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Capt. Jeremiah Hamric, officer in charge, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, shows some of the rounds most commonly found unexploded around Marine Corps Base Quantico.

Photo by Mike DiCicco

Unexploded ordnance from Civil War to WWII still poses risk at Quantico

24 Jul 2013 | Mike DiCicco Marine Corps Base Quantico

For weeks, workers have been meticulously turning the earth along a stretch of Russell Road that is to be widened in the near future, searching for Native American artifacts. What they found near the Marsh Center on July 8, though, was something much more formidable than an arrowhead—an unexploded 37 millimeter Naval deck gun projectile.

The badly degraded cannon round, of a type used between the early 1900s and the 1940s, is not an unusual find on Marine Corps Base Quantico, where almost every acre of land has been a range at one time or another. This is why base residents and employees are advised to use care when walking or jogging in Quantico woodlands.

“All of Quantico, at some point in time, was an impact area,” said Capt. Jeremiah Hamric, officer in charge of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Section.

While live-fire training is now dedicated to the west side of base, that area was only acquired during World War II. For almost three decades prior, much of what is now considered mainside was pounded with ordnance, and in undeveloped areas, some of it is still here.

“You need to stay on the traveled roads, or you stay on the designated trails,” said Gary Matthews, deputy director of operations for the base. “Basically everything that we’re walking on right now, prior to World War II, was an impact area.”

Unexploded ordnance is not to be taken lightly, Hamric said. “Military ordnance is super, super safe — until it’s been fired.”

For example, he said a 40 millimeter high-explosive dual purpose round —a small, round, colorful object resembling a Christmas bauble — needs so little provocation that it can detonate if someone picks it up. This type of round is not uncommon aboard Quantico.

In addition to rounds from training, unexploded ordnance from Civil War battles is still frequently found on the base and in the surrounding area, he said, adding that these rounds are “extremely dangerous,” as very little reference material is available on most Civil War ammunition and they generally contain black powder as a main charge, which remains explosive almost indefinitely.

Depending how many people are moving around the base, Hamric said, his unit sometimes gets one or two calls a week to deal with unexploded ordnance, while at other times two or three weeks might pass without a call. “Hunting season is the worst because so many hunters are out in the woods they’re stumbling onto stuff all the time,” he said.

Depending on the round, EOD workers either deactivate the rounds or detonate them. In the case of the  Naval Deck gun round, because little information is available about its construction, they blew it up rather than trying to neutralize it.

Hamric said anyone who finds anything that might be ordnance should leave it alone and call the Provost Marshal’s Office. The office can contact the EOD team 24 hours a day.

“We’d much rather respond to a call and have it be nothing and do that 100 times than have somebody think it’s nothing, and that piece of ordnance goes off and hurts someone,” he said. “When in doubt, just report it.”

As a general rule, anything the size of a 50-caliber bullet or larger can contain explosives, said Master Gunnery Sgt. Eric Slachter, the staff noncommissioned officer in charge of EOD.

Even expended rounds can be dangerous if they once contained white phosphorous, Slachter said. White phosphorous ignites on contact with oxygen and can sometimes leave a crusty residue in the spent round. If a piece of that crust is knocked off, it can reignite, he said. “If it gets on you, you’ve got to put it under water to put it out.”

Matthews said people need to be aware of the danger unexploded ordnance can pose, so that children recognize it when they see it and no one thinks of taking it as a souvenir. “If you see anything that looks like ammunition, leave it alone and report it to PMO,” he said.

— Writer:

Marine Corps Base Quantico