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Excavation triggers WWII bomb blast

Date Posted: 2009-01-23

A huge explosion when a piece of construction equipment struck a buried World War II bomb rocked Itoman City, sending debris flying and breaking windows, but injuring only one person.

A 25-year-old heavy equipment operator was the only one injured last Wednesday when his power shovel touched the bomb buried about one meter beneath the surface, triggering a massive explosion in the Kohagura area of Itoman City. Jun Kohagura is in stable condition at a local hospital after the blast blew his tracked excavator door window out and blew his helmet off his head.

Residents at a senior citizens center only 30 meters from the blast site were uninjured, although the bomb’s concussion blew out more than 100 windows in the center. Officials say the 160 residents in the 60-room center were in a cafeteria on the other side of the complex when the bomb went off at 8:20 a.m. Three construction workers at the site when the bomb exploded were uninjured.

Kohagura was part of a team digging a trench for a new water main line when his power shovel tip jarred the bomb, setting it off. The explosion, felt at Itoman City Hall more than a mile away, left a crater 15’ wide and 5’ deep. Okinawa Prefecture Police responded to the scene immediately, followed by representatives of Itoman City, the Naha City Labor Standards Bureau, and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Mayors and officials of the southern Okinawa municipalities quickly gathered to discuss the blast, calling on the central government to pay costs for damages and repairs. Haebaru Town’s mayor, Toshiyasu Shiroma, called for “our request to the state for a magnetism probe purchase to detect unexploded ordnance”, and echoed his colleagues’ demand the government be responsible for all compensation. Tomigusuku City’s mayor said the latest “accident happened this time in Itoman Cty, but all of southern Okinawa has the same problem; we don’t know where unexploded bombs are hiding. Houmei Kinjo said “because war was caused by the Japanese government, the government has to protect the citizens.”

Japan’s Ground Self Defense Force, which is responsible for removing unexploded ordnance remaining from World War II has already disposed of more than 1,500 tons of bombs, mines and artillery shells. The specialized 101st Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit assigned to the 1st Combined Brigade in Naha City has responded to more than 30,000 disposal operations. Those operations, says Masaru Kaneko, a JGSDF spokesman, has accounted for handling and disposing of more than 1,500 tons of unexploded ordnance since 1972, when Japan regained control of Okinawa from the U.S.

The bomb disposal unit says they estimate more than 2,500 tons of unexploded ordnance still rests beneath Okinawan soil, a nasty remnant of the 83-day Battle of Okinawa in Spring 1945. Nearly 50 people have been injured and five people killed during encounters with the rusting ordnance. The last injury came in Nishihara in 2001, but the latest missions for the JGSDF Explosive Ordnance Unit came only last month, when dozens of mines, mortar shells and other munitions were uncovered at more than a dozen construction sites in Yonaabaru, and in central areas of Urasoe and Nishihara.

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