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Veterans Exposed in Cold War Bioweapons Testing Still Awaiting Answers — and Help

On May 12, 2000, the CBS Evening News first reported that over 1,000 American sailors were unwittingly exposed to chemical and biological warfare (CBW) agents in the 1960s and early 1970s as part of secret military experiments to study the vulnerability of US Navy ships to germ warfare attacks. The Pentagon responded to the report by insisting that the sailors “were not exposed to any harmful chemical and biological compound” and they all “were fully informed about the details of each test.” Neither of those claims turned out to be true. Subsequent reports revealed that some of the deadliest biological weapons, including VX and sarin nerve gas, were sprayed over unsuspecting sailors during Project 112 and its offshoot, Project SHAD. For decades, the Pentagon denied the existence of these tests before concluding in the 2000s that there was “no clear evidence” of long-term health problems resulting from them. Veterans — including some who blame their serious health problems on the tests — are still waiting for answers over 50 years later.

A History of Secret Testing

In early 1961 Defense Secretary Robert McNamara issued a directive urging the Joint Chiefs of Staff to “consider all possible applications” for chemical and biological weapons, “including use as an alternative to nuclear weapons.” By that time, there had already been considerable CBW testing in the United States, almost always against unwitting citizens. Immediately after World War II, the United States struck deals with some of Japan’s leading germ warfare specialists, including members of Unit 731, a notorious army unit that conducted horrific lethal experiments that killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and soldiers as well as Allied prisoners of war, some of whom were dissected while still alive. In exchange for not pursuing war crimes charges, Japanese scientists and doctors shared their knowledge and expertise while working for the United States. German doctors and scientists, including Nazi war criminals, were also imported into the US under Operation Paperclip.

Armed with Nazi and Japanese CBW knowledge, the US military began its own germ warfare experiments in earnest in 1949. The following year in Operation Sea Spray the Navy sprayed San Francisco with a massive cloud containing two types of bacteria, Bacillus globigii and Serratia marcesens, to study cities’ vulnerability to bioweapons attacks. Around a dozen people in the San Francisco Bay Area were hospitalized after the experiment; one of them died three weeks later. The test may have permanently altered the Bay Area’s microbial ecology. The Army also sprayed zinc cadmium sulfide over dozens of US locations including the Pruitt-Into housing project in St. Louis, where 10,000 people lived, most of them poor and black, and at Clinton Elementary School in Minneapolis, where former students later reported an unusually high number of stillbirths and birth defects. Cadmium, a toxic metal, is now a known carcinogen.

These were but two of the hundreds of tests carried out by the US military on unsuspecting citizens during the Cold War era. American sailors were also exposed to Bacillus globigii, Serratia marcesens and zinc cadmium sulfide during Project SHAD tests.

Sailors Exposed to Sarin, VX

President John F. Kennedy signed National Security Action Memorandum 235 in April 1963, opening the door to “large-scale scientific or technological experiments that might have significant or protracted effects on the physical or biological environment.” Project 112, based out of the US Army Deseret Test Center in Utah, followed. Its mandate was to study the effects of CBW on people, animals, plants and equipment, including Navy ships. The naval portion of the program was called Project SHAD, or Shipboard Hazard and Defense. In 2004, the Pentagon admitted that 5,842 troops, mostly sailors but also some Marines and airmen and hundreds of civilians, were exposed to CBW during SHAD tests on at least 11 ships, and that many of these people were not informed of their participation.

As highly unethical as this may be, it was well within the bounds of what the United States was capable and willing to do to defeat what it perceived as a global communist threat. During the Cold War, the US frequently supported or tolerated horrific atrocities, including numerous episodes of mass murder by some of the world’s most brutal dictatorships and even genocide in Bangladesh, Guatemala and East Timor, in the name of fighting communism. In the realm of human experimentation, the notorious CIA-led Project MK-ULTRA and related mind control experiments subjected thousands of unwitting Americans, including thousands of troops, to powerful drugs and sometimes heinous experiments involving hypnosis, “brainwashing,” and torture.

Project SHAD took place during this era of ethical compromise. “It bespeaks the time, the early ’60s, when we were in the Cold War, and we were concerned that Russia and perhaps China had chemical and biological capabilities that could be used against American troops and against us in the homeland,” explained Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, a former deputy director of the Defense Department’s Health Support Directorate.

In four SHAD tests conducted in the years 1964-1968 on Navy ships in the Pacific Ocean, the military sprayed nonlethal amounts of the nerve agents sarin and VX, two of the deadliest weapons in existence. A single drop of sarin can kill a person; a 1995 terrorist attack with sarin gas on the Tokyo subway system killed 12 people and injured more than 5,000 others. While acknowledging that these agents were used during SHAD, the Pentagon says that troops exposed to deadly or dangerous agents during the experiments were protected by shelter, protective clothing or vaccinations.

Relief Denied

Most SHAD tests involved far less dangerous agents. But that did not mean they were necessarily safe. Medical corpsmen on vessels involved in SHAD testing say ships’ logs show a surge in nausea and upper respiratory tract infections following spraying. Robert Bates, an electrician aboard the USS Navarro, testified in 2002 before the Senate Armed Services Committee that he developed pneumonia and permanent breathing problems during what he was later informed was Operation Autumn Gold, part of Project SHAD. However, his medical claims were denied. The Veterans Administration explained that “BG (Bacillus globigii), zinc cadmium sulfide and chemical agents GB (sarin) and VX” did not cause Bates’ health problems.

George Brocklebank, a radioman aboard the USS Power during SHAD testing, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he and many of his former shipmates suffer from health problems they believe are related to the tests. Other veterans have complained of missing medical records from the years they were exposed to SHAD tests. James Druckmiller, a medical corpsman on the Power, told CBS News that he started getting sick after the ship was sprayed nine times with a mysterious misty substance. He had lesions removed from his head and his foot and was hospitalized with bacterial pneumonia and chronic respiratory illness. Other Power veterans report suffering from cysts, scarred lungs, sterility, chronic pneumonia, allergies and heart, kidney and skin problems. Many of the sailors knew something was amiss but they didn’t ask too many questions. “The old school of thought was yours wasn’t to reason why, but rather to do or die,” Druckmiller explained.

When Druckmiller turned to the Veterans Administration for help he was told that the agents sprayed on his ship were harmless. His benefits were also denied. The VA has had hundreds of claims filed by service members who believe their illnesses are related to SHAD. However, these claims are routinely denied, as the military denies that their ailments were caused by the tests. “To date, there is no clear evidence of specific, long-term health problems associated with participation in Project SHAD,” insists the VA. For decades the military also falsely claimed that all test subjects were “fully informed about the details of each test,” an assertion vehemently rejected by affected veterans. “We weren’t given any information,” insisted Bates. “We didn’t know anything.”

Still Waiting…

In a scathing 1991 critique, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “there can be no question that some veterans, who served our country with honor and at great personal cost, were mistreated… in the secret testing and… by official denials that lasted for decades.” A 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report stated that tens of thousands of troops and civilians may have been exposed to CBW during testing, that the Pentagon made no effort to inform civilians about their exposure and that its decision to stop searching for people affected by the tests was premature. The report also noted that many newly-identified individuals were suffering from chronic ailments possibly caused by CBW testing.

The Defense Department belatedly conducted a thorough investigation and released a frank assessment of SHAD, which included a list of all the CBW agents employed in the tests. The report was first released on September 13, 2001. The nation’s attention was understandably focused elsewhere that day. The events of September 11 would ultimately lead to multiple wars, one based on the false presumption that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling chemical and biological weapons. The Senate hearing on SHAD took place just months before the US invasion of Iraq. “Do you find it the height of irony, as I do,” asked Sen. Max Cleland (D-GA) during the proceedings, “that we’re going after Saddam Hussein because he possesses the weapons that we possess and possessed in those days and used them on our own people, our own veterans, without their knowledge?”

With much of the record on the tests remaining classified, many veterans are still waiting for answers, and for help. It has been an agonizing journey, even with powerful allies in Washington. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA), a Vietnam War veteran, has been doggedly determined to get the whole truth about the tests ever since a constituent subjected to SHAD experiments informed him of widespread veteran illness in the 1990s. Thompson, who co-sponsored a 2017 bill meant to force the Pentagon to declassify documents relating to the tests, lamented that “for 40 years [the military] denied it even happened, and for the last 10 years they’ve been dragging their feet.”

“It’s imperative veterans and their families know what they were exposed to, so they can get the help and peace of mind they deserve,” said Thompson at the time. “These veterans can’t wait any longer. Sadly, some of them have already passed.”

“I think it is time for the military and our government to stop stonewalling and release the truth about these tests and help the many sailors with their medical problems,” Brocklebank told the senators. “I know some of my shipmates would be in better health if their doctors knew what they had been exposed to. Some of them might even be alive today.”

More articles by:

Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace. 

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