1942–1945: Soldiers subjected to poisonous mustard gas & arsenic experiments

1942–1945: U.S. Navy initiated poisonous Mustard Gas and Lewisite (derivative of arsenic) experiments to test protective clothing and anti-blister ointments at the Naval Research Laboratory and at the Army’s Edgewood Arsenal. According to declassified records and reports, mustard gas experiments were conducted by the Navy at more than a dozen locations. The tests evaluated protective equipment like gas masks and suits; 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. (Caitlin Dickerson. Secret World War II Chemical Experiments Tested Troops By Race, NPR, 2015)

Despite evidence from a series of post World War I studies showing that soldiers exposed to mustard gas had suffered serious long-term health damage, U.S. sailors were subjected to full-body exposure to mustard gas and lewisite in a sealed “gas chamber.” The risks of exposure to mustard gas were well known by 1933; within hours of skin contact huge, yellowish blisters occur, and if inhaled, the same damage occurs to the inside of the lungs. The gas enters cells, damages the DNA molecules, and ultimately kills the cells.

Skin tests were conducted under Navy contract at the University of Chicago on at least 15,000, possibly 60,000 recruits. The Navy did not maintain complete records of the sailors involved; “it only has surnames of approximately 2,900 sailors who participated in the gas chamber tests conducted at the Naval Research Laboratory.” (GAO, 1993)

“Secrets of Edgewood:” a series of articles in The New Yorker (Dec. 2012–Jan. 2013) about the military’s secret chemical weapons experiments on U.S. soldiers. The New Yorker obtained hundreds of secret military documents, raw data and archival films under the Freedom of Information Act about human experiments at Edgewood Arsenal, which was an Army fortress of secret experiments. The U.S. Army’s secret Chemical Research program included inhaled mustard gas tests and a variety of other toxic offensive chemical weapons that are not identified. A sign on a door in the Medical Research Laboratories read: “What you see here, hear here — when you leave here, leave it here.” (Khatchadourian. Operation Delirium, 2012)

Mustard gas exposure caused a wide range of pain and humiliation for the soldiers…for some young men, the experiments were a form of torture. The tests evaluated protective equipment like gas masks and suits. These were tested in a specially built nine-foot cube air tight gas chambers.

“Before the soldiers entered the gas chamber, they were told to line up — sometimes dressed in protective clothing, but sometimes naked — in single file by the door, each man standing a yard from the next, until, at the appropriate time, they would all run inside. They had to run in to insure that the door would not stay open for longer than five seconds; beyond that, it was calculated, too much gas would dissipate.” (Operation Delirium, 2012)

Some soldiers experienced immediate and severe eye injuries and damage to lungs:

“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.”

“Inside the chamber, Charlie 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.” ( NPR, 2015)

“Most frequently, men had burns and blistering on the skin, especially in the face, hands, underarms, buttocks, and genitals. They were sometimes in agony for days, weeks, and even months from the enormous, grotesque blisters and oozing sores. In addition, the men in the gas chamber tests experienced intense fear. Finally, many of them also suffered long-term health consequences, such as psychological disorders, cancer, asthma, emphysema, and eye problems, including blindness.”  (Susan Smith. “Mustard Gas and American Race-Based Human Experimentation in World War II in The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 2008)

No effort was made to provide follow-up care even though many had severe adverse effects following exposure in the gas chamber. And the nature of the experiments remained secret for forty years, until the Gulf War ended in 1991, when the public first learned about these horrific experiments. Even after declassified documents (1993) confirmed the veterans’ claims of injuries related to those experiments, their claims for compensation have continued to be denied by the Veterans Administration.  [The findings by the Institute of Medicine (1993) and ethical issues are discussed below.]

The number of soldiers subjected to chemical weapons tests between 1942–1975 is estimated at 60,000. The exact number may never be known because the Army did not maintain medical records of soldiers in the experiments. A federal lawsuit filed in California by veterans who suffered harm from the experiments alleges that 100,000 service persons were subjected to chemical or biological experiments without their informed consent (Quillin. Military News, 2012). Neither the sailors nor soldiers were told that they would be exposed to toxic gasses in a “gas chamber,” nor were they informed about the health risks.