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More than 50 years later, Allied bombs s

August 17, 1997

More than 50 years later, Allied bombs still threatening Germany

AP Photo NY190


Associated Press Writer

BERLIN (AP) _ Hidden bombs stop urgent dike repairs along the swollen Oder River. Another bomb forces Merck Pharmaceuticals to evacuate laboratories and a computer center. Even President Roman Herzog has had to clear out of his Berlin palace _ twice in two weeks.

The explosives found this summer weren’t planted by criminals or terrorists, but fell from the air more than 50 years ago.

Although millions of unexploded bombs and artillery shells have been cleared and defused since World War II, officials estimate thousands remain buried all over Germany. Most are still live and potentially explosive.

``It’s hard to comprehend″ that such a danger still exists, said Peter Jung, who heads a special Berlin fire department unit in charge of defusing the lethal leftovers.

Yet the bombs turn up so frequently that Germans have come to view them less as a looming danger than as an annoyance because of the temporary evacuations and traffic tie-ups that usually follow a discovery.

``They’re there and so you have to deal with it,″ said a presidential spokesman who was forced from Bellevue Palace along with Herzog. ``What else can people do?″

Experts estimate 5 percent of the 440,000 Allied bombs dropped on Berlin failed to explode due to faulty fuses, poor assembly, bad angle of impact and other reasons.

The Germans dispatched units of engineers after each bombing run to defuse the duds. But many buried deep in the rubble were missed.

They turn up now most often at building sites, anywhere from six feet to 40 feet underground.

More than 1,700 bombs have been recovered in western Berlin since the war. The emphasis is now on the east, where construction is booming because of the government’s plan to move the capital back to Berlin by 2000.

``In the western half of the city, a lot of munitions were found and cleared away in the last 40 or 50 years,″ said Hans-Juergen Gembus, head of Berlin’s munitions removal department. ``This still lies before us in the east.″

To make matters worse, the duds become more unstable as they age and corrode. ``With certain ignition mechanisms, they can also go off by themselves,″ Gembus said.

Experts believe that was what happened in July 1983, when a British-made bomb apparently went off by itself underground near an empty school, causing no injuries but damaging about 70 homes.

After that, Berlin started using Allied aerial photos to help locate possible duds. Four people in Gembus’ 14-man office are still poring over such pictures, laying them over other shots to produce three-dimensional images.

``It’s not easy,″ he said. ``You have to imagine, the impact crater of a bomb that doesn’t go off is about the size of a pinhead in such a picture.″

Suspicious spots are checked out as part of a regular sweeping program. Contractors also often ask Gembus to check a site before beginning work on a new building, although such a step is not legally required.

When a bomb is found, the actual defusing is usually quick _ 30 minutes or so, said Jung, the Berlin squad leader.

``There are, of course, a few critical moments,″ admitted Jung, who after 10 years of disposing of TNT is hard of hearing. But he said he never gets nervous. The unit, set up in the 1950s, has not had a fatality in 40 years.

The last deaths caused by a dud were at a construction site in eastern Berlin in September 1994. Three workers were killed and 17 others injured when a 550-pound American ``Demolition″ bomb blew up during drilling for a foundation.

Of the 10 bombs found in Berlin so far this year, two popped up in June and July during construction of new presidential offices next to the Bellevue Palace, the president’s official residence in the heart of the city.

Herzog and staff calmly checked into a hotel for the afternoon during the first evacuation, the presidential spokesman said on customary condition of anonymity. The second time, the president and his wife went for ice cream at a cafe.

``Maybe it’d be different in America because this problem doesn’t exist there,″ the spokesman said. ``Berliners certainly aren’t happy about it, but it’s a situation that you can’t change.″

Gembus and Jung both expect to be kept busy for at least another 10 years. And they note that Germany’s situation is not unique.

Countries as far afield as Vietnam and Bosnia are strewn with bombs, mines and other leftovers of war. The cleanup ``will also take decades there,″ Jung said.

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