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Hurt Locker Bomb Squads Scour Japan 70 Years After WWII

Japan Ground Self-Defense Force
Makoto Ohashi, sergeant in the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force's bomb-disposal squad demonstrates the disposal process during a drill at the Asaka Base in Asaka City, Japan. Photographer: Koichi Kamoshida/Bloomberg

Makoto Ohashi, a sergeant first class in Japan’s bomb squad, said a prayer just before he twisted off the fuse from a 500-pound (225-kilogram) shell from World War II.

“This always gives me the jitters,” the 37-year-old said. “It could shake the explosive.” Demonstrating his skills in a drill last month -- the same technique he employed to defuse a live shell in central Tokyo in October -- Ohashi followed the routine that he has used to disable 12 bombs in the past decade.

Almost 70 years after World War II, the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force is still clearing unexploded ordnance scattered throughout the nation, including in central Tokyo, where military bases and headquarters were once located. About 6,000 tons of explosives have been recovered nationwide by the army since the government began maintaining records in 1958, according to defense ministry records.

Ohashi’s crew of bomb-disposal specialists, a role portrayed in the 2008 Hollywood movie “The Hurt Locker,” will travel this weekend to Hamamatsu in central Japan, home to Suzuki Motor Corp. and Yamaha Corp., to detonate a 860-kilogram shell that was found by construction crews working on a Central Japan Railway Co. maintenance facility.

More than 10,000 residents will be evacuated while Ohashi and five members of his team of about 20 remove the bomb and transport it to a 4.5-meter hole at a nearby beach for detonation.

Leftover Shells

Construction work in Japan routinely uncovers bombs, which were dropped by U.S. forces or left at former Japanese and occupation munitions sites. Japan’s ordnance-disposal teams handled 38 tons of explosives in the fiscal year ended March 2012, according to the Ministry of Defense.

Last year, a 225-kilogram shell was safely disabled in the Motoakasaka neighborhood of Tokyo, near the palace grounds of Japan’s Crown Prince. Another dud forced more than 100 flight cancellations at Sendai airport in the country’s northeast after being unearthed by crews repairing a runway damaged during the March 2011 tsunami.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who returned the Liberal Democratic Party to power in December, is pledging to boost construction spending to stimulate the economy. That may lead to a jump in bomb discoveries, said Noboru Yamaguchi, a professor at the country’s National Defense Academy in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo.

WWII Air Raids

“We are increasingly going to dig for new construction, so there is a possibility we’re going to find more unexploded shells,” said Yamaguchi, a retired lieutenant general in the Japanese army.

About 160,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Japan’s main islands, mostly by U.S. B-29 aircraft during the last five months of the war, according to U.S. Air Force records. Japan’s defense ministry has no estimate of the number of duds that remain since it’s impossible to know how many of those exploded, said Colonel Takeshi Yoshizuka, who heads the army’s ammunition section.

In Germany, where strikes began in 1940 and there were more ground battles for bombers to support, almost 2 million tons of shells fell during World War II, more than 12 times the amount dropped on Japan, said Randall Hansen, a political science professor at the University of Toronto and author of “Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany 1942-1945.”

Dangerous Work

The larger number of explosives in Germany resulted in a greater prevalence of bomb-clearing accidents. Three disposal specialists were killed and six members of the team were injured in June 2010 in Gottingen city when a shell exploded as they prepared to defuse it, Germany’s Spiegel news magazine reported. Last August, a 250-kilogram bomb detonated in a controlled blast that went awry in northern Munich, Germany’s third-largest city, shattering windows and setting nearby buildings aflame.

Japan’s first ordnance-disposal team formed in 1974 after a shell exploded during sewer repairs at a kindergarten in Okinawa, killing a student and three workers and injuring 34, according to Lieutenant Colonel Tomohiro Nozawa, a defense ministry spokesman.

No Japanese squad members have been injured during disposal missions, said Lieutenant Colonel Masataka Takahashi, who leads the army’s Bomb Disposal Unit No. 102, which covers central and eastern Japan. Three other full-time units work in different sections of the country.

“That record must be upheld,” said Takahashi, whose team includes Ohashi. “Our mission is to continue that legacy.”

‘Unobtrusive Spot’

While most of the explosives found in Japan have been small artillery shells left over from ground battles in the island chain of Okinawa, larger bombs are being discovered on the country’s densely populated mainland, such as the 225-kilogram dud removed from Motoakasaka in central Tokyo.

That shell was found in September, about four meters underground by crews digging in preparation for a nine-story office building, said Nobuyuki Kobayashi, a project manager for Kajima Corp., the construction company working at the site.

“The bomb was off in a corner, in an unobtrusive spot,” said Kobayashi, who keeps a clay sake bottle recovered from one of his construction sites in his office. “If we hadn’t been digging so deeply, we never would have found it.”

Ohashi and his team arrived at the site a month later to clear the shell. Recalling that autumn morning, Ohashi went into the trench and arranged his tools in the order he planned to use them: Marker pen. Adapter disk to fit onto the tip of the bomb. Wrench fitted to the hexagonal bolt on the disk, so the fuse can be twisted out.

The precise placement of the tools on his green plastic mat was part of the routine that Ohashi followed to settle his mind. Some 30 minutes later, he completed the last part of his ritual.

Turning the wrench to pry the fuse out, he whispered, “Please open.”

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