Army, police dispose of old grenades

Posted: Friday, December 19, 2008

This week, the U.S. Army retrieved explosives from downtown's Calhoun Avenue neighborhood, with the help of the Juneau Police Department's bomb robot.

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Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

But this incident had nothing to do with the Governor's Mansion two doors down; it was the legacy of Judge Tom Stewart, a colorful and well-liked Juneau resident who died a year ago.

"Tom's around," said Marilyn Holmes, a neighbor who watched the scene from her window Tuesday night. "He just wanted to let us know."

Stewart was not one to stand on ceremony, according to his son, Caleb Stewart. His Silver Star from the U.S Army was chucked in a box for 60 years, no attention necessary.

But he was a bit of a pack rat and had his keepsakes, including two Japanese grenades and two 50-millimeter mortar shells known as "knee mortars."

Caleb Stewart knew about the relics for the last two years. He suspects his dad picked them up during his U.S. Army service in Kiska, on the Aleutian chain, where the Japanese invaded in 1943. Stewart was a captain in the 10th Mountain Division of ski troops.

Stewart also was a territorial legislator and writer of the state constitution, an Alaska Superior Court judge and a friend of the arts in Juneau.

After he died last year, the old grenades were moved to the basement.

"I've always been apprehensive about them, because I don't know anything about explosives," Stewart said. "It's one of those few things where you start talking to God as you pick them up."

But he didn't consider them immediately dangerous. Nor was he particularly nostalgic about them. Wishing to clear out the basement, he called the fire marshal, a relative by marriage, and "asked to quietly get rid of them," he said.

"The next thing I know, the police are calling me," he said.

Stewart missed what happened after he put the box with the grenades outside the house as requested.

Tuesday night, neighbors watched as police stopped up the narrow street.

They brought a bomb trailer, which is designed to direct explosions upward if there's an accident, and a bomb robot. The robot was steered over to the box, where it took photos. The photos went to Fort Richardson's Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, which identified the Japanese military ordnance.

"It's a pretty skookum thing," said Police Sgt. Dave Campbell of the robot.

The Juneau bomb squad more often handles explosives left from old logging or mining operations, or citizens' garage experiments. But the Army is supposed to deal with any military ordnance.

So the police stationed a car nearby all night to guard the box.

"It's a peaceful night, with all these colorful lights - and there's this guy guarding us from bombs," Holmes said.

In the morning, two Army bomb squad members from Fort Richardson flew in, took the explosives out to Lemon Creek and "rendered them safe." That's generally done by detonating some small, reliable charge next to the suspicious, unreliable object, explained Campbell.

The officers don't know whether the grenades were dangerous. They're treated as such either way for safety's sake.

"They could have been some collector's item that someone took the explosive charge out of a long time ago. Or they could have been something live," said Investigator Dominic Branson, a Juneau senior bomb technician.

"Who knows what sets off these damn things," said Stewart, a bit surprised by the kerfuffle but happy to be rid of the grenades. "I'm glad they don't treat it as a game."

• Contact reporterKate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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