Project Phongsali: Villagers lead us to a 750 pound bomb. One of four million “big bombs” dropped on Laos.

March 9, 2010

Day 36

A bomb this size can throw fragments nearly a mile.

Yai and our teenage, hang-around, self-appointed assistant, Dwee, completed their walk and have identified 58 old bomb craters within the village, an area that might cover four acres. That gives me a good picture of what went on here during the war. I don’t think we have any good reason to start counting craters out in the rice fields or neighboring forest. According to the US Department of Defense, there were more than 580,000 bomb runs over Laos between 1964 and 1973, and each run could include hundreds of individual bombs and thousands of cluster munitions.

We found our first “big bomb” yesterday. A “750.” As the name implies, a piece of work weighing 750 pounds: half that weight is hardened steel, and half is high explosive. The big bombs that bracket the 750, the five-hundred-pounder and the thousand-pounder, both look slim, fit, and aerodynamic. The 750 is a fat slob of a bomb.

A lady looking for wild greens came upon this one. The exposed surface area was not much bigger than my shoe; I’m impressed that the lady recognized it for what it was, and secondly, that she didn’t dig around exploring the thing. Glad to say that curiosity won’t likely kill that cat.

It took an hour for the guys to dig the bomb out of its four-decade- old resting place. They spent most of that time carefully exposing the bomb’s nose and tail fuses and accounting for several missing parts. Last year I met the parents of a couple of teens who found a bomb similar to ours and thought that, because its charge was burnt away, it was safe. Then, one of the kids picked up a stray piece, probably a booster; it exploded, killing them instantly and wounding two of their friends.

When today’s excavation was complete, we marked the site, but we’ll do nothing with this bomb until the end of the project. At that time we may have many small items that can be moved safely to a demolition site. If that’s the case, we’ll stack everything we want to get rid of next to the 750 and use its massive charge to destroy the whole assortment, saving us the cost of TNT.

The tailfins of the 750 probably weighed 25 pounds. As I watched a de-miner carry the fins out of the forest, through a couple of steams and over several fences, I knew what he had in mind. The guys will often carry home the bomb fragments that they find while clearing ordnance, and then sell the refuse to a local scrap dealer for cigarette and beer money.

This being the villagers’ first exposure to humanitarian clearance, they naturally have a fair amount of suspicion about why we are here, and might be wondering about what’s in it for us. The last thing I want is for villagers to falsely conclude that we are profiting from their ordnance. So… in the end, I had the de-miner hand the tailfins over to the lady who led us to the bomb, and I reimbursed the team’s cigarette kitty for 30,000 kip (about four dollars US).

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