If you’ve got an interest in military history, visiting sites that supported Australia’s involvement in the WWII Pacific Campaign will no doubt be on your travel schedule from time to time. Many travellers to Cape York, Darwin and the Kimberley are fascinated to see wrecked airframes and remnants of military installations, vehicles and storage drums. Further south is the well-known Brisbane Line which had the purpose of slowing a possible southerly invasion of Australia by Japanese troops. Contrary to popular belief, the Brisbane Line was not a single defensive line but was, instead, multiple installations in a series of bases, airstrips and defensive structures that reached all the way to Tenterfield, NSW.
During WWII, when the threat of an invasion from Japan seemed both real and imminent, Australia had around 730,000 personnel enlisted in the militia and Australian Imperial Forces. During this period, there were literally hundreds of training camps, stores and transit depots, rifle ranges and casualty clearance stations in Australia. Further, following his retreat from the Philippines in 1942, MacArthur’s forces were initially stationed in Melbourne and then expanded to Brisbane, Townsville, Cairns and Rockhampton.
While the threat of invasion may have waned, a latent threat still remains from the War years. What we’re talking about here is Unexploded Ordnance (UXO).
UXO is defined as any sort of military ammunition or explosive which has failed to explode as designed or intended. This includes munitions like mines, mortar bombs, artillery shells, hand grenades, bombs and rockets. Though they won’t appear on many travel maps, there are approximately 2000 known sites across Australia recorded by the Department of Defence as being contaminated by UXO. Over 1200 of these are on state, public and private lands. In addition, there are over 100 other sites known to have been utilised in WWII for chemical warfare manufacturing, testing, training and storage. The fact is that many of the grenades, rockets and bombs used by Australian and American military personnel training for war failed to “go bang”. Now, some 70 years later, many of them have become lost, buried and forgotten about.
LOOK BUT DON'T TOUCH!
For those of us who 4WD, hunt, fish or bushwalk, it’s quite possible we might come upon a UXO when we least expect it. The Department of Defence tells us there are no known instances (in Australia) where a UXO has injured a member of the public, except when it has been deliberately disturbed and mishandled. The problems start if we, or our kids, disturb a device by driving over it, picking it up, playing with it, kicking it or throwing it.
So when the sign says keep to the tracks – keep to the tracks! It might not be for the sake of preserving the scrub but to save your own skin – literally. And if you find an item that you think could be UXO, step away. Take a GPS reading and/or mark the location by tying a ribbon or piece of tape to a nearby tree (or other kind of marker) to help the professionals find it later. Then contact local police who will arrange for military experts to attend the site and dispose of the device.
Mike Ransom is the Operations Manager at MILSEARCH an Australian contracting company that remediates land contaminated by UXO. MILSEARCH has conducted UXO clearances in national parks, forests and freehold land. Mike explained to us that “UXOs are often referred to as duds, bombs, dummy rounds, or by other terms. Regardless of what you call them, never touch, move or disturb munitions as they can be extremely dangerous.”
Mike emphasised that when we’re out in the bush, we can come across UXO and not recognise it. “UXOs come in many shapes and sizes and can look like simple rubbish such as a soft drink can, baseball or even a muffler!”
The danger is clear. As Mike told us: “munitions including their components (e.g., projectiles, fuses, rocket motors) may contain high explosives, propellant or pyrotechnics. Munitions should never be collected as souvenirs or ‘trophies.’ No matter how old or damaged a munition may look, it can still be as – or more dangerous – than the day it was made.” This sounds like sage advice to us.