Ordnance Still Prevalent in U.S
Associated Press Writer
Sunday, June 1, 1997 11:58 am EDT
DOLLY SODS WILDERNESS, W.Va. (AP) -- The thousands who trek through this rugged area of the Monongahela National Forest must heed a few rules:
Don't litter. Don't feed the wildlife.
More than a half-century ago, when swing bands were on the radio and the Germans and Japanese were across the battlefields, soldiers used these mountains for training exercises. Their legacy: Scores of explosive devices, lying in wait for unsuspecting hikers.
Wally Dean was 17 years old, on his first hunting trip, when a member of his party found a mortar round. The man looked it over and then either dropped or tossed it on the ground.
``The next thing I knew I was wrapped around a tree,'' Dean said.
He suffered nine shrapnel wounds to his left leg and right foot, along with phosphorus burns on his legs; his Winchester rifle put to use as a splint, Dean was taken to the hospital.
That happened more than 45 years ago, on Dec. 3, 1951. Today, Dean -- his foot still wired together, and metal plates embedded in his leg -- is environmental project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, and is thus in charge of cleaning up this lingering World War II mess.
``I wouldn't want anyone to go through what I went through if I could prevent it,'' he said.
Ordnance experts say Dolly Sods is one of 2,136 places across the United States where people may be exposed to live ordnance, the remnants of training for past conflicts.
The bombs may seem innocuous: soda bottle-size and rusty with age. But they're still dangerous and they can become more volatile with age, experts say.
``These bombs, you have to remind people, were meant to kill,'' said Kim Speer, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center in Huntsville, Ala.
The Dolly Sods Wilderness and adjacent Dolly Sods North are among 50 sites funded for cleanup by the Army, she said. The Dolly Sods project will cost $1.3 million, and is scheduled for this summer.
The two areas, together about 16,000 acres of the Monongahela National Forest, some 100 miles south of Pittsburgh, are barren because of clear-cutting, forest fires and grazing around the turn of the century.
The wind-whipped fires burned so hot that the humus layer of the soil was consumed, exposing beautiful rock formations.
Spruce are one-sided because of the strong westerly winds. Few trees grow taller than shoulder high in the harsh highest elevations, where the annual snowfall exceeds 100 inches.
From the Army's perspective, the brush and brambles between 3,000 and 4,000 feet was a perfect place for artillerymen to hone their skills.
While elite rock climbers from the 10th Mountain Division trained nearby at Seneca Rocks, other Army units hurled 57 mm projectiles, 60 mm and 81 mm mortar rounds and 155 mm howitzer shells into this area.
After the war, the areas were visited by few people other than hunters. Then backpackers discovered the peaceful ranges and panoramic vistas.
Now upward of 20,000 hikers, hunters and others use the two areas each year, so many that the areas are sometimes crowded on summer weekends and in the fall when leaves change colors and wild blueberries ripen.
George Voellmer was clearing his way through Dolly Sods' underbrush 10 years ago when he discovered the tail of a mortar shell jutting from the ground. He plucked it from the dirt and tossed it in his backpack as a souvenir.
The projectile bounced around the back of his Datsun 510 as he returned to his home near Washington, D.C.
``I thought it would be a pretty cool thing to have,'' he said. ``It sort of rattled around when we drove home.''
Voellmer did not know the projectile might contain a live round; he believed only dummy rounds were fired in Dolly Sods. His mother made him call the local bomb squad, which destroyed it.
``I was young and immortal,'' Voellmer said. ``You do stupid things when you were 19.''
The cleanup is no simple matter. This spring, workers using magnetometers began surveying trails and land used as campsites to remove unexploded projectiles, said Rick Meadows, the Army Corps project manager.
Workers must pack all of their equipment into the wilderness because no motorized vehicles or bikes are allowed.
The project will cover 20.8 miles of trails in the 10,000-acre Dolly Sods Wilderness and 23 miles of trails in the 6,000-acre area Dolly Sods North, he said. It will also cover 176 campsites.
Altogether, the project will cover about 300 acres where people are mostly likely to come into contact with explosives.
Nancy Feakes, district forest ranger in Petersburg, said the concern is not so much someone stepping on a bomb, but a backpacker starting a campfire on a spot where a bomb lurks underground, or someone driving a tent stake into a bomb resting near the surface.
But few people alter their plans on account of the bombs.
Andy Hiltz of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, who has walked Dolly Sods for 20 years, said the possibility of encountering a bomb, however remote, is just another risk of hiking the back country.
``Certainly the thought of laying your sleeping bag on top of a live mortar round is not a good feeling, but I don't think people are dwelling on that extensively,'' Hiltz said.
© Copyright 1997 The Associated Press