It’s not very often that true stories of secret military operations are published for the world to read.
Jeffrey Leatherwood, an adjunct professor at West Virginia University, dedicated nearly 10 years of research and writing to his first book, “Nine from Aberdeen,” which provides a history of the brave men belonging to World War II’s U.S. Army Ordnance Bomb Disposal service branch.
“I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve been able to touch the lives of so many of the veterans who during the war received little credit for their extraordinary bravery — partially due to the secrecy of the branch,” Leatherwood said.
This specialist Army branch, a forerunner of today’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal services, was made responsible for the identification and removal of hazardous explosives. It was supervised by the Ordnance Department at Aberdeen Proving Ground, located in Maryland. During the war, an estimated 2,000 servicemen graduated from the Army’s Bomb Disposal School, originally founded in early 1942 by a staff of nine instructors under Col. Thomas J. Kane.
“Nine from Aberdeen” receives its title from these nine U.S. ordnance soldiers who were selected to travel to Great Britain, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Kane’s group studied bomb disposal methods under the Royal Engineers, still widely regarded as pioneers in their field. Since the London Blitz, the engineers had contended against German unexploded bombs, which were designed to go off after the principal bombing raid, creating further destruction and uncertainty on the ground. The British shared their knowledge to Kane’s men and even loaned several of their own instructors to help start the American program.
Col. Kane, a native of Punxsutawney, Pa., became the Army’s first director of Bomb Disposal at Aberdeen Proving Ground. He later undertook two important missions for the Office of Civilian Defense and the War Department, and capped off his career by serving as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff officer in charge of U.S. Army bomb disposal operations in the European Theater.
This publication hits home for WVU not only because it was written by a professor in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences but also because a good number of Kane’s soldiers were from the region.
“Removing bombs and other ordnance involved a lot of digging, so the Army recruited miners from western Pennsylvania and West Virginia for a lot of their early bomb disposal personnel because they needed people who were good at tunneling and mining,” Leatherwood explained.
Originally, the bomb disposal mission was viewed as a chiefly defensive one. However, Kane pushed constantly for his men to contribute as support troops with infantry divisions. In fact, three of his original cadre members—Ronald L. Felton, Richard E. Metress and Joseph C. Pilcher—served as bomb squad officers in different theaters. Metress was killed in action in the Philippines, but Felton and Pilcher survived to record their experiences from Italy and France.
Kane’s branch suffered 10 percent casualties in Europe alone, but they lent their skills to nearly every U.S. Army landing and also helped to rebuild war-torn nations after fighting had ceased. As Leatherwood points out, this is the common thread between World War II “disposaleers” and their modern-day counterparts.
“They not only support those in combat, but they also help the rebuilding and reconstructing process, which is another really important aspect of the military. It takes a special kind of person to support their country in war and in peace,” Leatherwood added.
“Nine from Aberdeen,” includes an afterword from Command Sergeant Major Jim Clifford, military consultant for The Hurt Locker, winner of the Motion Picture Academy’s Best Picture Award in 2010.
A 2009 graduate of WVU’s doctoral history program, Leatherwood has been invited to do a book signing at the Explosive Ordnance Disposal services veterans’ reunion in San Antonio, Texas, on October 12.
For more information, contact Jeffrey Leatherwood, at email@example.com.
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