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Bering Sea fishermen reel in WWII-era bomb

Jim PaulinDutch Harbor Fisherman

Jimmy Burke just might have one of the coolest keepsakes from Alaska when he moves to Washington state in the near future.

"When you open the door, you'll step on a landmine," Burke, a Bering Sea fisherman, said. It's now a non-explosive antique, he believes. But some with experience in old military explosives think he got lucky not only with interior decorating, but also in self preservation.

While fishing for sablefish in early July, one of the Aleutian Sable's pots rose to the surface with a curious rusted cylindrical object along for the ride. It looked like some sort of a canister.

Burke sliced off the outer metal layer with his knife, revealing tags saying the thing was a bomb, and which skipper Jay Hebert identified as a landmine.

Still visible on a tag on Saturday were the words, "remove this seal before assembling vane to fuze," fuse spelled with a "z." And Burke said the word "bomb" at first appeared on a tag, although it had since faded from view.

Working alongside him was fellow deckhand Dan Stickney, who shared Burke's excitement, and admired his surgical exploration with the inexpensive, yet extremely sharp knife.

"He cut it open with a Vicky!" exclaimed Stickney, using the nickname of the Victoriaknox knife, known locally in police reports as an occasional weapon, but mainly as a common tool and even a lifesaver that can quickly cut through heavy line and keep a tangled fishermen from being dragged overboard by a heavy metal pot.

Burke said he had no idea what the heavy corroded metal chunk was when he sliced into it, and since it didn’t explode, he figured it was safe, although he did experience an electrical shock at first touch.

Old military explosives routinely turn up in this area, a legacy of the heavy military presence during World War II, when tens of thousands of U.S. troops were stationed in the Aleutians, the only part of the U.S. occupied by Japanese troops.

Former Unalaska fire chief David Gregory said the Unalaska Department of Public Safety routinely responded to reports of potentially explosive military relics.

"My God, don't touch it, we'll be there right away," was the typical response, Gregory said, to help decide "whether you should run away or put it on your mantle."

Gregory recalled Army explosives experts from Fort Richardson in Anchorage flying into town and blowing up a questionable object with C-4 plastic explosives.

Another time a similar relic was brought to the old police station in a motor vehicle, and the driver was told to keep it parked until the experts arrived.

Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Robin Morrisett in Unalaska said troopers have assisted local police with vintage bomb disposal, including one last year at Ugadaga Bay. The warning to the public is always the same, he said, "Don't touch it!"

Morrisett said he wouldn't take any chances even with a rusted old device like the Aleutian Sable's.

"I hope somebody's an expert, because I wouldn't be touching it," he cautioned. Morrisett said military explosives litter local waters, and are marked on navigational charts. He mentioned places in Captains Bay where he avoids scuba diving because of reports on bombs on the seabed.

Morrisett said things like sea shells and metal pieces can be picked up and lifted to the surface when pots are briefly dragged during retrieval, something he's seen on the trooper's patrol vessel Stimson.

Burke said the landmine was found about three miles from the new boat harbor, while the Aleutian Sable was fishing with pots for sablefish, also known as black cod.

Jim Paulin can be reached at jpaulin(at)reportalaska.com. This article was originally published in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is reprinted here with permission.