required, and if the munitions are spreading everywhere, it becomes a much bigger problem.”
The coastal areas of the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska, are home to tens of millions of pounds of dumped munitions, said Niall Slowey, a professor at Texas A&M University who has spent more than a decade researching the topic. That number includes 30,000 tons of chemical compounds such as mustard agents that were dumped after the world wars.
Although the number seems huge, it represents only what was recorded, Slowey said. He added that an unknown amount of ordnance was disposed of or dropped during training and wartime and never documented. That, plus the about 5,000 former military installations in the United States, 400 of which could have potentially contaminated areas, make the scope of the problem daunting.
In addition, it is unclear what the environmental impact will be, if any, once large quantities of the weapons start to degrade and break apart. Within the past two decades the Pentagon has started to devote more resources to the issue. The Army Corps of Engineers has ongoing projects as part of the “military munitions response program,” which spans from Martha’s Vineyard to Pearl Harbor.
Traykovski and his colleagues’ five-year study has used dummy munitions, acoustic trackers and special buoys to understand the type of sea conditions that make the old shells travel. Cape Hatteras, Traykovski said, with its shallow sand shoals and often-violent waves, could be a place where bigger munitions are on the move.
“If old munitions are going to show up anywhere, they are going to show up there,” Traykovski said, referring to the newly formed Shelly Island off Cape Hatteras where one of the munitions was found earlier this month, “as it has the perfect catcher’s mitt geometry, to catch objects migrating from both the north and west.”
Stanley Riggs, a research professor at East Carolina University and a coastal and marine geologist, said North Carolina’s Outer Banks region is one of the most dynamic coastlines in the world, with an abundance of debris on the seafloor that migrates with the currents and weather.
“It used to be our trash bin,” Riggs said. “And the Cape Hatteras area is one of the highest energy and most active shorelines along the Atlantic margin with a lot of past maritime war activity.”
Shells from the 1861 bombardment of Hatteras Inlet still come to the surface when boats dredge the ferry channel there, Schwarzer said. During World War II, more than 60 merchant ships were sunk by German submarines off Hatteras in the first six months of 1942, littering the bottom with supplies, depth charges and American bombs targeting enemy ships. The Outer Banks and its coastal waters were also once home to World War II aerial target ranges that are still littered with bombs.
“It’s a geological process here. Things get uncovered; sometimes it’s fossils, sometimes it’s parts of shipwrecks and sometimes it’s munitions,” Schwarzer said.
Although many of the rusted artifacts of war appear similar to other ocean debris, they can be lethal — their explosive cores and chemicals encased in layers of steel. In 1965, a scallop trawler accidentally brought a live torpedo aboard off Hatteras, and when the crew attempted to free it, the underwater weapon exploded, killing all eight aboard. In 2004, a clam-dredging company in New Jersey unearthed an artillery shell filled with mustard agent in a semisolid, tar-like form. Three bomb-disposal technicians were injured trying to destroy the shell.
Officials warn that if you encounter something you think might be an unexploded shell, you should not touch it. Instead, back away carefully and call 911 to report it.