Army to clean World War II debris at Hamptons’ training sites

Long before the well-to-do rushed to the Hamptons for the summer beach season, the region served as a training ground for World War II troops, and the east end of Long Island is still littered with dangerous remnants.

Now the US Army is back in Westhampton and other nearby areas to clean up unexploded ordnances, groundwater and other hazardous debris left over from US airmen, sailors and soldiers who tested new weapons and practiced bombing runs in the region during the war.

In Westhampton, the Army Corps of Engineers is scouring nearly 4,300 acres of private and state land, searching forests and scrub for contaminants left mostly by airmen who used a local airport as a training ground between 1943 and 1944.

Trainees used .50 caliber machine guns, practice bombs and rockets, as well as high explosives weighing up to 500 pounds, according to an Army Corps fact sheet. Aerial studies of land near Westhampton conducted by the Army Corps showed silhouettes of tanks, a bridge, a destroyer and an aircraft carrier that were used as targets during the war-era training near the Suffolk County Air Force Base — now the Francis S. Gabreski Airport. The site was used as a gunnery training center during the war and is now a joint civil-military airfield, located a few miles north of Westhampton.

A soldier mounts a bomb on a US Curtiss P-40 Kittihawk which flies missions in Africa under English emblem
A soldier mounts a bomb on a US Curtiss P-40.
Alamy Stock Photo

A former Westhampton resident who worked at a nearby school said it is well known the region contained potentially hazardous waste, and was careful to bring in bottled water for students. “Even though the water was constantly tested for contaminants, I still worried about it,” she told The Post.

Although records show the military conducted a surface clearance of the area in 1946, it was done to the standards of the time, said Julie Rupp in a recent presentation to the Southampton Town Board, outlining the clean-up plan. Rupp is heading up the project of the Army Corps for the “environmental restoration” of Formerly Used Defense Sites or FUDS.

suffolk county army
In addition to Westhampton, there are seven other FUDS on the east end of Long Island.

“Our cleanup work is prioritized by using a risk management approach,” Rupp told The Post, adding there are 10,000 such sites across the country. “Those properties posing the highest and most imminent risk to human health, safety and the environment are addressed first.”

Among the most dangerous remnants in Westhampton are those of a 500-pound AN M-64 bomb, she said. “Potential soil contamination would include metals and explosives constituents,” said Rupp, adding the first phase of the clean-up will begin in the fall.

Years after the end of the war, the Pine Barren forests near the airport, as well as a nearby missile training ground for Bomarc surface-to-air missiles during the Cold War, have been frequented by locals for recreational activities.

Suffolk County Army Air Field Bombing and Gunnery Range
War remnants are seen at the Suffolk County Army Air Field Bombing and Gunnery Range.

“It would have been nice to know when we were riding our dirt bikes in those woods as kids what the dangers were,” said Aram Terchunian, a coastal geologist and lifelong resident of Westhampton.

In addition to Westhampton, there are seven other FUDS on the east end of Long Island, including the Camp Hero military base and the Naval Sub Base in Montauk and the North Hill Fire Control Station on Fishers Island in Long Island Sound.

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