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Military officials warn residents of unexploded ammunition

Tegan Hanlon
Sgt. 1st Class Marshall Pratt gathers ordnance to display that is used for training by the 716th Ordnance Company (EOD) on Thursday, June 5, 2014. Bill Roth photo

Just because the military fires ammunition, cannonballs and bombs, doesn’t mean they always explode.

As outdoor recreation ramps up this summer, Alaska military officials have a unique warning: If you see a weathered metal object lying outdoors, don’t pick it up. Call troopers or police. Many times, it’s hard to differentiate explosives from ordinary litter, said 1st Sgt. Marshall Pratt with the 716th explosive ordnance disposal company at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. 

“If you don’t know what it is and it gives you any concern or suspicion, take a picture of it, leave it and call police,” Pratt said. “If you don’t have a camera, don’t go get one and go back.” 

Not all residents heed this warning. Military officials have found people using heavy artillery from World War II as doorstops, displaying it on mantels and storing it in attics. 

In June 2013, someone called authorities after having second thoughts about a purchase at a Wasilla estate sale — two white rusted mortar rounds, said 1st Lt. Steve Latulipe with the ordnance company. The Kodiak Daily Mirror reported in 2010 that a 600-pound bomb was on display outside of Jim’s Diamond Bar in Kodiak for years with “U da bomb” inscribed on its casing.

In both incidents, military professionals destroyed the explosives. 

Pratt said he has never heard of anyone going to court for possessing an old war weapon. 

“Generally, there’s a whole lot of amnesty,” he said. “We’re just trying to get it off the streets.”

Since October 2013, his team has responded to at least 18 calls of unidentified ordnance, most in early summer. 

In the village of Kake, Michael Jackson remembered playing with unexploded ammunition as a child. His father, the late Thomas Jackson Sr., had a parrot shell in his general store that someone found when clearing land in the 1940s. 

“We would run around with it, picking it up, dropping it,” Jackson said. 

For Jackson, a Kake elder and magistrate, the 30-pound shell served as testimony to what he called the “bombardment of Kake” by the U.S. Navy in 1869. “A reason why we’re keeping it is as evidence,” he said. 

His family passed down the shell without incident until it landed in the hands of a nephew’s cousin, who talked about the heirloom with authorities in 2011. An explosive ordnance team responded, disassembled the massive bullet and removed unstable black powder. Now, it’s on loan at the Sealaska Heritage Institute, Jackson said.

Latulipe and Pratt said people often call law enforcement after stumbling upon artillery outside, many times at Eagle River Flats, an artillery impact range, Point MacKenzie, an old target for soldiers learning to shoot, and the Aleutian Islands. 

During World War II, Japanese soldiers established garrisons on Attu and Kiska islands. John Cloe, a retired military historian and author in Anchorage, estimated that more than 3,300 tons of bombs were dropped on the islands in the 1940s. 

“They’re still there somewhere, probably buried deep in the ground,” Cloe said.

As the dirt wears away, explosives begin to surface. Last summer, a couple walked the beach at Point MacKenzie and found a foot-long, 75- millimeter-wide artillery round. Pratt and two other soldiers responded, stopped air traffic for 15 minutes and blew up the artillery piece, sending a smoke plume more than 70 feet into the air.

“To the untrained eye it would just look like a rusty piece of pipe,” he said. 

Reach Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com.