Land dangers for Navy divers

This article has photo gallery Published on Department of Defence (author)

Location(s): Honiara, Solomon Islands

Topic(s): Operation RENDER SAFE

Royal Australian Navy Clearance Diver Leading Seaman Thomas Buchanan (left) and Constable Peter Rivivere of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force examine two US M43A1 81mm mortars fitted with Type 52 Point Detonating fuses. The two shells will be collected by an Operation Render Safe 16 field team and be moved to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force's Explosive Ordnance Disposal Facility at Hells Point for destruction. (photo: )
Royal Australian Navy Clearance Diver Leading Seaman Thomas Buchanan (left) and Constable Peter Rivivere of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force examine two US M43A1 81mm mortars fitted with Type 52 Point Detonating fuses. The two shells will be collected by an Operation Render Safe 16 field team and be moved to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force's Explosive Ordnance Disposal Facility at Hells Point for destruction.

Navy’s Australian Clearance Diving Team One personnel traded their fins for combat boots during land clearance operations in the Solomon Islands for Operation RENDER SAFE.
 
Working in the village of Konga, east of the capital Honiara on the island of Guadalcanal, the detachment and two medics joined two Royal Solomon Islands Police Force explosive ordnance disposal specialists to remove explosive remnants of war that still litter the countryside and pose a threat to the community 70 years after the Second World War.
 
The village is surrounded by grasslands interwoven with numerous creeks lined by jungle growth. There are precious few roads or paths, and as the area is believed to have been used in the later stages of the Pacific campaign as an artillery and mortar range by the United States, the countryside is pockmarked with craters.
 
Unfortunately for the divers, the smaller mortar blast holes are hidden by the waist-high grass, so every step in the open terrain was a hazard.
 
Team leader Lieutenant Robert Kelly said briefing clearly was imperative to safe conduct.
 
"We need to determine the order in which to tackle the sites," he said.
 
"Sometimes a search through the undergrowth reveals nothing, so it’s on to the next.
 
"What looks like a pleasant walk across some rolling hills shrouded in long grass, is actually an obstacle course of hidden mortar blast holes and an uneven rocky surface."
 
On this trip the team inspected a 60mm mortar round that protruded from the ground. Its rusty body was almost impossible to spot in the grass, and even when the undergrowth was cleared away it still resembled the burnt rocks that surrounded it. 
 
 
"There were no explosives or a body compartment attached. Thankfully this round could not hurt anyone, but that could only be proven once the round was dug up and examined," Lieutenant Kelly said.
 
Another site contained two artillery shells – a large 105mm shell and a 155mm shell. Both had been fired but failed to detonate.
 
An inspection confirmed they were safe to be picked up and carried away, but the only way out for the team was the way they came in. So the team traversed a creek and a jungle track carrying the munitions downstream to vehicles.
 
"As one team recovered a smaller round that was wedged in a tree, a call came over the radio alerting us to a possible emergency," Lieutenant Kelly said.
 
A second team had seen smoke rising from a grassfire at a nearby group of huts which was followed by an explosion.
 
"We arrived at the scene and established a child had lit a grassfire in a central area, and the fire had spread and the ensuing heat caused an object to explode – possibly a 40mm anti-aircraft shell. 
"Fortunately no-one was hurt, but the sailors made a firebreak to contain the fire, allowing it to burn out safely."
 
During the operation, the divers routinely received munitions directly from villagers. Once inspected and deemed safe for transport they were taken to the Explosive Ordnance Disposal facility at Hells Point, so named for the ferocious battle that was fought there in 1942.
 
"One inspection revealed a cracked suspected phosphorous round. This posed a significant danger that its contents could ignite on contact with the air if the crack widened during transport across the rough roads," Lieutenant Kelly said.
 
"In that case we took extra precautions and carefully placed it in a trunk on moist soil and bathed in water."
 
Constable Peter Rivivere, Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, summed up the contribution of the team to munitions removal and destruction.
 
“As we saw today even a small fire can be a great threat to a community because of the hidden explosive ordnance,” Constable Rivivere said.
 
“With the help of our friends we are doing something to help the people of the Solomon Islands.
 
“It’s a good opportunity to be engaged in something this worthwhile.”