ASSATEAGUE — There was no shortage of pre-Fourth of July fireworks on Assateague Island this week after over 100 pieces of World War II era unexploded ordnance were discovered and then purposefully detonated with at least two explosions on Tuesday.
On Monday afternoon, a visitor walking along the North Ocean Beach area of the Assateague Island National Seashore discovered a single piece of interesting debris on the beach and brought the discovery to the attention of park rangers. Park rangers were able to quickly identify the strange artifact as a piece of military ordnance left over from the island’s rich history as a military test range.
Following park protocol, the Ocean City Bomb Squad was called to the island to investigate and make an assessment of the discovery. An examination of the site where the debris was found revealed an extensive cache of World War II military ordnance. The Ocean City Bomb Squad determined the size, scale and type of munitions discovered on the beach were beyond its protocol and the Emergency Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team from Aberdeen Proving Ground was brought in.
Further evaluation by the Army EOD team revealed over 100 pieces of debris and unexploded ordnance. The items were then assembled in two prepared sites for controlled detonation. By early Tuesday, the beach and parking lots at the North Ocean Beach area on the north end of the Assateague Island National Seashore were evacuated as the EOD team prepared for the controlled detonation.
Public access traffic to the entire national seashore was cut off at its entrance at Bayberry Drive just a mile or so from the foot of the Verrazano Bridge and the entrance to the Assateague State Park. Traffic backed up along the entrance road to the state and national parks as park rangers visited waiting traffic vehicle by vehicle to alert visitors of the situation. Around mid-day, the EOD team detonated the first batch of the old military ordnance on the beach not far from where it was first discovered. The explosion sent a plume of sand high into the air over the North Ocean Beach area.
By 1:30 p.m., the traffic that had backed up from Bayberry Drive to the Verrazano Bridge was allowed to start flowing into the national seashore area, although the North Ocean Beach area remained closed. Visitors were allowed to access the Oversand Vehicle (OSV) area and some of the camping areas far removed from North Ocean Beach. However, the site of the discovery and planned detonation remained closed as the EOD team prepared to detonate the second batch of ordnance. Around 6 p.m. on Tuesday, the second detonation at the site proceeded as planned without incident.
As of late Wednesday afternoon, the North Ocean Beach area where the ordnance was discovered and later detonated remained closed although much of the rest of the barrier island had returned to normal somewhat.
“Part of the beach north of the beach hut is still closed and we’re putting up fences and deploying personnel to keep people out of the area where the ordnance was found,” said Rachelle Daigneault, Chief of Interpretation and Education. “We know Assateague was used as a testing range during World War II and this stuff is still out there. Most of the items are not dangerous, but there is always a potential that some are and we’re acting with an abundance of caution.”
Daigneault said the National Park Service has contacted the federal Army Corps of Engineers to come in to further investigate the discovery of such a large cache of old ordnance on the barrier island. The scope of the Army Corps’ investigation was uncertain, but Daigneault said on Wednesday officials would likely sweep the beach in the discovery area to ensure nothing was left unturned.
“They may come in with large, strong metal detectors and they have other methods and technology for handling these situations,” she said. “This is what they do and they have a ton of expertise at handling situations just like this one.”
Daigneault said it is not unusual for World War II era ordnance and munitions to be discovered on Assateague, which was used as a testing range during and following the war. However, finding over 100 pieces of ordnance in the same area at the same time on Monday was reason for alarm. She said the term “unexploded ordnance” was used to describe a wide variety of objects from shells and rockets to pieces of debris under the same umbrella.
“Given the size of this cache and the 100 or so pieces, we’re taking every precaution and following our protocol to the letter,” said Daigneault. “It is not unusual to find a piece or a couple of pieces over the years, but this was a very large cache, probably the largest we’ve ever found.”
Finding unexploded ordnance in and around Assateague is certainly not uncommon. In 1988, for example, Army and Navy EOD teams were deployed to Assateague at the request of the National Park Service when ordnance washed ashore in the same North Ocean Beach area where the ordnance and debris was found on Monday and later detonated.
On the first day, EOD teams found three five-inch rockets, one of which still had a rocket engine attached. The next day, another five-inch rocket was found and it was determined the ordnance was washing ashore from a hole about 15 yards offshore that was once probably on the shore before the barrier island migrated over the years.
It was determined through the investigation and research that the hole was likely a burial trench for expended shells and other munitions after clearing the test range. Once the hole, or burial trench, was discovered, a total of seven rocket motors were found, one of which was not expended; six five-inch shells, two of which were live; and numerous other pieces of shells and armaments.
AINS spokesperson Liz Davis late Tuesday said the pieces of ordnance discovered on Monday were not active or dangerous, but the National Park Service has specific protocols to follow with the discovery of unexploded ordnance or munitions of any kind.
“The things that were uncovered and found are inert, meaning they are not active and not dangerous, but we have to follow the protocols,” she said. “Everything is being handled and treated as if it were live ammunition and ordnance.”
Davis said the decades-old ordnance was likely deposited in and around Assateague during the World War II era and was just recently uncovered by tides, winds or other natural phenomena. She said it was unlikely the material washed ashore. Instead it was likely uncovered during the natural shifting and migrating of the barrier island.
“We’ve found other stuff over the years and it has always been inactive, or inert,” she said. “It happens from time to time, but certainly not often. The area off Assateague was used as a target range and test range during World War II and some of this stuff is still around. It could have been miles off the coast at different times over the years because the island naturally migrates and the shoreline is ever-changing.”
Meanwhile, portions of the North Ocean Beach area where the ordnance was found and later detonated remained closed late this week and likely will remain closed until the Army Corps completes its assessment. Daigneault said vast beach, parking and camping areas along with the OSV areas are open as well as Assateague State Park.
“Our first priority remains public safety, but we’re also aware of the thousands of visitors heading to Assateague next week for the Fourth of July holiday and we are making every effort to ensure their visit is an enjoyable one, along with a safe one,” she said.