The Origins of U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal

By CSM James H. Clifford, USA-Ret.

Among the many developments to come out of the World War II experience, the establishment of a bomb disposal organization is one of the more interesting. Until then, the Army had no bomb disposal apparatus. The seeds of Army bomb disposal were planted out of the necessity of World War II and grew into an organization that lasts unto this day.

As Europe was engulfed in war, the United States watched and planned for the inevitable day when it too would be dragged into the carnage. The handling of unexploded bombs, known at the time as UXB, was one of the most challenging problems. Before the war there was no method or organization to deal with UXB. It was a small problem usually handled by engineer squads that detonated UXB where found. Pre-World War II ordnance was simplistic in design and posed little hazard to people when it failed to detonate. As modern technology was applied to ordnance design, the task took on a higher level of hazard. Delay and anti-tamper fuzing added new complications that could only be handled by a dedicated organization specially trained in the mission of bomb disposal.

The birth of modern bomb disposal dates to the Battle of Britain in 1940. As the German Luftwaffe blitzed English cities, citizens were killed and wounded in increasing numbers by UXB. Some of these UXB were duds but many had delay fuzing designed to detonate hours later, creating the effect of a twenty-four hour bombing campaign. At first, untrained British engineers took on the task of bomb disposal. The casualty rate was high and the need for specialized training soon became obvious. The earliest bomb disposal training was conducted for all services at Melsham Royal Air Force Force Station, Wiltshire, England. In September 1941, the Royal Engineers established a formal Army Bomb Disposal School in Donnington, relocating to Harper Barracks at Ripon in January 1942. At the same time, each of the British military services established their own independent bomb disposal training to handle the specific requirements of that service. Early training and equipment were rudimentary and casualties continued to be very high. However, the casualty rate decreased as experience grew and training matured. Disposal troops developed several techniques for handling UXB, including those designed to stop clockwork timers, remove fuzes, and steam explosives out of bombs.

American authorities originally planned for bomb disposal to be a civilian function. In April 1941, the Office of Civilian Defense established the Chemical Warfare School at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland. Bomb disposal would be taught as part of the overall course of instruction at the school. The Chemical Corps asked for assistance from the Ordnance Corps located at nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground. GEN Julian S. Hatcher, commander of the Ordnance Training Center, detailed MAJ Thomas J. Kane to provide whatever assistance he could to the program. MAJ Kane is considered the father of U.S. Army Bomb Disposal, today known as Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD).

Two ideas changed the structure of what was to become U.S. Army Bomb Disposal. First was the realization that civilians could not be expected to carry out bomb disposal duties. Second was that bomb disposal was not a Chemical Corps function. Five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the War Department assigned the Office of Civilian Defense responsibility for bomb disposal in the Zone of the Interior, and the Ordnance Department similar missions on military installations and overseas areas. The Chief of Ordnance rightly concluded in a letter to the Adjutant General that “Civilian volunteers cannot be properly trained or disciplined for this hazardous work. Every detail of delayed-action bomb disposal is hazardous in the extreme and requires the utmost in skill, caution, and discipline. Only professionals can develop the skill and experience necessary for such work.” Shortly thereafter the Office of Civilian Defense was relieved of bomb disposal responsibilities in favor of the Ordnance Department, and the idea that civilians should conduct bomb disposal activities was dropped.

In January 1942, the Ordnance Department formed a bomb disposal organization at Aberdeen with now LTC Kane as the first Commandant of the Bomb Disposal School. LTC Kane and another officer immediately traveled to England along with two enlisted soldiers to learn the craft of bomb disposal from the British. A second team consisting of two officers and enlisted soldiers followed them two weeks later. At the same time, a British team led by COL Jeffrey Yates traveled to Aberdeen to begin instructing U.S. soldiers. COL Yates brought along a complete line of tools and equipment developed in England, so the first U.S. soldiers were taught British methods. The first several classes consisted solely of officers in keeping with the British model that dictated that only officers could do the delicate and dangerous work of defuzing bombs. The first enlisted men started bomb disposal training at Aberdeen in April 1942. The training included recognition of bombs, use of bomb disposal equipment, bomb excavation, and rigging.

In addition to a lack of trained personnel, there were no instructional materials available in the United States. That shortage was soon rectified by the reproduction of British training publications. In March 1942, the Signal Corps duplicated the British film UXB for use in the United States. Before long, thousands of soldiers and civilians viewed the film. Later manuals were published, including a bomb reconnaissnace manual for civilians, Ordnance Field Service Circular No. 75, Bomb Reconnaissance for All Arms, and a handbook entitled Objects Dropped from the Air. The publication of these documents and the undertaking of an instructional mission set a precedent that is still followed today.

Many aspects of bomb disposal continued simultaneously throughout 1942. As training progressed, the organization of bomb disposal units proceeded. On 9 May 1942 the 231st Bomb Disposal Company became the first such unit in Army history established under basic Allowance No. 9 for Bomb Disposal Company. The 231st was sent to the Western Defense Command, one of the geographical theaters of the United States landmass. The next month the revised table of organization was approved for overseas companies.

At the same time, construction of the bomb disposal school at Aberdeen was completed in June. The school became a frequent stop for visiting officers and bomb disposal experts from U.S. allies, including England and Australia. Naval bomb disposal experts also visited Aberdeen from their recently established school at American University in Washington, D.C.

As soldiers graduated from the school, they were assigned to companies being sent throughout the United States and all combat theaters. Some officers were detailed to the various U.S. and Allied commands as bomb disposal advisors. A regular program of support to civilian authorities was established that has continued to this day. Within a few months, bomb disposal officers were dispatched throughout the U.S. to instruct public safety and industry leaders on such subjects as bomb recognition and safety, and bomb disposal teams operated on military installations and their surrounding communities. The first recovery on an unexploded bomb occurred about this time along the Elk River in Maryland.

Overseas, bomb disposal companies were unavailable for Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa in November 1942. By the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, bomb disposal soldiers were busy dealing with both Allied and Axis UXB and teaching troops the details of bomb reconnaissance. The issue of teaching troops was so important that a school for that purpose was established at Bristol, England. The school included a miniature village and a museum of UXB. Initially, instructors from the Royal Engineer School at Ripon handled the instruction, but upon their arrival in the fall of 1943, the 234th Bomb Disposal Company assumed responsibility for the school.

In March 1944, COL Kane arrived in England to become the Eighth Air Force Bomb Disposal Officer. He and his men formed the Bomb Disposal Division, a staff section designated to handle bomb disposal matters. In addition to the duties disposing UXB, they also maintained an active liaison between various military units to further the knowledge of bomb disposal. They produced a regular newsletter called Fuze News, and made such progress in the field that the British, despite being in the business for five years, adopted several American procedures and types of equipment. The chief advantage of American equipment was that it was substantially lighter than that of British bomb disposal units. The British equipment weighed nearly two tons, while the American equipment used for bomb disposal duties weighed around two hundred pounds.

Throughout the war bomb disposal soldiers went about their dangerous job with courage and professionalism. Dozens of them paid the ultimate price to protect soldier and civilian alike from the ravages of the unexploded bomb. Led by COL Kane, they began a legacy that continued through World War II until today. In each of our conflicts since World War II, whether they were called police actions, peacekeeping or peace making missions, rescue missions, or war, the bomb disposal, now explosive ordnance disposal, soldier has been there.

COL Kane’s legacy is reflected in the cooperative effort that is the modern EOD community consisting of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and Marine Corps. As soldiers trained at Aberdeen Proving Ground in World War II, sailors, and later, beginning in 1943, Marines, trained in Washington, D.C. The Navy eventually moved their school to the Naval Powder Factory in Indian Head, Maryland, in 1946, designating it the Explosive Ordnance Disposal course, which gave birth to the term used today.

The year 1947 saw two significant developments in BD/EOD history. First, the U.S. Air Force was established as an independent service, and with that airmen began EOD training. Next, the Army began sending officers and senior noncommissioned officers to the EOD School at Indian Head. Junior enlisted soldiers continued to train at Aberdeen. In 1951, the Navy was assigned joint responsibility for all EOD training, and in 1955, the Army EOD School at Aberdeen was closed. From 1955 to 1993, soldiers joined volunteers from the other services to train at Indian Head. In 1993 the EOD School began a transition into its current location. That transition lasted until 1999 when the Naval School, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, at Eglin Air Force base, Florida, was fully operational. It is there that instructors teach volunteers from each service modern EOD techniques before they join the field and fleet to apply their skills.

Today EOD soldiers are easily recognizable by the distinctive badge worn on the uniform. Early bomb disposal soldiers did not have that symbol of excellence. The basic EOD badge was designed in 1956. The basic and Senior EOD Badges were approved by the Department of the Army the following year. The Master EOD Badge was approved by the Army in June 1969. Those badges are now the universal symbol of bomb disposal, worn by all services and copied by several civilian bomb squads and foreign military services.

Currently, most operational Army EOD soldiers are part of the 52d Ordnance Group (Explosive Ordnance Disposal). The 52d is the only active ordnance group in the Army. There are a small number of EOD soldiers in the National Guard organized under their states with the 111th Ordnance Group (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), Alabama National Guard, standing ready to assume command upon mobilization.

The 52d Ordnance Group (EOD) headquarters is located at Fort Gillem, Georgia. It exercises command and control of four subordinate EOD battalions and thirty-nine EOD companies located throughout the continental United States. This organization answers the call for EOD assistance thousands of times annually on both military installations and within the civilian community. Additionally, an EOD company from within the 52d Ordnance Group is deployed to Bosnia, Kosovo, and Southwest Asia on six-month rotations. At any given time, three companies are deployed, three are preparing to deploy, and three more are recovering from deployment. EOD soldiers can also be found at assignments in Germany, South Korea, the Sinai Peninsula, Hawaii, and Alaska. Selected EOD soldiers serve in training and research billets at Eglin Air Force Base; Redstone Arsenal, Alabama; and Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey. In all, there are less than 1,200 EOD soldiers and officers in the United States Army.

Danger is still an inherent part of the EOD soldier’s existence. The evidence of that can be found at the EOD Memorial located at the range complex at the EOD School. Each spring, EOD members past and present gather to commemorate the sacrifices made by the over 160 volunteers whose names are enshrined there. Unfortunately, most years require that a name, sometimes several, must be added. Each name represents an EOD soldier, sailor, airman, or marine, who lost his life in an operational or training accident, during peacetime or combat, for the sole purpose of protecting others. In 2001, the names of three EOD soldiers were added shortly after bombs mistakenly dropped on their position on a Kuwaiti range from a U.S. Navy F/A-18 killed them. Their deaths serve to remind us all that danger is to be found on any EOD mission, no matter how routine it may appear.

Today, EOD soldiers are at work throughout the United States, at every overseas station, and every deployment location at great risk to their own personal safety. They, like the bomb disposal soldiers of World War II, and the organization that started from scratch in 1941, are adding an invaluable contribution to the history of the U.S. Army.

© The Army Historical Foundation