12/09/17 6:00am
12/09/2017 6:00 AM

George Kunz of New Suffolk celebrated his 18th birthday in 1944 aboard on a troop train bound for the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. Last month, more than 70 years later, the 91-year-old finally received his high school diploma from the South Huntington School District.  READ

03/20/14 8:00am
03/20/2014 8:00 AM

Southold resident Bob Mallgraf holds a photo of the USS Franklin as it burned on March 19, 1945. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Southold resident Bob Mallgraf owes his life to a long breakfast line.

It had been a long night manning the radar aboard the USS Franklin in World War II about 50 miles off the coast of Japan, while enemy planes and ships snooped around for their location. He was ready to eat.

So when Captain Leslie Gehres told the crew to get breakfast the morning of March 19, 1945, leaving the ship exposed, Mr. Mallgraf headed to mess hall.  (more…)

07/28/13 7:00am
07/28/2013 7:00 AM

COURTESY PHOTO | This oddly shaped, rusted object found in shallow water proved to be an unexploded aerial bomb.

Gardiners Point Island looked different to coastal biologist Curt Kessler as he walked around the remains of Fort Tyler, a relic of the Spanish-American War.

As Mr. Kessler, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, walked the small island with coworkers on July 5, counting bird nests and searching for signs of bird activity, he noticed that large concrete blocks had been moved across the island as if dragged by a giant. The sands had shifted in places.

“Sandy had really washed over the island and changed it a lot,” he said of the late October storm.

As Mr. Kessler walked along the waterline, he began to notice small metal fragments washed up along the shore.

Then he saw a strange shape just below the surface — an oblong piece of rusted metal about a foot long, nestled among a group of smoothed rocks.

He stopped. This was different from the other metal scraps he’d seen.

Mr. Kessler had served in the U.S. Navy for four years and spent time recently on the island of Saipan — a World War II battle site littered with munitions — while working with endangered species. He instantly recognized what he was looking at.

“The fins kind of gave it away,” Mr. Kessler said.

Mr. Kessler was standing only a few feet away from an unexploded bomb.

CURT KESSLER COURTESY PHOTO | U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists conducting a bird nest count on what is now accurately called ‘The Ruins.’

Better known as “The Ruins,” the rocky 500-foot-long Gardiners Point Island has a surprising history for such a tiny spot.

It was once the far end of a thin spit of sand attached to Gardiners Island. A lighthouse stood there in the mid-1800s, but by the 1890s, the island’s instability caused the government to consider relocating the lighthouse.

It never got the chance. In 1894, a storm damaged the lighthouse, which was left to fall into the sea.

By that time, storms had cut the peninsula off from Gardiners Island, turning it into Gardiners Point Island.

The island was transferred to the War Department, the precursor of the Department of Defense, four years later. Fort Tyler — named after President John Tyler — was built there to protect New York waterways during the Spanish-American War. Fort Terry on Plum Island was built for the same purpose.

Guns were installed in concrete parapets at Fort Tyler, but it saw no action and was closed in the 1920s, making it a prime target practice site for the U.S. military.

“After the Spanish-American War, they threw all kinds of stuff at it,” said Ned Smith, a librarian with the Suffolk County Historical Society.

In the summer of 1936, the U.S. Army used the abandoned fort as target practice for bombers from the Ninth Bombardment Group out of Mitchel Field in Mattituck, according to a report in The Watchman newspaper that year.

The military used 100-pound bombs that were mostly filled with sand and water, with a pound of black powder to “create a visible puff of smoke for observers,” the article states.

Though military officials assured that the bombs were safe, then-Southold Supervisor S. Wentworth Horton and East Hampton Town Supervisor Perry Duryea protested the training. Bluefish fishermen also complained about the military training, since Gardiners Point Island had become a prime fishing spot.

About a week after the training began, a well-known restaurateur from Brooklyn “narrowly escaped death” when U.S. Army planes dropped a shower of bombs over Gardiners Bay, where he was sailing with six friends, according to a Watchman article from August 1936.

Some of the bombs landed within 50 feet of his boat, according to the article.

Two years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the island a national bird refuge, but about a decade later the old fort — having now adopted the nickname “The Ruins” — was once again put in the crosshairs.

This time, the U.S. Navy targeted the island, dropping smaller bombs that weighed two pounds and four ounces from naval aircraft, according to a 1949 article in the County Review newspaper. At the time, the Long Island Fishermen’s Association reported one fisherman had 100 lobster pots annihilated by the bombing.

Once again, the East End town supervisors slammed the bombing training. In October 1949, Southold Town Supervisor Norman Klipp sponsored a resolution that said the target practice would be a “potential danger to life, limb and property” and would ruin the fishing stock.

The Navy ignored the complaints and went ahead with the bombing, sending a note to the Board of Supervisors a month later stating that the bombings posed no danger to boaters or fishermen.

The island, and what remains of Fort Tyler, were eventually handed over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as excess federal property.

The site has been used as a bird sanctuary for nesting common and roseate terns, small seabirds that feed on local fish. But while the ruins may be an ideal home for birds, it’s no place for humans.

There’s a danger that unexploded munitions could still be hidden under the sand, authorities say.

COURTESY PHOTO | Fort Tyler, in an undated photo, before it was used by the military for bombing target practice.

Mr. Kessler had just completed unexploded ordnance training, so he knew what to do the moment he saw the rusty bomb: recognize, retreat, report, record.

“Basically, don’t touch them,” he said. “You’re never sure. Even if it looks like a dummy round it could [explode].”

Mr. Kessler took a photo of the munitions lurking under the water and ran back to warn his friends and report the ordnance to his superiors.

Despite the bomb nearby, Mr. Kessler said he and the three other biologists on the island never panicked. The chance that a bomb could wash ashore had always been present, he said.

“Nobody was that surprised,” Mr. Kessler said.

But the Suffolk County Emergency Services Unit was.

“Once in a while we’ll find things outside, but this was unique,” said Lt. Kevin Burke, commanding officer of the emergency services unit.

He said the recently discovered ordnance wasn’t “easily found. If you weren’t looking for it, you might not have seen it.”

The county police bomb squad was called to the scene about 12:50 p.m., authorities said.

Southold and Riverhead Town police had helped set up a 300- to 400-foot perimeter around the area. Members of the bomb squad were ferried to the island by the East Hampton Marine Patrol, jumping off the boat into knee-deep water to prevent the vessel from running aground, Lt. Burke said.

The East End Marine Task Force’s Vessel 41 — the unit’s newest ship, designed to respond to nuclear, chemical or biological attacks or accidents — was also activated for the operation, authorities said.

Lt. Burke said the bomb squad sometimes returns unexploded ordnance to the military if the bombs are stable and in good condition. The weapons found on Gardiners Point Island — two eight-inch aerial bombs — were anything but.

“A lot of times when they’re exposed to the elements the explosive powder will leach out,” Lt. Burke said. The bomb squad would be taking no chances.

They hooked up the top two bombs and detonated, but the bombs didn’t blow up, Lt. Burke said. Those bombs had lost their explosive charges and were detonated harmlessly.

But when emergency personnel returned to the scene they found a third aerial bomb hidden beneath the first two. Once again, the bomb squad detonated a charge.

But this time, the bomb exploded, blowing a crater in the shoreline.

“That would have done serious damage,” Lt. Burke said. “If someone had been there they would have been killed.”

No one was hurt in the operation.

For years, the U.S. Coast Guard has enforced a 500-yard hazardous zone around the island where boaters cannot sail or dock. Authorities said this month’s discovery of an unexploded bomb was proof of why boaters should stay far away.

Michelle Potter, a refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the government knew there was “the possibility” of potentially dangerous munitions to be uncovered.

“It’s not a place for the public to stop and scope out,” Ms. Potter said.

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01/14/13 11:11am
01/14/2013 11:11 AM

COURTESY PHOTO | Bill Midgley and daughter Sandra with the ship’s bell of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Bill Midgley of Cutchogue, who’s now 86, was barely old enough to serve his country in 1944 when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy during the height of World War II.

He was a crewman aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise, known as CV-6, as the war ended. That ship, the seventh to bear its name, was decommissioned after the war and her successor, the first nuclear carrier known as CVN-65, served for more than 40 years until she was decommissioned on Dec. 1, 2012.

Mr. Midgley, one of the few surviving crew members of the long gone CV-6, was among the distinguished guests at the inactivation ceremony for the nuclear carrier in Norfolk, Va., where he met the secretary of the Navy and the ship’s most recent captain, William C. Hamilton Jr.

CVN-65’s motto is “We are Legend,” and the ship has a storied history. But her predecessor was nothing to sneeze at, even though Mr. Midgley said after visiting CVN-65 that his ship was much smaller.

“CV-6 was the most decorated ship the Navy ever had,” he said. “It was in more battles than any ship, with 20-plus battle stars.”
At the time CV-6 was built, he said, it was the largest ship ever built.

When he got on board the hanger deck of the later Enterprise, he said, “I couldn’t believe it. My ship could fit on the hanger deck.”
He and six other veterans from CV-6 took part in the inactivation ceremony.

“Capt. Hamilton was a gentleman,” he said. “They treated us royally. I shook hands with five admirals and the secretary of the Navy.” Mr. Midgley said he felt he’d come full circle after having shaken former Navy secretary James Forrestal’s hand in 1944.

Mr. Midgley almost missed the chance to serve on a ship. He’d been training to be an artillery mechanic in Norman, Okla., when he was asked to stay on as an instructor.

“I said, ‘I’m only 18 and I’m going to be an instructor? I want to be on a ship!’ı” he recalled. His insistence won him a spot in air crewman’s school on Whidbey Island, Wash., in Puget Sound, where CV-6 was being rebuilt after it was hit by a kamikaze in May 1945.

While waiting for the ship to be repaired, Mr. Midgley received three weeks’ leave to return home and visit his family on Skunk Lane in Cutchogue, where he still lives today. On the return cross-country rail trip, he learned that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima.

“We said, ‘What the hell is an atomic bomb?’ı” he recalled. “Nobody had any idea.”

After returning to Whidbey Island, Mr. Midgley was part of the crew that took CV-6 out on a shakedown cruise. They were back in the shipyard on V-J Day, when all the sailors put on their dress blues and took the ferry to Seattle for a nonstop party in the streets.

“My uniform had so much lipstick on it when I got back on board,” he said. “Good lord, the girls were nutty that night.”

The U.S.S. Enterprise became the flagship that would lead the Pacific fleet through the Panama Canal and up the East Coast to New York.

“When we got out to sea, the other ships were joining us, as far as the eye could see, heading for the Panama Canal,” Mr. Midgley said. “The president of Panama came on board, and the president of Argentina. We were there three days. One day, we had a full turkey dinner for breakfast and, at the end, they gave you a cigar. It was something.”

The ship was eventually taken to Gravesend Bay near Coney Island, where it was unloaded. One winter’s night, while he was on midnight watch making sure the ship’s anchor didn’t drag, Mr. Midgley’s replacement failed to show up.

He was nearly frozen by the time the captain found him there, reading the notches on the anchor chain to see if it had pulled with a spotlight that he couldn’t put down because his hands were so cold. He’s been a carpenter his whole adult life and, to this day, he can’t feel the nails he holds in his hands.

Mr. Midgley once sought reimbursement from the V.A. for the frostbite, but discovered that his military records had been burned in a fire in a storage facility in Missouri.

But even though it’s hard to feel his hands, he says he wouldn’t have forgone the experience for the world.

“Not too many people get to shake hands with one, let alone two, secretaries of the Navy,” he said.

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COURTESY PHOTO | Bill Midgley as a young sailor in boot camp in 1944,

COURTESY PHOTO | The U.S.S. Enterprise berthed in Norfolk.