Herald News (Passaic County, NJ)
July 21, 2008 Monday

Old guns and ammo remain threat;
Authorities step up efforts to track them

By Heather Haddon


LITTLE FALLS - The house Patrolman Jason Pressing was looking to purchase had three bedrooms, a wooded yard - and a live grenade in the attached garage.

When a township policeman spotted the old pineapple-shaped grenade last month nestled among faded newspapers in the garage, the Passaic County bomb squad put an end to the house tour.

"The pin was almost halfway pulled out," said Lt. Salvatore Calafiore of the Little Falls Police Department, who responded to the scene. "If something fell on it, the grenade would have exploded."

Every year, the Passaic County Sheriff's Department is called to remove grenades, bombs and bullets found in people's homes. Most of the ordnance came from World War II, Korean and Vietnam war veterans who forgot about them or died. Old guns also turn up at local police departments when a relative stumbles on them.

Local veterans say they cherish the mementos of foreign battles. But across the country, old ammunition has caused injuries and deaths to those who happen upon it.

The U.S. military is increasing its efforts to track ammunition and educate the public about the dangers of old munitions. But the stuff is out there, and it continues to turn up as veterans age, and more soldiers become trained and deployed overseas, the military says.

"It's not an everyday occurrence, but it certainly happens more regularly than people think," said Bill Maer, spokesman for the Passaic County Sheriff's Department, which operates the local bomb squad.

The military has never condoned troops taking artillery or ammunition after training or combat, said J.C. King, assistant for munitions and chemical matters with the Army. Soldiers caught pocketing American weapons face disciplinary action varying from extra duty and docking of pay to a court martial.

But troops have brought home foreign weapons, including grenades, ammunition, missiles and bombs, throughout military history and today, King said.

"People take stuff. I don't understand it, but soldiers see something that is attractive," King said.

Passaic County is home to 22,000 veterans, 2006 census estimates show. Three out of every four of them are 55 and older, having served in World War II, Korea or Vietnam.

At the Athenia Veterans Association, the Clifton group's hall is decorated with historic swords and shotguns. Members counted a dagger, an Italian Carcano rifle and a .31 caliber, bolt-action rifle from Japan among the mementos collected from wars.

"You were young. You wanted to do things dangerously," said Sy Pagani, 82, who cleared caves full of artillery abandoned by the Japanese in World War II.

Pagani gave a Japanese rifle to his adult grandson a decade ago. Other veterans never hand off their weaponry, leaving their children to find it after they die or move. Occasionally, old munitions wind up in garage sales, the garbage, in fields or along the beach, said King, the Army munitions assistant.

In Passaic County, the bomb squad responds to 20 calls a year for grenades and other types of live ammunition, said Maer, the Sheriff's Department spokesman. Most of the items turn up in homes. Some people have tried to recycle them, he said.

"People don't know what to do with it, so they go to the recycling center," Maer added.

About a year ago, a man walked into the Little Falls police station with a live 19th century mortar, Calafiore said. Old firearms are also routinely surrendered to the Clifton and Paterson police departments, spokesmen say.

"Someone's widow will call," said Detective Capt. Robert Rowan, spokesman for the Clifton Police Department. "They'll bring side-arms or handguns."

There have been no reports of old ammunition detonating and hurting someone in Passaic County in recent years, Maer and local police said. But explosives are dangerous.

In February, a Virginia vendor of Civil War relics died when a cannonball exploded. Two years ago, two children died and five others were injured in Bakersfield, Calif., when a neighbor gave them a military shell to play with.

The Army averages one or two emergency calls a week for live ordnance, King said. The cases vary from individual grenades at a home to clusters of buried ammunition, such as five World War II bomb fuses found at Long Beach Island last year.

The Department of Defense responds in most instances, but some local bomb squads also handle the ordnance. In Passaic County, the bomb squad collects explosives and detonates them in a fenced-in pit within Garret Mountain Reservation, Maer said.

The Army, prompted by the deaths in Bakersfield, Calif., began an educational campaign last year about the dangers of souvenir munitions. It mailed posters to veterans' groups instructing them to "recognize, retreat and report" from ammunition, King said. Those who voluntarily surrender ordnances are not prosecuted.

Veterans at the Clifton hall said they did not have live ammunition or keep loaded souvenir weapons.

"It's not operational. It's a memento," said Ted Kalinka, 73, a guardsman who has a Word War II rifle displayed above his fireplace.

The U.S. military is developing a system to track the rounds of ammunitions fired at a site to recovery all of them, King said. But the Army purchases billions of pieces of ammunition annually, and some will likely wind up in people's pockets.

"You don't know how much was taken, so there's no way of knowing how much is out there," he said.

The Little Falls house where the grenade was discovered was built by a World War II veteran, who raised his four children and lived out his life in the residence. Next month, Patrolman Pressing intends to close on the house - without the grenade.

Reach Heather Haddon at 973-569-7121 or haddon@northjersey.com