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Navy divers find no additional military rockets in river

    ELLABELL — After swimmers and boaters found three Vietnam-era military rockets tipped with explosive warheads in the Ogeechee River in southeast Georgia, a team of Navy divers searched the river Wednesday to remove and destroy any munitions that remained.
    The divers came up empty handed after 2 1/2 hours of combing a 100-foot stretch of the Ogeechee that forms the boundary between Chatham and Bryan counties about 25 miles west of Savannah near Fort Stewart.
    Their team leader said he was convinced no other rockets were on the riverbed, but he couldn’t rule out the possibility that some may still be buried in the mud and silt.
    ‘‘There’s nothing down there,’’ said Lt. John Laney, an explosive ordinance disposal officer at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base. ‘‘Like any landfill area, they could come up tomorrow or 50 years from now.’’
    The Navy divers were called in by Army officials at Fort Stewart after civilians discovered three rockets, all unfired and with live warheads, in the river near a public boat ramp in the past week.
    The first rocket was reported Aug. 8 by a Georgia State Patrol trooper making a traffic stop in neighboring Effingham County. The trooper saw the rocket in the back seat of the car he had pulled over.
    The two men in the car said they found the rocket near a boat ramp not far from the northeastern corner of Fort Stewart’s 279,000 acres. They said they were going to the police to report it. Neither man was arrested.
    Swimmers found the second rocket in the Ogeechee near the same spot last Friday and alerted police. The third rocket was reported to authorities Tuesday night, said Fort Stewart spokesman Kevin Larson.
    Identification numbers on all three rockets showed them to be Navy munitions used by Cobra attack helicopters during the Vietnam War, Larson said. Pilots fired them during training exercises on Fort Stewart in the 1960s and early 1970s.
    Though the rockets — measuring 2 3/4 inches in diameter and about three feet long — may have been submerged for more than 30 years, they could still explode, Larson said. Fort Stewart munitions disposal teams from Fort Stewart destroyed all three that were found.
    ‘‘They’re dangerous,’’ he said. ‘‘They’re explosive and that’s why we came out here looking for more.’’
    A former Army officer and helicopter pilot who supervised a Fort Stewart gunnery range during the Vietnam War said it’s possible troops dumped the unfired rockets in the river to avoid inventory paperwork.
    Bill McElwee of Savannah, a retired lieutenant colonel, said the rockets were found near a bridge soldiers would often cross transporting munitions from Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah to the ranges at Fort Stewart about 30 miles away.
    Soldiers transporting rockets to the range would hope pilots would fire all of them, or else the troops would have to return the extras to the armory at the end of the day, McElwee said.
    Some of the rockets had 10-pound warheads, he said, while others were dummy rounds with non-explosive tips.
    ‘‘Say you wound up with three extra rockets, then you had to go all the way back to the armory supply point and do all that paperwork,’’ McElwee said. ‘‘Some of the guys that went back to Hunter threw their rockets over the bridge — at least that’s what the rumor was.’’
    Laney, the Navy lieutenant, said six divers and sonar equipment dragged by a boat all failed to find any more rockets beneath 10 to 12 feet of water.
    ———
    Russ Bynum has covered the military based in Georgia since 2001.

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