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Bombs Away – Milwaukee Magazine

A retired Wisconsin principal now digs for explosives.

By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
December 2008
Milwaukee Magazine

Jim HarrisJim Harris crouches on one mud-stained knee, gingerly probing the dirt around a fist-size bomb. A boy found it while digging for insects in the southern Laotian village of Phonephanpek. Harris is calm but concerned. The hour is late, the sun painting everything ochre. “I hate finding ordnance this time of day,” he says.

Harris, a 60-year-old retired elementary school principal from Weston, a small town just south of Wausau, is a tall mustachioed man with a few wisps of gray hair. He towers over most Laotians but retains the gentle, patient manner of a long-time educator. Here in Laos, his lessons center on weaponry and survival.

Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dumped 4 billion pounds of explosives on this sparsely populated Southeast Asian as part of its effort to battle guerillas during the Vietnam War. U.S. forces conducted one raid every eight minutes for nine years. “Bombies,” as the locals here call them, were packed by the hundreds into canisters that opened in midair, scattering the load. Up to 30 percent of those bombs never detonated and Laotian soil remains contaminated today. Villagers are maimed and killed every week while farming their fields, foraging for food or searching for scrap metal. “Digging is dangerous,” Harris says. READ MORE (PDF)