1950s: Army tests mosquitoes, fleas as biological weapons
By Marc Valero | Highlands Today, Sebring, Fla. | Published: April 6, 2014
AVON PARK — A military attack with about 230,000 mosquitoes infected with yellow fever would be difficult to detect and would be impossible for a nation to react quickly with a mass-immunization program, the U.S. Army Chemical Corps believed in the 1950s.
The corps put its theory to a test in two locations - Savannah, Ga. and the Avon Park Air Force Range.
With tests called Operation Big Buzz, Operation Big Itch and Operation Drop Kick, the corps explored the feasibility of using fleas and mosquitoes as weapons.
Many online watchdog groups and other online posts make unsubstantiated claims that the U.S. military released mosquitoes infected with yellow fever over Savannah and Avon Park. After each test Army agents posed as public health officials to test the victims for effects, according to these accounts.
A Truthout story quoted an unidentified resident in 2010 who said the experiments resulted in at least six or seven deaths. The quote is from a story titled, "Florida Dengue Fever Outbreak Leads Back to CIA and Army Experiments."
Declassified government documents apparently show tests were conducted, but with uninfected mosquitoes.
"In 1956 the Corps released 600,000 uninfected mosquitoes from a plane at Avon Park Bombing Range, Florida. Within a day the mosquitoes had spread a distance of between one and two miles and had bitten many people," according to Summary of Major Events and Problems U.S. Army Chemical Corps, Fiscal Year 1959 - January 1960, from the corps historical office in Maryland.
"In 1958 further tests at Avon Park AFB, Florida, showed that mosquitoes could easily be disseminated from helicopters, would spread more than a mile in each direction and would enter all types of buildings," the corps report stated.
Longtime Avon Park resident Beatrice Peterson didn't know about mosquito releases, but she remembers that screwworm flies were released in the mid to late 1950s.
She was 14 years old in 1956 and attended the Hopewell Elementary/Junior High School.
"We know they released some flies, but what was the reason and why, I can't remember why because we were in school back in the 1950s," Peterson said. "Occasionally we would see them when they fly over and drop the little boxes out. Evidently the boxes were supposed to open up."
She said planes dropped the boxes, but she didn't remember specifically what type of planes.
"You know living in Avon Park and with the bombing range right out there, we would never look up to see, all we would say is 'that's coming from the bombing range,'" Peterson said. "You know what they say about the government - the government keeps a lot of secrets."
The corps report stated that tests showed that mosquitoes could be spread over areas of several square miles by means of devices dropped from planes or set up on the ground. And while the tests were made with uninfected mosquitoes, "it is a fairly safe assumption that infected mosquitoes could be spread equally well."
The Biological Warfare Laboratories at Fort Detrick established a program to study the aedes aegypti mosquitor, which is a carrier of the yellow fever virus.
If a military attack were made with Aedes aegypti mosquitos it would be quite difficult to detect the fact, particularly if this type of mosquito ordinarily lived in the area, the corps report stated. "There is a yellow fever vaccine that has proven to be an effective prophylatic, but it would be impossible for a nation such as the U.S.S.R. to quickly undertake a mass-immunation program to protect millions of people."
The Avon Park mosquito testing is noted in a March 1981 U.S. Army report titled "An Evaluation of Entomological Warfare as a Potential Danger to the United States and European Nations."
"The feasibility of area coverage with adedes aegypti mosquitoes was based on the Avon Park, Florida mosquito trials," the report stated. About 223,000 infected female mosquitoes would be required for a hypothetical attack. The insects would be released from a helicopter 610 meters upwind of the target area.
A 2002 article by the Lakeland Ledger reported the release of some details of government biological tests in a 1977 Army report. Tests at Avon Park involved wheat fungus that apparently was part of the effort to develop weapons against the Soviet Union's food supply, according to the report and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Tests at Avon Park took place during 1954-1957, 1960, 1964 and in 1965, according to the 1977 report.
In 2002, Nelson pushed for the release of information about the military's biological and chemical weapons tests.
Efforts to declassify details of these tests do not appear to include tests conducted in the 1950s throughout the nation and at several sites in Florida, including the Avon Park Air Force Range, the Lakeland Ledger article stated.
Highlands Today attempted to contact Nelson for this report.
A mosquito clings to the wall of an incubation jar; it was collected as part of the mosquito surveillance program at Fort Bliss, Texas, to prevent the spread of West Nile virus, Oct. 10, 2012. In the 1950s, with tests called Operation Big Buzz, Operation Big Itch and Operation Drop Kick, U.S. Army Chemical Corps explored the feasibility of using fleas and mosquitoes as weapons to transmit diseases.
Jonathan W. Thomas/U.S. Army