History Wars World War II

Japan is still blowing up unexploded ordnance on Okinawa nearly 77 years after World War II

More than 300 bombs and bullets found in 2021 were disposed of in an underwater detonation
Max Hauptman Avatar
unexploded ordnance okinawa
FILE PHOTO: In this Feb. 13, 2009 photo, a member of the Japan Ground Self Defense Force handles unexploded ordnance in Okinawa, Japan. The southern Japan island of Okinawa, home to more than 1 million people and the site of some of World War II's most savage fighting is a tinderbox of unexploded bombs, thousands and thousands of tons of them, rusted and often half buried. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)

Decades after World War II ended in September 1945, its effects can still be felt, seen, and heard. 

On Wednesday, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force conducted an underwater detonation of 315 artillery shells, grenades, and bullets, roughly a half-mile offshore at Naha Port’s Shinko Wharf, in Okinawa. 

The unexploded ordnance was recovered during dredging of Naha Port between March and Nov. 2021. A total of 634 munitions were recovered during dredging operations, a city official for Naha told Stars and Stripes. In December, 319 munitions were disposed of in a similar fashion. 

A digger carries an unexploded 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) bomb from World War II after its deactivation on April 20, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. Hundreds of WWII bombs which failed to detonate during the War due to technical issues are found every year in the country. Between 1940 and 1945, American and British forces dropped nearly three million tons of explosives on Europe, half of which targeted Germany. A quarter of a million of these did not explode. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

The munitions are one part of the ongoing legacy of the Battle of Okinawa, where Army and Marine Corps forces battled the Japanese Army for nearly three months in some of the fiercest fighting of World War II. In the last 50 years, 2,094 tons of unexploded ordnance have been recovered and disposed of in the Okinawa prefecture.

“We used to find more in the past, but it was only 14.4 tons last year,” a spokesman from Okinawa prefecture’s disaster prevention and crisis management division told Stars and Stripes. “I think it is a good thing that we are finding less and less every year.”

Unexploded ordnance remains one of the ways in which both warfare and military training leave a lasting impact on the environment. On former battlefields around the world, thousands of tons of unexploded munitions remain for decades after peace treaties have been signed. Just a month ago, a World War II-era 550-pound bomb detonated in Munich, Germany after it was discovered at a construction site, injuring four people. In the Baltic Sea, tens of thousands of naval mines planted during WWII remain undiscovered. In 2005, three Dutch fishermen were killed after accidentally reeling in a WWII-era bomb.

In this Wednesday, July 31, 2013 photo, leftover ordinance from the Vietnam War sends smoke and debris high into the air as they were blown up in Vinh Thai, Vietnam. In 2012, there were at least 500 casualties in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from unexploded bombs and other ordnance, according to activists and government databases. (AP Photo/Chris Brummitt)

In Vietnam, the U.S. invested more than $166 million to clear landmines and other unexploded ordnance. And in Laos, where the U.S. dropped more than 2.5 million tons of ordnance from 1964 to 1973, some of the very people who flew those bombing missions have worked to help clean up the aftermath of war in what is the most bombed country per capita in the world.

In the case of Peleliu Island, in the Palau archipelago of the Pacific, unexploded ordnance left over from fierce fighting between U.S. Marines and Japanese troops remains to this day — and in some cases have been transformed into historical displays. And in December 2017, a pair of World War II-era artillery rounds were discovered at the construction site for an elementary school on Marine Corps Camp Foster in Okinawa.

That means plenty of work for Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians, in war or peace. 

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