The red gate sits a short distance down a narrow, tree-lined path, and on the gate — hanging in a pouch — is a walkie-talkie.
Base personnel have to call ahead before entering this part of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
“RESTRICTED AREA,” a sign says.
The gate’s posts are aerodynamic, drab green cylinders with rounded yellow tips — old bombs or artillery shells — and, after passing through them and entering a field, there’s a large mound.
Inside that mound is where the air station’s explosive ordnance disposal — EOD — team safely destroys things designed to destroy buildings, machines and people.
A week ago, on a Hilton Head Island beach, a work crew discovered a piece of ordnance. The crew called the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, and the Marine EOD team arrived to remove the roughly 60-pound, seashell-encrusted round. Sometimes, when there’s an immediate threat, ordnance has to be destroyed where it’s found. That wasn’t necessary last week.
Still, the round was live — and, at some point, it had been fired.
“A 5-inch naval round,” Master Sgt. Tony Palomo said Thursday. “Most likely World War II-era,” he said, explaining that while some of today’s U.S. Navy ships might have 5-inch deck guns, this round was fired from an older type of weapon.
“A high-explosive projectile,” Palomo said.
A high-explosive projectile.
USMC Master Sgt. Tony Palomo
He and fellow EOD team members Master Sgt. Brian Diaz and Chief Warrant Officer Earl Wentwoord — all of whom have deployed to combat zones — stood near the old round, which rested on a slab of concrete in front of Safety Bunker 965. The bunker’s door faced the field. The earthen mound atop and behind it shielded the air station’s runways and aircraft.
The design is intentional.
If a piece of recovered ordnance — one being stored before being rendered inert or destroyed — were to explode, the door would shoot into the open, unpopulated field, and the earthen mound would absorb the blast and offer some protection to the air station’s vital areas.
“(The old round) was very close to a lot of homes (on the beach),” Diaz said.
He and his team are called every month or two, he said, to recover old military ordnance in the area. The team covers Colleton, Beaufort, Jasper and Hampton counties, air station spokesperson Capt. Clayton Groover said. The team members said they respond only to calls about military ordnance in Beaufort County — the sheriff’s department has its own bomb squad, they said, which handles other threats.
As the team members talked, other Marines, garbed in gray protective suits, conducted training exercises in the nearby field.
“This time of year we do ‘c-burn’” — really CBRN, the acronym for chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear defense — “training,” Diaz said, when asked about the suit-clad men. Part of the day’s training focused on assessing a threat and using the appropriate gear and techniques to counter it.
Sometimes military ordnance is found in enclosed or densely populated areas such as storage units and construction sites. Those scenarios present a different challenge than an old round found on a beach.
When the air station’s EOD team arrived on Hilton Head last week, it saw the round had been in the water for decades. The team examined the round’s fuse, which had degraded to a point where it didn’t pose a threat. And, team members learned, the round had been shifted around in the sand by a bucket loader at a beach renourishment work site. So, they determined it wasn’t “sensitive to movement.”
The team carried the old round back to the air station, where it will soon be destroyed. Sometimes rounds are rendered inert and preserved because they have historical value — a process that requires the team to coordinate with the air station commanders and officials at Headquarters Marine Corps in Arlington, Va.
But this round had been fired.
We can’t really take it to a state where it is safe enough to be a museum piece.
USMC Master Sgt. Tony Palomo
“We can’t really take it to a state where it is safe enough to be a museum piece,” Palomo said.
Safety is the priority, and it’s achieved through professionalism and technique. And, often, at a distance.
“We’re not just grabbing things and pulling things — red wire, blue wire,” Palomo said, contrasting his team’s techniques with the portrayal of EOD work in the movie, “The Hurt Locker.”
Mention of that movie draws sly, but tired, smiles from the Marines.
“Not everything makes a fireball,” Palomo said of the movie’s explosions.
“I’m not handling six 1-5-5s,” Diaz said with a laugh, referring to the film’s scene in which the protagonist pulls a cluster of wires to reveal a half dozen 155 millimeter shells strung together, a deadly improvised explosive device encircling him. “I’m not standing on top of that.”
It’s a movie, the men, who’ve countered IED threats, said.
Just a movie.