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St. Petersburg Times

Bombs Away


January 27, 2002
Copyright © 2002
St. Petersburg Times. All Rights Reserved.

OCALA NATIONAL FOREST -- In a place as quiet as this, the small sounds become bigger.

The buzz of a beetle, the faraway warble of a bird amid a billion skinny pines, the lightest breeze rustling across the contours of your ear - all come in loud and clear along the unpaved road that stops at a padlocked gate.

Signs warn, "Danger" and "U.S. Property. No Trespassing."

This is the end of the line on Forest Road 595, at the entrance to the government's Pinecastle Range, where 240 days a year the quiet is violently shattered.

To stay sharp in the event of war, Navy and other military pilots make about 10,000 practice runs a year at Pinecastle. Usually taking off from Naval facilities in Jacksonville, a few planes swoop in low to strafe a fake enemy line set up in a clearing deep inside the world's largest sand-pine-scrub ecosystem. Others simply practice their aim with a laser beam.

More often, they come in high to drop live and unarmed bombs weighing 500 to 2,000 pounds. Windows shake for miles from concussions that locals liken to the sonic boom they hear when the space shuttle lands at nearby Cape Canaveral.

The planes have performed this routine each year since the range was established by the Army Air Forces in 1943. And every few years, the Navy renews its agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to keep using the range. That gives critics a chance to renew their calls for an end to the bombing.

This time, the process comes as the Navy grapples with the uproar over its premiere East Coast bombing range at Vieques , Puerto Rico , where a fatal bombing accident in 1999 has sparked protests that have disrupted training.

The trouble at Vieques also has led the Navy to increase bombing runs at Pinecastle. But if there is concern about that in Florida, it is muted by the country's new war against terrorism.

With approval of the range for another 20 years appearing likely, opponents admit the war has largely deafened the public ear to their cause.

"There's a fervor, and we are sensitive to the fervor," said Carol Mosley, coordinator for the Florida Coalition for Peace & Justice based near Gainesville. "But the question is what is effective and what is not effective. . . . This is a national forest. This is not a place for a bombing range."

The group's primary concern is that the live bombs may be polluting the forest and the groundwater with cancer-causing materials such as depleted uranium. The Navy, they say, has refused to reveal what's in them.

In December 2000, when the Navy made its case for keeping the range open, it argued that moving it would be too costly and disruptive.

The Navy said practice with live ammunition is the only way to keep U.S. forces in fighting shape. "The American public expects victory and near-flawless performance" from its soldiers, it said. "The world remains a dangerous place."

Who could have known how different those words would sound after Sept. 11?

"The more they do it, the better we like it," said Bonnie Wallath, 57, of Michigan, who has vacationed in this corner of Ocala National Forest for 29 years. "It's more training so we can get him."

The "him" is Osama bin Laden, leader of the terrorist group that the United States holds responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

This month, Wallath was one of several campers near the entrance to the range who said they've never been bothered by the bombing. They are more irritated, they said, that the Forest Service seems to tolerate a rag-tag group of forest inhabitants who litter, steal and camp without paying fees - all while flashing peace signs.

Al Mason, who suspects that one of them made off with a gallon of his coveted dill pickles, said he has learned to "look ahead of the noise" so he can see the planes.

"It's just, "boom,' and it's over with," he said.

Mason, 69, and his wife, Mary, 66, plant themselves each winter on the shores of Farles Lake, an idyllic spot framed by high green pines and low brown grasses. The bumper sticker on their Chevy pickup says, "Fish tremble at the sound of my name."

From the same spot by the lake, Illinois resident Jim Proctor, 68, still remembers the night six years ago when a jet flew so low he could see the pilot in the lighted cockpit.

"It was amazing to me," he said.

The pro-bombing sentiment is shared by many area residents, including Sylvia Parker, who works part time at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post and whose husband once worked on the range's small staff, digging up used bombs from the forest floor. Parker, 62, lives in Astor, a town of 1,500 about 6 miles east of the range.

"We ain't going to worry about them," she said of the people who want the range gone. "It's only a few of the . . . uppities down in Eustis that want to grumble and complain. And if the guys don't have a place to practice, how are they going to hit what's-his-face in the caves?"

The Navy is planning to bombard the range with several practice runs this month. The planes are attached to the USS John F. Kennedy, the Jacksonville-based aircraft carrier scheduled to soon join the war on terrorism.

The Pinecastle range consists of 383 acres of cleared land with several practice targets, including tanks and other surplus military vehicles that represent enemy encampments. The cleared area is surrounded by 5,700 acres of forest that act as a buffer from ricochets and errant bombs.

In a recent interview with the Orlando Sentinel, John Childers, director of the range, referred to the roar of planes and the explosion of bombs as the "sounds of freedom." Before bombing, he said, the range is scanned with remote-controlled cameras to ensure the area is free of civilians.

The chance of a bomb hitting outside the buffer is remote, the Navy says.

But once in awhile, one gets away. In 1983, a Navy jet missed its target by a half-mile with a 500-pound bomb that struck a nearby road. A Wildwood man, Johnny Teate, was driving his dump truck when he crashed into the 3-foot crater.

Teate's injuries were slight and the bomb did not detonate, but the incident exploded in controversy. A Navy report the next year found 18 severe bombing mistakes since 1979 with explosives or aircraft parts dropping up to 17 miles from the targets.

Today, the 17-mile radius from the bomb site includes five small towns, two elementary schools, a middle school, a high school and four campgrounds. The Navy contends the area around the range is still out of the way and sparsely populated. It also says it never trains at Pinecastle during high winds that might affect the flight of bombs.

The Navy's response to the mid-'80s controversy was to ask for a larger buffer, but the Forest Service wanted the range relocated. Over the years, the calls for relocation have come from many quarters, including U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, who as a freshman congressman in 1972, said the range was "incompatible with the recreational purposes of the forest."

But the Navy has always gotten its way, and it appears it will again. In a report due next month, the Forest Service will say that it is leaning in favor of allowing the range to operate on its land for another 20 years, according to Jim Thorsen, the ranger at Ocala National Forest.

He said the decision is not final and the process allows for public comment and appeals. As for the critics' worries about the bombs' contents, Thorsen said 96 percent is metal that remains where it is.

The Forest Service's inclination to give the range another 20 years was news to Mosley, head of the Florida Coalition for Peace & Justice, the only organized group opposing the range. "We had a demonstration scheduled for May," she said recently. "We may have to move that up."

Mosley doesn't put much faith in the inch-thick Navy report that says the range has had no significant impact on the forest's environment or on the safety of nearby residents. It says the "impulse noise" from bombs generally stays within the site, and that only a handful of people have complained.

"It's a weighty but empty document as far as we're concerned," Mosley said. "There are a whole lot of questions left unanswered."

Besides environmental concerns, the group also worries about the length of the agreement, Mosley said.

"Who can even imagine what the nature of warfare is going to be in 20 years? Are they going to use daisy cutters?" she asked, referring to the 15,000-pound bombs that U.S. forces have dropped on suspected terrorist caves in Afghanistan.

The Navy's push to keep the range open is part of a program to fight back against "encroachment" on its practice sites. Last year, Navy officials complained to Congress that environmental regulation and development around their once-isolated sites was reducing training days and threatening battle readiness. They vowed to fight the trend by trying to reduce the effect of the bombings on surrounding areas and reaching out to civilian neighbors.

That would be a departure for the Navy, which has been accused of taking a "my-way-or-the-highway" stance with its critics in Vieques .

The Navy says its ranges are vital because there is no way to simulate the real thing. Live ammunition, it said, "rivets the attention of those who manage, handle and employ it with a combination of fear and respect that nonexplosive ordnance cannot convey."

The Navy considered five other bombing ranges in Florida and Georgia, including one in Avon Park near Orlando. But none, it said, measured up to Pinecastle's ability to accept large live-ammunition bombs and accommodate strafing and laser practice.

The Navy's last report says that 12,500 flights a year will take place over the Pinecastle range through 2005, with 6,000 bombs and 1,400 "strafing events." But those estimates were made well before Sept. 11.

In wartime, those numbers are sure to increase.

If there is concern among the locals, it is nowhere in evidence at the Moose Lodge 2552 Social Quarters near Astor. Inside, the smoke is thick, and the beer of choice is Natural Light. Outside, a crisp American flag hangs from a pole with an eagle on top.

"You just tell 'em keep bombing as long as they have to," Dewey Wilkey, 65, says from the bar stool farthest from the door.

"We'll put up with it."

The road beyond this gate leads to the Pinecastle Range, where Navy and other military pilots make about 10,000 practice runs a year.

John Childers, the range's director, has called the noise of warplanes and their explosive payloads the "sounds of freedom."

Carol Mosley, coordinator for the Florida Coalition for Peace & Justice, speaks during a demonstration against to Pinecastle Bombing Range in Ocala National Forest. "There's a fervor, and we are sensitive to the fervor," Mosley says about support for the bombing runs after Sept. 11. "But the question is what is effective and what is not effective."

Opponents of a military range in the Ocala National Forest say the war on terrorism has largely deafened the public ear to their cause.

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