Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producer: Nick Greenaway
Imagine a job where the slip of your finger can mean sudden death.
Every day, Australia's navy clearance divers put their lives on the line, dismantling bombs on battlefields like Afghanistan and Iraq.
But lately their steady hands have been needed closer to home.
In Papua New Guinea there are areas that hold deadly reminders of World War Two - bombs, mines and mortars left behind by the Japanese occupation.
Just watching these guys work is heart-stopping and fascinating.
Because our bomb disposal exercise became a mission of discovery.
LIAM BARTLETT: The volcanoes of Rabaul in Papua New Guinea aren’t the only things capable of blowing up around here. World War II has left a deadly legacy. An arsenal of bombs, mortars, artillery shells. Now being blasted into oblivion by the Australian Defence Force. You must have liked Guy Fawkes Night when you were a kid?
LIAM BARTLETT: Now, that’s a blast. No wonder they’re dangerous – have a look at that. Wow, that’s a bit of firepower, isn’t it? You could feel the percussive –
BEN: The wave goes right through, yeah.
LIAM BARTLETT: I’ve joined Operation Render Safe – a joint Anzac initiative led by the bomb disposal teams of the Australian Navy. Clearance divers scouring both sea and land. So after 70 years, the people of Rabaul can finally put the war behind them.
SCOTT: Just make sure your cordon’s in place and there are no locals inside the cordon.
LIAM BARTLETT: Until Commander Scott Craig and his men came along, life for the locals was a daily risk.
SCOTT: That’s what we’re finding all over the island. People are digging and they’ll strike a bit of metal and it’s a bomb. So every time we turn up, they say, “here’s another one, here’s another one, here’s another one.”
LIAM BARTLETT: So the more you’re asking, the more you’re finding?
NEWSREADER: Rabaul and its harbour will be smashed, pulverised, neutralised…
LIAM BARTLETT: As Japan’s headquarters for its war in the South Pacific, Rabaul was bombed constantly for more than three years. The Americans alone dropped over 20,000 tonnes here. Add that to all the munitions left by the surrendering Japanese and you can see why it’s a massive problem to this day. Commander, the position of this – I mean, it’s so close to this village, isn’t it?
SCOTT: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you can see from just here it’s 10 metres away and people are living in that hut, so if that went off, that hut would not stand at the end of it.
LIAM BARTLETT: And who knows how many people would be hurt or killed or otherwise.
SCOTT: Absolutely. A fragmentation from it can travel quite a distance, so it’s a big risk.
VILLAGE PERSON: I’m happy, because before I was afraid otherwise it gonna blows us and some of us will die.
LIAM BARTLETT: It’s very, very dangerous. You must be very happy that the Australian Navy has come here to make the bomb safe?
VILLAGE PERSON: Yeah, I’m happy that you get rid of that bomb.
LIAM BARTLETT: Yes, the Australian sailors are doing good work, huh?
VILLAGE PERSON: Yeah.
LIAM BARTLETT: Excellent.
BEN: The fusing in the tail is quite dangerous. It has a firing pin that’s held back under spring tension.
LIAM BARTLETT: Under pressure?
BEN: Yeah. If we changed the aspect on it or hit it with a shovel or something like that, as it was found, then that stands to detonate the bomb.
LIAM BARTLETT: The number one rule of bomb disposal is initial success or total failure. To disarm this device, Australian Ben Abbott must first sheer off the tail fuse with a remotely-fired, 50-calibre bolt. Fragments can fly nearly two kilometres so police stop all traffic.
BEN: When it comes down to it, if we don’t move this eventually the villagers will.
LIAM BARTLETT: I know it’s all in a day’s work for you, but it’s real ‘Hurt Locker’ stuff, isn’t it?
BEN: Yeah. God, that’s a little bit Hollywood, but!
LIAM BARTLETT: Wow! I’ll be standing –
BEN: We don’t have quite as much Hollywood here but!
LIAM BARTLETT: I’ll be standing right back.
LIAM BARTLETT: The first part of the operation works beautifully. The tail fuse has blown clean off. But this bomb is still very much alive. So carefully they carry it 200 metres to a nearby quarry, where they’ve dug a shallow grave. Once in place, they prepare the plastic explosive. The bomb is now primed and the team pack it down with sandbags and then retreat a safe distance to trigger remotely.
BEN: Would you like to fire Liam?
LIAM BARTLETT: Mate, I’d love to. That’d be great. That’s great, isn’t it? Another one bites the dust.
BEN: Yeah. You wouldn’t want that in your village, would you?
LIAM BARTLETT: You wouldn’t want to step on that – that’s fantastic, that little number.
BEN: Yeah, it’s a beauty – makes life a lot easier.
LIAM BARTLETT: One down, thousands to go. This cave was used as a Japanese armoury. It’s literally a bomb graveyard. Is it safe for us to walk over the top and around them?
BEN: Oh yeah just walk, walk around them. Yep, that’s fine. They’re unfused projectiles so they’re all safe.
LIAM BARTLETT: They’re unfused.
BEN: Unfused, yep.
LIAM BARTLETT: But are they, are they potentially explosive?
BEN: Ah, yeah. They’ve all got real explosive fill in them still.
LIAM BARTLETT: So you could potentially use them still as a bomb if you needed to?
BEN: Oh absolutely. Yeah, they’re still alive.
LIAM BARTLETT: Made in Japan, these shells are strewn everywhere. And it will be the job of clearance diver, Brenton Walters to direct the clean-up. Is it OK for us to touch this one?
BRENTON: Yep, a Japanese 1-5-5.
LIAM BARTLETT: It’s heavy, isn’t it?
BRENTON: See, it’s pretty heavy. Yeah it weighs probably around 40 kilograms.
LIAM BARTLETT: Forty kilos?
BRENTON: Yeah, so it’s quite a large projectile.
LIAM BARTLETT: Look, they’re everywhere. Look at that.
BRENTON: You know, see there’s hundreds here and we’re quite sure when we find other caves or other areas on the island, we’re going to find hundreds more.
LIAM BARTLETT: Here’s a different cave with a different problem. These are only three-inch shells but there’s more than 400 of them and they’re still extremely lethal. With so many underground tunnels and caves unexplored on this island, the scale of the problem is really massive and the job ahead for these Australian sailors in Operation Render Safe is just never-ending. And then there’s trouble looming under the waves too. Clearance divers swapping fatigues for wetsuits. It’s murky work. And what they find is staggering. Here, clearance diver Rob Curtis measures a nine-metre torpedo half buried in a reef. Above, local kids swim blissfully unaware of the potential time bomb lurking beneath while dive chief Shaun Elliot supervises the operation.
SHAUN: We’re looking for small bolts, nuts, any lifting lugs. Any of those features can give us a positive ID on the actual type of torpedo we’re using. Essentially the reason we need to know, especially on a torpedo, how big the warhead is. We need to know how much explosives we’re dealing with. From there, we can work out what damage it’s gonna do to the reef if we can’t move it.
LIAM BARTLETT: And it was while the crew on the HMAS Gascoyne were figuring out the best way to deal with the torpedo, they made an extraordinary discovery of another war relic, in Rabaul’s Simpson Harbour.
BEN: Yeah, there we go. Just coming in visual now, the shadow. It’s the dark line about midway up the screen now.
LIAM BARTLETT: Under the watchful eye of Commander Ben Fennell, the sonar screen reveals the ghostly outline of a previously-undetected submarine. Oh there you go, look at that.
BEN: There’s the base of the conning tower.
LIAM BARTLETT: Yeah, the shape’s obvious, isn’t it? I mean, it couldn’t be anything else but a submarine.
BEN: You’d be hard put to think of something else. We tried and we keep coming back to the same conclusion that it’s definitely a submarine.
LIAM BARTLETT: Uncharted, unseen for 65 years – possibly longer, initially it was thought it could be the famous AE1. The Australian submarine which disappeared with all hands in World War I, but that was later discounted. Whether this is an Australian, Japanese submarine whatever, it’s a significant find, isn’t it?
BEN: Absolutely. It’s significant to someone. We don’t misplace submarines and if you do, you go to some effort to find them. So once we can identify whose submarine it is, it will certainly be very significant to them.
LIAM BARTLETT: At the very least, Commander, as a war grave.
BEN: Again, I wouldn’t like to speculate, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if this was a war grave.
LIAM BARTLETT: The clearance divers are commanded to visually inspect the submarine. That’s a 55-metre dive allowing only five minutes on the bottom. They take measurements and use our camera to record the dimensions – information which will prove vital in solving the mystery. Experts now believe it’s most likely a Japanese sub – with its damaged propeller shaft, it’s easy to speculate it may well also be a tomb. In the meantime back on the surface, the operation to save local lives continues. This is an M44 or 65. They’re not certain which, but one thing they do know is that it’s an American-made 1000 pound bomb which in today’s language means it has almost 250 kilo of TNT packed inside. That’s going to be an enormous blast and this is far too dangerous to move. The Navy has to build as many sandbags as it can and keep the blast confined to this ravine. But this is incredibly dangerous. They’re going to try and get away as far as possible and blow this up where it sits.
LOCAL POLICE CHIEF: The bomb is a very big one, so I want everyone to move out of this area.
LIAM BARTLETT: While the local police chief evacuates the area, the bomb squad packs over 120 sandbags it hopes will mitigate the blast. Once again, it’s a textbook result. And call it the fog of war, but no one knows the exact number of bombs still out there. It could take years, decades, to rid of all of them from Rabaul but a great start has been made, thanks to the men who go where others fear to tread. Do you get a deep sense of satisfaction doing this?
BEN: I do, I do. And I guess it mainly comes from the kids. This morning, I had a six-year-old-girl with me and I’ve got a six-year-old daughter, so she jumped in the car with us and took us down into the jungle and showed us into a massive valley where a bomb was that she found when she was playing with her friends. So I couldn’t imagine my daughter having to do that in Australia but –
LIAM BARTLETT: Seven decades and the war’s still in their backyard.
BEN: Yeah and they’ve lived with it the whole time. It’s hard to imagine and I think we’re pretty sheltered. We lead a pretty lucky life back home.