As James Glover listened to his grandfather’s stories about dismantling German bombs in England during World War II, he never imagined he would follow the same path.
While his grandfather disassembled Luftwaffe bombs while serving in the British army, James Glover, an environmental scientist, uses his civilian expertise to remove bombs and missiles from FUD (formerly used defense) sites used by the U.S. military. The work is performed under the Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program (NALEMP).
“This year, we’ve cleared approximately 2,000 acres of land across various tribal entities, and we have removed about 15,000 pounds of munitions,” said Glover, project manager at Britannia Environmental Consulting in Albuquerque.
His work spans many counties and regions across New Mexico. Between Ladron Peak (about 50 miles southwest of Albuquerque) and Cochiti Lake (in Sandoval County), there are about 25 precision bombing ranges used by the military during World War II. Many sites are on Native American lands, while others are in open spaces or areas belonging to private landowners.
Glover and teams of highly trained UXO (unexploded ordnance) technicians scour vast areas on foot to probe for bombs that have been lying dormant for more than 70 years since the end of the war. The acre-by-acre searches are painstaking, but necessary to prevent disaster.
“We’ve come across many (bombs) that are still live. We do controlled explosions on those munitions,” Glover said. “They go with a big bang.”
Educating the public
Glover says the bombs are a major safety issue, especially for Native American tribes.
“It’s their land. It’s their backyard. They use it,” Glover said, explaining that Native Americans use open areas for hunting and tribal activities, such as gathering wood and medicines.
An explosion from a small, 2-foot-long shell can release shards of blistering hot shrapnel for 2,500 feet in all directions. The flying metal fragments are razor sharp.
“Some of these have upwards of 15 to 20 pounds worth of high explosives inside, with a fuse on the front,” Glover said.
That is enough to vaporize a person standing next to an accidentally detonated shell, he said. “They’re powerful munitions. They’re extremely dangerous.”
“Fortunately, nobody’s been injured that I know of to date,” Glover said. “But there are still a lot of impacts out there that could cause a problem.”
Types of bombs
New Mexico was a prime military testing ground due to its large, open wilderness. There are many varieties of bombs and explosives still present, which correspond to U.S. military objectives during the war, according to Glover.
The military created many targets. Some are concentric circles like bull’s-eyes marked with lime or tar. Other dummy targets included battleship shapes, truck convoys or powerhouse structures. Bombers were sent to ranges to strike various targets and to hit certain percentages to meet military requirements.
Many of the dropped bombs did not detonate, resulting in hundreds of unexploded weapons lying in deserts and mountains, or buried in shallow graves.
A common type is a sand bomb, created with thin metal and filled with sand and gravel. This type contains a detonation device rigged to cause explosions of powder using a shotgun shell-type cartridge charge.
“They’re obviously dangerous, but they are the least dangerous type that we come across,” Glover said of the sand bombs.
A bigger threat is variable-time (VT) fuse missiles, developed to combat Japanese kamikaze planes that attacked American warships. U.S. Navy crews found it difficult to destroy the small and agile Japanese aircraft, needing to score direct hits for the shells to detonate.
“For every plane they took down, they had to fire about 2,400 rounds,” Glover said. “We’re talking big shells here.”
In response, America developed VT fuses – an early form of “smart” technology that allowed missiles to sense planes and explode at certain distances, releasing shrapnel. The VT fuses reduced the average number of fired shells to 600, a four-fold increase in target success.
Today, munitions fitted with VT fuses lie scattered around the mountains near Albuquerque. Some are buried, while many others have surfaced through erosion.
“Most of them are just sitting there on the ground,” Glover said.
Other bombs must be excavated. It is dangerous work. Although he has handled many harmless munitions, Glover never takes chances. One unnecessary risk, he says, can be deadly.
“It’s extremely rewarding to see what we pull out of specific areas at the end of a project,” said Glover, “like 12,000 pounds worth of munitions debris from one area at a time.”
Glover saves empty munitions shells to use for training purposes and community outreach. He visits tribal communities and other areas to show people what the bombs look like and educates them about how to stay safe.
He teaches people to remember three “golden Rs,” should they ever encounter a bomb or military device.
“The first R is being able to ‘recognize’ what you see as something dangerous; the second R is ‘retreat’: move away, don’t touch it, don’t pick it up or disturb it in any way; and the third R is to ‘report it,'” Glover said, adding that tribal governments and Kirtland Air Force Base can deploy explosive ordnance teams to remove such hazards.
When asked why he is so dedicated to this dangerous work, Glover stated his mission is to restore nature and protect people.
“It’s making the land safe,” he said. “It’s returning the areas back to their natural, pristine beauty.”
He finds relief knowing that Native Americans can use open areas free of danger.
“It’s good to see that they’re safe in their land,” said Glover. “It’s the same for anybody.
“Everybody should be safe in where they go and what they do.”