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America’s Mustard Gas Experiments and World War II

Exposure to harmful chemicals has long been associated with modern warfare. During the last century, World War I was notable for mustard gas attacks; decades later, the Vietnam War was linked to Agent Orange. In World War I, deadly chemicals were utilized as agents of destruction; Vietnam’s Agent Orange had long-range unintended effects, some of which were no less deadly.

The cloak of concealment about the mustard gas exposure experienced by World War II servicemen continued for decades.

In contrast, World War II is considered to be a war free of such tactics. Chemical substances were seldom used on the battlefield. However, what is mainly unknown is the magnitude of exposure of American soldiers to mustard gas – an exposure created by their own government. Chemical weapons were manufactured and stockpiled by the United States for possible use against the enemy. However, only isolated incidents of use by Germany and Japan occurred. Secretly, mustard gas experiments were performed on U.S servicemen. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) noted on their website that “volunteer” soldiers and sailors were participants in Department of War experiments during the war. The experiments were for purposes of testing clothing, skin ointments and other protective apparatus to determine their efficacy in the event of enemy mustard gas attacks. More than 60,000 servicemen were affected, some seriously.

US Army Gas Mask And Protective Clothing Mustard Gas Experiments World War 2

A close-up view of Sgt. Loel Putnam in gas mask and protective cloth permeable helmet at a chemical warfare decontamination demonstration at Fort Bliss, Texas, Sept. 7, 1944. Mustard gas experiments were conducted on U.S servicemen in order to test protective equipment. U.S. Army photo

The National Toxicology Program of Health and Human Services has outlined three types of mustard gas experiments on the military in World War II – patch or drop tests on the skin, closed chamber tests and open field tests. The greatest amount of full body system exposure occurred in the chamber and field tests. Outfitted with protective clothing, participants were placed in a gas chamber for an hour or more until penetration of the clothing occurred. This penetration often resulted in moderate to severe chemical burns. The protocol for the field tests consisted of placing men in open ground areas that became saturated with mustard gas. Some wore protective clothing and apparatus but others were left exposed. Experimentation took place at numerous sites across America. A variety of tests were performed at arsenals and bases (Edgewood Arsenal, Md, Camp Sibert, Ala., Bushnell Field, Fla., Dugway Proving Ground, Utah), the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., and some universities including the University of Chicago. One open field test on Puerto Ricans was done outside the United States at remote San Jose Island, Panama Canal Zone.

African-American and Japanese-American service members were recruited to determine if the skin effects of mustard gas were different for those groups.

After years of ignoring veterans who had participated in these experiments, the government finally issued a directive in the 1990s for The Institute of Medicine to research the long term impact of these experiments on veterans. It was determined that no central database of participants existed. It was impossible to learn the identities of many of the men, since recordkeeping was spotty and varied greatly by test site. This investigation also uncovered the lack of policies for tests on human subjects and found that the purpose of some of the experiments was to discover whether there were racial distinctions in reaction to mustard gas. The majority tested were Caucasian because the majority of servicemen were Caucasian. However, African-American and Japanese-American military service members were recruited to determine if the skin effects of mustard gas were different for those groups.

U.S. Navy World War II Chemical Weapon Equipment

A U.S. Navy sailor at the Naval Air Station Corpus Christi wears protective clothing and a gas mask designed for use in chemical warfare, Corpus Christi, Texas, Aug. 1942. The long term effects of mustard gas exposure only began to be investigated in the 1990s. Library of Congress photo

The only instance of war zone casualties from mustard gas happened in Bari, Italy. Bari was a harbor city that was attacked by German planes on Dec. 2, 1943. Several American ships were sunk during the raid, including the John Harvey. It was not known, except possibly by the captain and crew of the John Harvey, that this ship carried 2,000 M41-A1 100-pound mustard bombs. During the attack, the entire crew of the John Harvey was killed. Survivors of other sinking ships jumped into a toxic brew of oil and mustard gas and became coated with the substance. Confusion reigned at the port. Blindness, breathing issues, and skin burns overwhelmed the survivors. In addition, a poisonous cloud hovered over the town. The cause of these multiple health issues was not understood for a few days because of the secrecy about the presence of mustard gas on an American ship. The silence cost lives. Among the merchant marine and military members at Bari, there were 628 casualties tied to mustard gas exposure. The chaos of war prevented an accurate accounting of the civilian casualties related to mustard gas exposure, especially since many civilians fled the city after the air raid. This incident was not widely reported, even though a military team had eventually been sent to the town to treat the survivors. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was especially adamant that the incident remain secret for fear of a German propaganda coup. There was no medical follow up on either the military or civilians affected.

It is possible that scores of World War II veterans with health issues, including emphysema, respiratory cancers, and leukemia, which are related to mustard gas exposure, never realized the connection and kept their vow of secrecy until the end of their lives.

The cloak of concealment about the mustard gas exposure experienced by World War II servicemen continued for decades. During the 1990s, Congress and the VA at last began to investigate the long term impact of exposure on veteran volunteers. The designation of “volunteer” was a misnomer. According to the Oxford Textbook of Clinical Research Ethics, many men were ordered to participate in these mustard gas activities. The Department of War did not classify the tests as human experiments; therefore consent was not necessary and many men were directly ordered to participate. After the issuance of a Congressional directive, and the Institute of Medicine’s report, the VA made a desultory attempt to contact exposed veterans through public service announcements and veteran magazine notices. Many names were unknown because of lack of sufficient records, but the VA did not even attempt to individually find those veterans whose identities were known. The VA received about 2,000 claims, with 193 ultimately receiving benefits. It is possible that scores of World War II veterans with health issues, including emphysema, respiratory cancers, and leukemia, which are related to mustard gas exposure, never realized the connection and kept their vow of secrecy until the end of their lives.