WW2 Bomb Squads – Meet the U.S. Army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Pioneers

Not much has been written about the U.S. Army bomb disposal squads of World War. Author and historian Jeffrey Leatherwood has devoted himself to telling their stories. (Image source: Jeffrey Leatherwood)

Capt. Joe Pilcher and the 17th Bomb Disposal Squad. Not a lot has been written about the U.S. Army’s bomb disposal units of World War Two. Author and historian Jeffrey Leatherwood has devoted himself to telling their stories. (Image source: Jeffrey Leatherwood)

“More than 2,000 men served in the U.S. Army’s elite bomb disposal teams during the war. Yet American UXB squads received very little media coverage owing to their secrecy and small numbers.”

By Jeffrey M. Leatherwood

WHEN PEOPLE THINK about Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians, many envision soldiers in blast suits with remote-controlled robots, tracking down IEDs like something out of the 2009 movie The Hurt Locker. However, just like most stereotypes from Hollywood war films, such impressions are misleading. EODs duties are just as complex and varied as in the branch’s beginnings in World War Two, when it bore the simple name: “bomb disposal.”

A bomb squad at work in war torn London, 1940. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A bomb squad at work in war-torn London, 1940. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Danger UXB

The British Royal Engineers were the true pioneers of bomb disposal. These early trailblazers first proved their mettle during the Battle of Britain, a time when London was dotted with unexploded bombs — UXBs as they were then known. These weapons were armed with a variety of delayed-action and booby-trapped anti-handling fuzes* — it required nerves of steel to disarm them. By the end of 1940, the British army had raised more than 20 bomb disposal companies. Soon, the U.S. military was sending observers to the United Kingdom to learn from these early experts in hopes of establishing an American UXB corps. By 1942, British bomb technicians were training stateside bomb squads – many of which would soon be working overseas with both the army and the navy.

* NOTE: Ordnance professionals spell fuze with a ‘z’ to differentiate between mechanical and chemical detonators.
Thomas J. Kane was the driving force behind the U.S. Army's bomb disposal efforts of World War Two. (Image source: Jeffrey Leatherwood)

Thomas J. Kane (pictured here) was the driving force behind the U.S. Army’s bomb disposal efforts of World War Two. (Image source: Jeffrey Leatherwood)

Training America’s Bomb Squads

More than 2,000 men served in the U.S. Army’s elite bomb disposal teams during the war; they suffered 10 per cent casualties in Europe alone. Yet, despite the critical work they did defusing unexploded enemy bombs, shells and rockets, clearing mines and dismantling booby traps and even dud Allied munitions, American UXB squads received very little media coverage owing to their secrecy and small numbers. Each seven-man team consisted of one junior officer, two sergeants, and four technicians each with different specialties.

The units trained at the Army’s Ordnance Bomb Disposal School, which opened Feb. 16, 1942, at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. This new school, modeled on Harper Barracks at Ripon, Yorkshire, imparted skills gained by the sacrifices of British officers in the UXB war with Germany. In fact, several Royal Engineers helped establish both the Army and Navy bomb disposal schools. What’s more, a few Americans received hands-on training from the British themselves.

In January 1942, Maj. (later Col.) Thomas J. Kane and eight others flew to war-torn England to study the latest in Axis bomb technology as well as the means to render safe these weapons. Kane, a 42-year-old Reservist from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania with several years of railway experience, later became the first commandant at Aberdeen’s BD School; his colleagues would serve as school instructors and squad officers. He would go on to serve Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as the supreme commander’s director of bomb disposal in the ETO.

Capt. Ron Felton (left) and the 12th BD squad. (Image source: Jeffrey M. Leatherwood)

Capt. Ron Felton (left) instructs officers on the proper way to dispose of unexploded ordnance. (Image source: Jeffrey M. Leatherwood)

In Harm’s Way

Originally, eight U.S. Army Bomb Disposal companies trained for national defense. However, by early 1943, two BD companies were deployed to North Africa to participate in Algeria and Tunisia operations. They suffered their first casualties in Tunisia – three enlisted men died in an ammunition incident, while two officers fell victim to an enemy mine. Nevertheless, field commanders were dissatisfied with the companies’ performance chiefly because they were wasteful of manpower and vehicles.  Slowly, the mobile “squads separate” replaced the BD companies as the core unit, chiefly to cover more ground.

Kane criticized this move fearing that seven-man units would not receive proper support from their parent division. He likened the situation to that of an “unwanted stepchild.” However, Kane accepted the outcome and he worked to ensure that “squads separate” would be self-sufficient.  In turn, the bomb squads became akin to small “families” with a shared mission.  Squad officers and their enlisted men often enjoyed a close bond that transcended rank to a great degree.  The number of squad reunions that took place decades after the war reflects this fact.

Major Martin L. Ehrmann and a German "butterfy bomb". (Image source: Jeffrey Leatherwood)

Major Martin L. Ehrmann and a German “butterfy bomb”. (Image source: Jeffrey Leatherwood)

Work continued in Italy, with BD squads securing airbases and ammunition dumps. Capt. Ron Felton, one of Kane’s original officers, led his 12th BD squad on a number of operations. At Foggia, Italy, the team removed deadly “butterfly” bombs scattered across Allied airfields by German warplanes. Other units supported amphibious landings in the Italian theater, yielding valuable lessons used to clear explosives during the Normandy invasion.

When Kane transferred to the ETO in early 1944, he co-founded an Ordnance Bomb Reconnaissance School, which taught combat units to recognize and report UXBs and other hazards. He also encouraged his soldiers to work with Royal Engineers and other British units. In fact, Kane’s research and development officer, John E. Feldman, received Great Britain’s highest honor (OBE) for his role in V-1 Rocket research. Maj. Feldman, affectionately known as “Kane’s Brains”, also invented the portable flit-gun and self-tapping needle, valuable tools of the trade that neutralized most bomb fuzes while reducing the bulky equipage that ordnance units carried into the field.  Feldman is recognized today as a leading light of EOD.

* NOTE: Ironically, the two officers killed in Tunisia died on the same day as two other BD personnel killed in action against the Japanese on the Aleutian island of Attu in June 1943.
After honing their skills in Italy and North Africa, America's bomb disposal units would be instrumental in the Normandy campaign and beyond. (Image source: WikiCommons)

After honing their skills in Italy and North Africa, America’s bomb disposal units would be instrumental in the Normandy campaign and beyond. (Image source: WikiCommons)

From D-Day to VE Day

For Operation Overlord, each Special Engineer Brigade assigned to a Normandy beachhead included one Ordnance Bomb Squad. In the past, army engineers and bomb disposal occasionally clashed over jurisdiction, but in 1944, they worked seamlessly together. Even so, the bomb squads lost at least one soldier to German gunfire and artillery on D-Day. Moreover, their distinctive vehicles with red mudguards offered tempting targets to German snipers.

Men of the 9th AF Bomb Disposal examine a captured V-1 Rocket. (Image source: Jeffrey Leatherwood)

A bomb disposal team with the U.S. Army’s Ninth Air Force examine a captured V-1 Rocket. (Image source: Jeffrey Leatherwood)

While squads cleared ammo dumps across France and secured airbases, some gained reputations among combat divisions as troubleshooters. Capt. Joe Pilcher, another Kane disciple, had suffered serious injuries in a UXB blast in England. Against the odds, Pilcher survived to lead the 17th BD Squad from Normandy to Paris, where he received the Croix de Guerre for saving the Pont Neuf bridge, one of the French capital’s oldest landmarks. Pilcher also served during the Battle of the Bulge, which he later described as a “Bomb Disposal Man’s Picnic”. He also took part in a critical operation at the Schwammanuel Dam (for which the Army Corps of Engineers received the lion’s share of credit). Pilcher’s squad even supported the V Corps at Remagen Bridge and wound up in Czechoslovakia by V-E Day.

Before Douglas MacArthur famously waded ashore at Luzon on Oct. 20, 1944, U.S. Army bomb squads swept the are for unexploded ordnance. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Before Douglas MacArthur famously waded ashore at Luzon on Oct. 20, 1944, U.S. Army bomb squads swept the area for unexploded ordnance. (Image source: WikiCommons)

BDs in the Pacific

No discussion of World War Two bomb disposal is complete without an exploration of the unique challenges of the Pacific Theater, where long distances, constant work, and jungle climate adversely affected unit record-keeping.

Owing to navy shortages, army personnel often handled all naval ordnance that they encountered. Today’s joint-service EOD training reflects the fact that many army technicians paid the price for this oversight.

Capt. George C. Sarauw and his entire team perished on April 18, 1945; when a Japanese beach mine blew up their transport on the island of Ie Shima, part of the Okinawa prefecture. Ironically, this tragedy occurred on the same date war correspondent Ernie Pyle died covering the battle.

Like the Germans, Japanese soldiers were masters of improvised explosives. In fact, when Douglas MacArthur famously waded ashore at Luzon, making good on his promise to return to the Philippines, he did so only when the 109th BD Squad had finished combing the beaches of for mines. The 109th also accompanied MacArthur on his “March to Manila”, where they were ambushed while scouting ahead for UXBs. No one was killed, but the team’s officer, 1st Lt. Carl Cirocco, lost the use of his arm due to shrapnel.

Japanese defenders would use anything, even “dud” American bombs, to hinder Allied troop movements. The 209th, one of the last squads to arrive in the Philippines, supported infantry operations on the large jungle island of Mindanao. They were disarming Japanese depth charges used as landmines on June 28, 1945, when one detonated on Mandog Hill, killing Capt. Ricard Metress and three enlisted men. A veteran of the trade, Metress had accompanied Col. Kane on his original mission to England.

Soldiers of the 797th Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Detachment prepare to detonate an unexploded ordnance round found near Forward Operating Base Rustamiyah, Iraq. America's 21st Century bomb squads owe their existence to the trailblazers of World War Two. (Image source: U.S. Air Force)

Soldiers of the 797th EOD prepare to detonate an unexploded artillery shell near Rustamiyah, Iraq. America’s 21st Century bomb squads owe their very existence to a handful of innovators from World War Two. (Image source: U.S. Air Force)

Heroes Remembered

Thanks to the courage and sacrifice of their World War Two brethren, EOD has made strides since those early days so long ago. By 1946, Ammunition and Bomb Disposal had merged into the EOD service. By the Korean War, EOD began earning hazard pay for their specialized work. They also forged post-war partnerships with Allied and former Axis nations, helping to clear the hazards of conflicts past.

Today, the EOD community is global, even progressive. While few African-Americans received training at Aberdeen Proving Ground, some 555th Airborne “smokejumpers” learned bomb disposal skills during the Japanese balloon bomb raids.

Nine_From_Aberdeen_CoverIn 1947, Truman’s Executive Order 9981 integrated all services as well as branches. Since Vietnam, women have also risen as high as full colonel. In 2013, the 52nd EOD Group under Col. Marue “Mo” Quick dedicated Kane Hall to the memory of Army EOD’s “founding father.” In a fitting gesture, this writer delivered the dedication address on what would have been Kane’s 113th birthday, March 30.

Dr. Jeffrey M. Leatherwood is the author of Nine From Aberdeen, a history of the Army Ordnance Bomb Disposal and a recognized authority on World War Two bomb disposal. A former U.S. Army artilleryman, Leatherwood is an associate professor of history at the American Military University.

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