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When SLO’s El Chorro park was a WWII grenade range

An eight-man crew from UXB International works to clear World War II-era explosives from Rancho El Chorro in San Luis Obispo to make way for the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden. This area was a Camp San Luis Obispo grenade pit during World War II.
An eight-man crew from UXB International works to clear World War II-era explosives from Rancho El Chorro in San Luis Obispo to make way for the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden. This area was a Camp San Luis Obispo grenade pit during World War II. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

History can be deadly, as the Associated Press wrote on Jan. 19, 1984.

“Forty years ago an antitank crew sent an artillery round whistling deep into the Camp Elliott firing range. Last month the ammunition exploded, killing two boys.”

The eight-year-old San Diego County boys were killed and a 12-year-old boy was injured the previous December after they found the shell and hit it against a rock. Three other children had been hurt at the old San Diego artillery range in 1978.

A similar danger existed on former Camp San Luis Obispo property. During World War II, the facility, originally founded as the home of the California National Guard, expanded to 5,800 acres and trained U.S. Army soldiers and Marines in marksmanship and artillery.

After the war, some facilities were decommissioned and became Cuesta College, the California Men’s Colony, Dairy Creek Golf Course and San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden.

Grenade training took place at the site of the proposed garden, and before the plants could go in, the unexploded explosives had to come out.

David Eddy wrote this Telegram-Tribune story on March 17, 1992:

War mementos cleared from park

Hikers will soon be able to stroll through the verdant hills of El Chorro Regional Park without fear of being blown to bits.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has begun sweeping parts of the park that have been fenced off for years because of unexploded bombs and grenades.

The unexploded ordnance is left over from World War II, when the land was part of Camp San Luis Obispo.

A 5-acre parcel not far from the softball diamonds was used for tossing grenades. The trenches where the soldiers stood to throw the grenades are still visible.

There is a seasonal creek flowing through that area and Parks Superintendent Denis Philbin said heavy rains have washed grenades down the creek toward the ballfields.

There’s also a larger 300-acre area toward the rear of the park that was used for artillery training.

Though no one has been hurt by a blast in the park — “no cows have been blown up,” either, said Philbin — all the ordnance must be removed.

“We don’t know the reason it didn’t explode,” said Corps of Engineers spokesman Jim Ferris. “All we know is it is dangerous.” Ferris said two young boys were killed in 1983 while playing with a shell they found in an old San Diego artillery range.

Even after 50 years, there’s no doubt the ordnance can still explode, he said.

“They still find Civil War cannonballs that are live.”

County officials first learned of the ordnance in El Chorro Park in 1980 and have tried to get it removed ever since.

The army did several sweeps, where soldiers walk the area should to shoulder, picking up objects on the ground.

But because they knew that much of the ordnance was buried underground, the areas remained fenced off, said Philbin. Those fences will come down when the current operation i finished in the next three to four weeks.

This time workers are using high-tech metal detectors to find ordnance. A grenade, for instance, can be located as much as 2 feet below the surface, said Ferris.

An eight-man crew from UXB International that was clearing grenades Monday morning are all veterans, said Ferris, a prerequisite because only the armed forces provide the training necessary to handle unexploded ordnance.

They’ve found five grenades since starting work last week. Just Monday morning they found a grenade and a small shell.

The crew will move on to the large artillery area, which both Army guns and Navy warships off Morro Bay used for target practice.

Though it’s a huge area, there’s only one way to clear it, said Ferris.

“There’s no magic wand you can use,” he said. “You must walk over the terrain — it just takes time.”

But the work will be well worth it, said Philbin.

The 5-acre grenade tossing area will become a botanical garden, and the 300 acres toward the rear of the park will be left as a natural area.

“We have precious few of those left,” Philbin said.

El Chorro Park is just one of many sites around the country that will have to be cleaned up in the coming years, said Ken Crawford, a spokesman for the corps of Engineers’ Huntsville, ALA., division.

The division has been the corps’ center for ordnance and explosive waste engineering since 1990.

There might be as many as 1,100 sites littered with explosives, said Crawford. Only 15 have been cleared so far, three of those in California.

Besides El Chorro Park, the other operations include the San Diego firing range where the two boys were killed and a bombing range near San Juan Capistrano.

The corps had planned a similar operation in the dunes at Montaña De Oro State Park, but that has been postponed pending further environmental review, said Don Grant, the El Chorro project manager for International Technology Corp.

David Middlecamp: 805-781-7942, @DavidMiddlecamp

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