It’s May of 2018, and workers are digging in the Wan Chai area of Hong Kong. They’re building a part of the new rail link between Sha Tin in the New Territories and the Central district. Suddenly, one of the workers realizes that he’s come across something that he wasn’t expecting to find.
Protruding from the ground, stuck in on its vertical axis, is a bomb. But this isn’t a modern weapon, fashioned in one of China’s 21st-century armaments factories. Instead, it’s a relic of the Second World War that’s been hidden for many years in the soil close to Wan Chai Swimming Pool.
Moreover, this isn’t the first such bomb that’s been discovered in Hong Kong in recent times. Two had been defused just a few months prior to the Wan Chai discovery, in fact. But dealing with this piece of ordnance is going to first of all need the area to be cleared of people. After all, this is a large weapon of war, and despite its age, it remains dangerous.
Today, Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China, having been handed back by the United Kingdom in 1997. It still has a different economic structure from the rest of China, however, and it also has its own government. The territory contains more than seven million residents in total.
Wan Chai sits towards the north of Hong Kong Island. It’s an important area for business, and because it was developed early in Hong Kong’s history, some parts are a little rundown. As a consequence, it’s become a focus of efforts towards urban renewal.
One project that might help reinvigorate the Wan Chai area is the Sha Tin to Central Link. This is an ambitious scheme to extend the existing mass transit coverage in Hong Kong. The scheme includes a new station that will serve Wan Chai, and it was here that workers were digging in May 2018.
In the afternoon, as the working day was drawing to a close, the workers uncovered a bomb. The American weapon was large: nearly 5 feet long and 1.5 feet wide. During the Second World War, this type of bomb, the AN-M65, was employed to smash enemy dams and bridges, where a massive explosion would be needed to do serious damage.
The weapon found at Wan Chai carried about 500 pounds of explosives, which meant it posed a serious danger to the surrounding area. Bomb disposal expert Tony Chow Shek-kin told the South China Morning Post that it had probably been delivered from a U.S. plane in the war. And if it exploded now, people more than a mile away would be at risk.
The bomb sat nose down. It had been uncovered by a digger that had reached as far down as 40 feet, so it’s no surprise the object hadn’t been seen in more than 70 years. However, even though it had burrowed deep into the ground, it had not yet exploded.
Thankfully, upon inspecting the bomb, experts discovered that it shouldn’t be able to explode. Chow explained to the South China Morning Post what they had found. “We can only see its rear now and have found that the detonator is already broken,” he said. “We may need more time to remove the soil in order to have a full examination of the situation.”
As soon as police officials belonging to the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Bureau reached the site, they gave the building crew their marching orders. The surrounding roads were shut down overnight as well. And come the next morning, nine streets in this busy area of town were still blocked to traffic.
On top of that, the ferry services that normally run from Wan Chai were cancelled. And later in the evening, workers, locals and even hotel guests had to evacuate the area around where the bomb had been found. The authorities also closed down all businesses around the station site, too.
However, word didn’t reach everybody who worked in the Wan Chai area. So when some of them came in to work the morning after the bomb’s discovery, they found the roads closed. One woman told the South China Morning Post that she’d heard that her hours were to be altered after the working day had begun.
It took the police all night to take off the bomb’s shell. One cop told the South China Morning Post that they’d now move on to defusing it. So it seemed that the area might stay closed for quite a while. “I don’t know when they will start on it,” the officer stated. “It could be complicated.”
However, it turned out that the prior experience of defusing similar bombs that they’d had in January served the police well. This time, they managed to perform the task much more rapidly, even though the object hadn’t been lying flat like the earlier two. So after 20 hours, the job was done, and the danger to the public had ended.
It wasn’t that the job hadn’t had its challenges, though. Bomb disposal cop Nestor Lai Ngo-yan explained that making the bomb safe had been a “unique” process. That’s because more than half the weapon had been covered in mud that had become very tough over time. As a result, it had taken a lot of careful effort just to clear the mud away.
Top cop in the local area Superintendent Kwok Mei Sum expressed his pleasure at the operation to defuse the bomb. He said that it had been “fast and safe.” Fast enough that not long after noon the day after its discovery, the more than a thousand evacuated residents could come back home.
Two hours after the bomb had been defused, digging work recommenced at the station site. By the end of the afternoon, all the roads were back in action. And the ferry had once more started to cross the strait between Wan Chai and the mainland.
The break in business had come at a bad time for some. One tourist from mainland China told the South China Morning Post that she’d been unable to get some documents that she needed from a travel agency. With her visa running out, she was left stuck. She said, “Our flight tickets are booked. But I don’t know if I can leave Hong Kong today.”
Not everyone was happy about the evacuation. A man who’d been turned away from his office by the police complained about what he saw as their excessive caution. “I don’t know why they shut down the building,” he stated. “It’s not that close.” Still, the police had at least told him to try again in the afternoon.
Earlier, in January 2018, two similar bombs had been discovered in the same week. And both of them had been dug up during the excavation for the railway station at Wan Chai. Like the weapon subsequently found in May, these bombs were thought to have been delivered by American planes in WWII.
However, these earlier discoveries had posed more of a problem for the police when they’d been found about 80 feet under the surface. On those occasions, more than 6,000 people had been required to leave the area, and again business premises had shut down. Altogether, the bomb disposal experts took 50 hours to rid the site of these weapons.
Hong Kong’s bomb disposal team employs more than 40 officers in all, most of them reservists. Six experts work at the unit, which has existed since the early 1970s, full time. They don’t just defuse bombs, wither. In addition to that key role, they also investigate explosions, work underwater and deal with incidents involving nuclear, biological and chemical materials.
The bomb squad is called on more than 100 occasions in an average year. Its work includes dealing with numerous mortar rounds and grenades, which litter areas that were once battlefields and have since been turned into parks. And perhaps a dozen or so times every year, the squad will be faced with an unexploded bomb.
To work for the team, an officer has to study for almost half a decade. Part of the course involves being taught to make bombs. And would-be bomb squad members also have to be willing to go overseas, as the process will take them to the U.S. or the U.K. to learn skills connected with courts and the gathering of evidence.
Once trained, officers adhere to the “one-man risk” doctrine. This requires that as few individuals as possible people are exposed to risk when disposing of a bomb. In effect, that means a two-person team will dispose of the bomb. One will actually defuse the weapon; the other will make sure that they have the tools to perform that task.
For the January disposal, the officers had to operate in wet, cold conditions. Protected by 70-pound suits and heavy helmets, they found the work “dirty, difficult and dangerous.” Time was of the essence, with the bomb becoming ever more likely to explode as the hours passed, so they couldn’t take a break.
The disposal operation had involved making holes in the casing with drills and then taking out the explosives. After being taken out, they could be burned in a controlled manner, keeping the temperature below about 540° F. There was no margin of error: as one bomb disposal expert explained, the squad would “either have complete success or total failure.”
Luck has been on the squad’s side, thankfully, as Hong Kong’s streak of complete success in safely defusing bombs is unbroken. But in other locations, bomb disposal teams haven’t been so fortunate. Sometimes, for example, the officers have just been so tired or stressed that they’ve made mistakes, while on other occasions it has simply been a matter of bad luck.
Moreover, during the January disposals, the police had posted videos on Facebook. And people had been quick to give thanks to the bomb squad, with more than 100 commenters sharing positive thoughts. User Francis Cheung, for instance, had no doubts about the value of what he’d witnessed, writing, “A most difficult job extremely professionally done!”
More bombs may yet show up in Hong Kong, particularly as construction requires further digging. Amateur historian Ian Quinn guesstimates that there might be as many as a thousand bombs waiting to be found in Hong Kong. The city had been a target for American aviators because of the docks that it had housed.
History professor Dave Macri agreed, telling the South China Morning Post, “The Americans were primarily concerned with destroying the Japanese shipping and supporting docking facilities.” And the city provided a rich target as the Japanese used it as a center to refuel ships moving goods from the region to Japan.
As a result, Hong Kong came under non-stop attack, first from the 14th Air Force, and then also the U.S. Navy. And the focus on shipping explains the massive size of the bombs. Macri explained, “If a 500-pound bomb was dropped at a dry dock, it would probably blow up the whole dock and anything inside it.”
The memoir of a British spy group, which was unearthed by an amateur researcher, carries reports of heavy bombing raids. Among them is a massive attack on the very same area of Wan Chai where the bombs detailed above would later turn up. So this raid, occurring in January 1945, may well have been responsible for the unexploded munitions.
Historian Kwong Chi-man also believed that an operation in the month of January 1945 might have been the source of the devices. He said that hundreds of planes from the U.S. Navy had dropped more than 150 tons of bombs on Hong Kong. This represented the biggest hammering that the city would take during the war.
Given that there might be more unexploded bombs in the Wan Chai area, in February 2018 the police provided the transit company, MTR Corporation, with training. MTR had also brought in a firm to check for further bombs. However, this didn’t prevent another huge explosive device from turning up in May.
It remains likely that more bombs will be uncovered as workers dig ever deeper. The bomb squad explained that it didn’t have the staff or the necessary tools to ensure that the site didn’t contain more of the unexploded munitions, and it couldn’t inspect the rest of the city, either.
And bombs aren’t the only weapons likely to turn up in Hong Kong. Lots of other lethal equipment ended up jettisoned both in the sea and on land when hostilities ended. In the five years to 2018, for example, nearly three dozen finds of guns, bullets and even grenades had been reported.
The workers at the Wan Chai site may even have a good case for danger pay. After all, the bombs can still be deadly. Employees at a site in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, found that out in October 2017 when a wartime bomb exploded, killing a worker and injuring another two people.
For all that, even though they were big, the Hong Kong bombs are dwarfed by the biggest unexploded weapon ever found. A British bomb known as a “blockbuster” turned up in September 2017 in Frankfurt, Germany, causing 70,000 people to be evacuated. Thankfully, no one ended up being hurt as the bomb was safely disarmed.