Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Danger, UXO!

There are stories of WW II ordinance turning up on Malibu beaches in the years following the war. After mentioning those reports in the Malibu Post's November 29 post about Point Dume's history, I wanted to learn more about the 1952 depth charge scare on Malibu Road, which reportedly involved UXO—unexploded ordinance. The truth turned out to be surprisingly vague. 

I remember hearing about the incident as a small child. It caught my imagination almost as much as the story about about the remains of a giant squid washing up at Paradise Cove in the same era, or the smugglers in the 1920s who used secluded Malibu beaches to bring in opium and alcohol. 

After a rain, empty WW II-era shell casings often turn up on Point Dume. I have a handful of them, stamped "1942," and I once saw an ashtray made out of an empty brass artillery shell, fished out of the sea, but none of those things compare to the depth charge that washed ashore in 1952.

An empty WW II brass shell casing, found on the bluff at Point Dume. The cap reads: TW 42, a search of the Internet reveals that it's short for Twin Cities Ordinance Plant, 1942. © 2013 Suzanne Guldimann

On March 21, 1952, following a high tide and big surf, a mysterious object was found, half buried in the sand on the beach along Old Malibu Road. Here's the photographic narrative, preserved in a series of unpublished negatives shot for the Los Angeles Examiner, and digitized as part of the online collection of the USC Digital Library:

The caption information for this Los Angeles Examiner photo, taken by a photographer named "Sandusky," reads: "possible mine or depth charge found on Malibu Beach, 21 March 1952. Sergeant F.L. Fahrney (explosives expert from Sheriff's Office); Mr and Mrs Eddie Yuhl; Virgil E. Earlywine (Chief Gunner, Naval Ammunition Depot at Seal Beach); and Clifford Cromp (Forensic Chemist with Sheriff's crime laboratory), inspect the 'thing.'"  Photo Credit: USC Digital Library
Chief Gunner Virgil E. Earlywine, USN, from Naval Ammunition Depot at Seal Beach (wearing cap) and Sgt. F. L. Fahrney of Sheriff's Office. USC Digital Library
Presumably having determined that the "thing" wasn't going to blow up in their faces, Earlywine digs the object out of the sand while Fahrney holds a flashlight. Photo Credit: USC Digital Library
A trio of well-dressed Malibuites gather to observe the experts. The lady on the left, casually smoking a cigarette, is wearing flat shoes, but the other two seem to be in heels. Photo USC Digital Library

This photo shows that the beach at Malibu Road was wall-to-wall houses even in 1952. A sign reading "No Trespassing," is visible in the background. There was no Coastal Act in those days to protect the rights of beachgoers, so this is a rare look at an off-limits landscape. Everyone seems to exhibit remarkable sang-froid in the presence of possible explosives. Perhaps they already knew it wasn't going to blow up. USC Digital Library

This photo from the British Admiralty Office Collection  shows a Mark IV depth charge being loaded onto a depth charge thrower on board HMS Dianthus. US depth charges looked very much the same. I chose this image because it offered a good look at the top of the charge. Depth charges were invented during WW I to combat submarines. In the early years of WW II they were still a simple can full of explosives—TNT—with a pressure-sensitive internal detonator set to go off when the charge reached the specified depth.
Here's a close-up of the object. The information included with the Examiner photos in the USC archive doesn't indicate whether the object was an actual explosive device, but comparing this detail with the photo of the Mark IV depth charge, above, the evidence looks fairly compelling that the "thing" was an actual depth charge. It's a good thing it wasn't still "live" of it might have made a much bigger splash, so to speak, in the news...

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