Secret World War II Chemical Experiments Tested Troops By Race

Caitlin Dickerson, Secret World War II Chemical Experiments Tested Troops By Race. NPR, 22 June 2015. Part 1 of a two-part investigation on mustard gas testing conducted by the U.S. military during World War II. “As a young U.S. Army soldier during World War II, Rollins Edwards knew better than to refuse an assignment. When officers led him and a dozen others into a wooden gas chamber and locked the door, he didn’t complain. None of them did. Then, a mixture of mustard gas and a similar agent called lewisite was piped inside. “It felt like you were on fire,” recalls Edwards, now 93 years old. “Guys started screaming and hollering and trying to break out. And then some of the guys fainted. And finally they opened the door and let us out, and the guys were just, they were in bad shape.”

Edwards was one of 60,000 enlisted men enrolled in a once-secret government program — formally declassified in 1993 — to test mustard gas and other chemical agents on American troops. But there was a specific reason he was chosen: Edwards is African-American. “They said we were being tested to see what effect these gases would have on black skins,” Edwards says. An NPR investigation has found evidence that Edwards’ experience was not unique. While the Pentagon admitted decades ago that it used American troops as test subjects in experiments with mustard gas, until now, officials have never spoken about the tests that grouped subjects by race. For the first time, NPR tracked down some of the men used in the race-based experiments. And it wasn’t just African-Americans. Japanese-Americans were used as test subjects, serving as proxies for the enemy so scientists could explore how mustard gas and other chemicals might affect Japanese troops. Puerto Rican soldiers were also singled out.”

All of the World War II experiments with mustard gas were done in secret and weren’t recorded on the subjects’ official military records. Most do not have proof of what they went through. They received no follow-up health care or monitoring of any kind. And they were sworn to secrecy about the tests under threat of dishonorable discharge and military prison time, leaving some unable to receive adequate medical treatment for their injuries, because they couldn’t tell doctors what happened to them….

NPR shared the findings of this investigation with Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who sits on a House subcommittee for veterans affairs. She points to similarities between these tests and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, where U.S. government scientists withheld treatment from black sharecroppers in Alabama to observe the disease’s progression….

Mustard gas damages DNA within seconds of making contact. It causes painful skin blisters and burns, and it can lead to serious, and sometimes life-threatening illnesses including leukemia, skin cancer, emphysema and asthma.

In 1991, federal officials for the first time admitted that the military conducted mustard gas experiments on enlisted men during World War II.

According to declassified records and reports published soon after, three types of experiments were done: Patch tests, where liquid mustard gas was applied directly onto test subjects’ skin; field tests, where subjects were exposed to gas outdoors in simulated combat settings; and chamber tests, where men were locked inside gas chambers while mustard gas was piped inside.

Even once the program was declassified, however, the race-based experiments remained largely a secret until a researcher in Canada disclosed some of the details in 2008. Susan Smith, a medical historian at the University of Alberta in Canada, published an article in The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics.

In it, she suggested that black and Puerto Rican troops were tested in search of an “ideal chemical soldier.” If they were more resistant, they could be used on the front lines while white soldiers stayed back, protected from the gas….

Despite months of federal records requests, NPR still hasn’t been given access to hundreds of pages of documents related to the experiments, which could provide confirmation of the motivations behind them. Much of what we know about the experiments has been provided by the remaining living test subjects….

Japanese-American, African-American and Puerto Rican troops were confined to segregated units during World War II. They were considered less capable than their white counterparts, and most were assigned jobs accordingly, such as cooking and driving dump trucks….

Caitlin Dickerson, The VA’s Broken Promise to Thousands of Vets Exposed to Mustard Gas, NPR, 23 June 2015. Part 2 of a two-part investigation on mustard gas testing conducted by the U.S. military during World War II.

In secret chemical weapons experiments conducted during World War II, the U.S. military exposed thousands of American troops to mustard gas.

When those experiments were formally declassified in the 1990s, the Department of Veterans Affairs made two promises: to locate about 4,000 men who were used in the most extreme tests, and to compensate those who had permanent injuries.

But the VA didn’t uphold those promises, an NPR investigation has found.

NPR interviewed more than 40 living test subjects and family members, and they describe an unending cycle of appeals and denials as they struggled to get government benefits for mustard gas exposure. Some gave up out of frustration.

In more than 20 years, the VA attempted to reach just 610 of the men, with a single letter sent in the mail. Brad Flohr, a VA senior adviser for benefits, says the agency couldn’t find the rest, because military records of the experiments were incomplete.

“There was no identifying information,” he says. “No Social Security numbers, no addresses, no … way of identifying them. Although, we tried.”

Yet in just two months, an NPR research librarian located more than 1,200 of them, using the VA’s own list of test subjects and public records….

“We weren’t told what it was,” says Charlie Cavell, who was 19 when he volunteered for the program in exchange for two weeks’ vacation. “Until we actually got into the process of being in that room and realized, wait a minute, we can’t get out of here.”

Cavell and 11 other volunteers were locked inside a gas chamber with mustard gas piping inside. Blocks of ice sat on shelves overhead with fans blowing across them to increase the humidity in the room, which intensified mustard gas’s effects on the body. After an hour, the officer released six of the men back to their barracks. Cavell and five others were told to stay put.

Inside the chamber, Cavell’s skin started to turn red and burn in the places where he sweat the most: between his legs, behind his neck and under his arms. Blisters that eventually increased to the size of half dollar coins started to grow in the same places. At the end of the second hour, the officer ordered Cavell back to his barracks and to continue wearing his gas-saturated uniform.

Cavell, now 88 years old, says the officer threatened him and the other test subjects: If they told anyone about their knowledge or participation in the experiments, they would receive a dishonorable discharge and be sent to military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan….

In all, roughly 60,000 World War II veterans were used as test subjects, and they kept the experiments secret for half a century. A group of them, led by Nat Schnurman, went public with their stories in 1990….

In the early 1990s, VA officials also announced the agency would lower its burden of proof to make getting benefits easier in these cases. The process typically relies on evidence, but most of the men in these experiments have none because the tests were done in secret….

The VA created a list of illnesses that are linked to mustard gas exposure — such as skin cancer, leukemia and chronic breathing problems. According to the agency, if a veteran has an illness on the list and can prove he was exposed, he receives benefits.

But NPR interviewed veterans who met both of those requirements and have still been denied for years — sometimes decades — as the VA continues to request more information and proof….

In 1988, Cavell requested copies of his records from the experiments he was in at the Naval Research Laboratory. Researchers there had recorded his full name in neat handwriting on lined paper. They had detailed the length of time he spent inside a gas chamber and the level of mustard gas in the air.

Cavell then submitted the documents to the VA as proof of his exposure. He filed claims for several illnesses on the VA’s list of those linked to mustard gas, including skin cancer and chronic breathing problems. But until NPR inquired about his case, all of those claims had been denied.

After NPR’s inquiry, the VA told NPR there was enough evidence to grant his claims. They based that conclusion on the same information that had been sitting in his VA file for decades. Officials say they can’t explain why the benefits weren’t granted sooner. Cavell is currently being re-evaluated before the benefits can be disbursed….

Congress has intervened in similar situations. It passed the Agent Orange Act in 1991, which requires the VA to assume that all veterans who served in and around Vietnam were exposed to the chemical. And in 2010, the VA announced it would review 90,000 previously denied Agent Orange claims. To date, these policies have not been applied to World War II vets who were exposed to mustard gas.

Officials at the Pentagon tell NPR it’s likely that some of the records about military mustard gas experiments were never recovered. And yet Flohr insists the VA still needs proof in order to grant claims….