Legacy of Fort Crowder mustard gas tests still alive
By JORDAN LARIMORE | The Joplin Globe | Published: August 13, 2017
NEOSHO, Mo. (Tribune News Service) -- As poisonous gases poured into the room -- and with the doors locked from the outside --American soldiers stationed at Fort Crowder during World War II had no choice but to scramble to get gas masks on properly.
Some saw their skin erupt into boils and blisters, their arms singed by chemicals whose effects not even those overseeing the experiments fully understood.
Other soldiers, meanwhile, were marched to open fields while gases rained down on them, dropped by the ton from airplanes overhead.
Soldiers struggled to breathe, to see and to maintain consciousness as mustard gas, lewisite and phosgene gas were tested on them.
One of those soldiers, Arla Wayne Harrell, was a field medic and cook who decades later told his family and his doctors what had happened.
He and others were locked in one of three gas chambers to test chemical weapons at Fort Crowder. Some of the men screamed and beat on the locked doors in panic, he said; others passed out.
He also told family members that in one of the tests he was not wearing a gas mask and said he remembered "breathing it in."
According to U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., at least 60,000 servicemen were exposed to mustard gas and other chemical weapons during World War II by the U.S. military, with 4,000 receiving what she characterized as "high levels of exposure."
But that wasn't the end of it.
Forty years after the war was over, the dangerous chemicals used at Fort Crowder, many of which were dumped at the site and buried, continued to present risks to workers and others.
In April 1915, during World War I, Germany introduced chemical weapons on the battlefield, killing in a matter of minutes 1,000 French and Algerian soldiers and wounding thousands more with 160 tons of chlorine gas, according to a 2008 article by Gerard Fitzgerald in the American Journal of Public Health.
One British soldier who observed the attack described the scene: "Greenish-gray clouds swept down upon them, turning yellow as they traveled over the country blasting everything they touched and shriveling up the vegetation. ... Then there staggered into our midst French soldiers, blinded, coughing, chests heaving, faces an ugly purple color, lips speechless with agony, and behind them in the gas-soaked trenches, we learned that they had left hundreds of dead and dying comrades."
Fitzgerald estimated that by war's end, the use of chlorine, phosgene and mustard gases caused 1.3 million casualties and 90,000 deaths.
With war erupting again in Europe two decades later, Allied nations prepared for what they considered an inevitability, conducting "transnational scientific experiments for war," said Susan Smith, an American history professor at the University of Alberta in the Canadian province's capital of Edmonton.
The fear of a second gas war led the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia to conduct large-scale chemical weapons testing on their own soldiers.
Besides Fort Crowder, U.S. tests were done at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland; Camp Sibert, Alabama; Bushnell Field, Florida; Dugway Proving Ground, Utah; and at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.
"These are experiments on human beings, really, to test what happens to the human body exposed to this toxic chemical," Smith said in an interview with the Globe. She has studied international chemical weapons testing for more than a decade and recently released a book titled "Toxic Exposures" on the subject.
"So there were several chemical warfare agents; mustard gas was kind of king of the gases in World War I," she said. "And it really does remain the predominant gas they're researching in World War II, but they studied dozens and dozens and dozens of chemicals that might be able to be turned into a war gas."
Smith said the operation also included tests of the gases' effects under simulated battlefield conditions because the military wanted to understand both how to use them and how to defend against their use.
Ultimately, the U.S. did not use many of these poison gases during World War II, in part, Smith said, because the general public objected to their use, as did President Franklin Roosevelt and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Smith said most advocates of poison gas use at that time came from the Chemical Warfare Service, a division of the U.S. Army.
Lies and denial
According to a report by McCaskill, who sponsored a recently passed bill aimed at increasing surviving participants' access to benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs, service members were not told they would be exposed to mustard or other poison gases when they volunteered for the program.
"Men who participated in the chamber tests reported that they originally volunteered to 'test summer clothing' in exchange for vacation time," the report says, citing a 1993 journal by the National Academies of Sciences Engineering Medicine and interviews with veterans. "It was not until they arrived at the testing site that they were told that they would be exposed to mustard agents. Service members who became sick during tests were threatened with court martial if they did not continue with the testing."
Harrell, who is the namesake of McCaskill's bill, now lives in a nursing home in Macon, Missouri, and continues to suffer from ailments he believes stem from his participation in the test operation, family members say. He is unable to walk or talk.
Many of these veterans, who continued to suffer health complications from their participation in the tests and training, were denied benefits by the VA because of the difficulty of proving their participation. According to McCaskill, the U.S. never fully acknowledged the testing for decades, failed to notify veterans that they were exposed, kept inadequate records and had an "opaque" adjudication process when claims were filed. As a result, 90 percent of the applicants who sought medical help because of chemical weapons exposure were denied by the VA.
Harrell has previously said he believes he was twice exposed to mustard gas at Fort Crowder. He never talked about it, and when he finally did, he told his family that the U.S. Army had threatened him with jail if he ever disclosed what happened. Harrell also was rejected at least three times by the VA when filing claims to help treat a lung disorder and skin cancer that his descendants believe may stem from the poison gas exposure.
The men who were tested were sworn to secrecy, unable to officially tell even their personal doctors of their exposure until 1991, according to Smith and McCaskill. The federal government declassified the last of the experiments in the 1970s, but an oath of secrecy the men had sworn to was not lifted until 1991.
According to Harrel's family, his daughter Beverly Howe, a nurse trained in chemical, biological and radiological treatment from Thomasville, Georgia, said she interviewed her father for a school paper in the early 1970s, and he disclosed the gassing reluctantly to her for the first time. Later, as a nurse, she recognized the symptoms from her training.
"He said it was secret and they weren't supposed to talk about it," she told The Associated Press. "If they did, they'd be in big trouble."
Then, during a visit to a VA hospital in the late 1980s or early 1990s, a VA X-ray technician who had seen Harrell's records asked if he had ever been exposed to mustard gas.
"I was mostly horrified when I saw the look of terror in my dad's eyes," said another daughter, Trish Ayers. "The man told him it was OK, you can talk about it now. He said, 'Yes,' and that was about it."
McCaskill's office estimates that of those 60,000 veterans, approximately 400 participants are still living today.
"A lot of the guys took these secrets to their grave," Smith said. "Some started to tell their stories to their wives, say, in the 1980s, and some began to reach out to doctors and the government."
According to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' 2015 document on the former Fort Crowder site, the chemicals may not have been properly disposed of after the war, and there were at least two incidents where workers at the site suffered exposure.
The report states that Fort Crowder included a "Chemical Exercise Area" that included at least three gas chambers.
"Chemical warfare training also included field exercises where soldiers were exposed to chemical agents in settings that simulated actual battlefield conditions," the 2015 report notes.
Also on the base were Chemical Agent Identification Sets that were used by all branches of the service to train soldiers "in the safe identification, handling and decontamination of chemical agents and industrial chemicals used in chemical warfare." The sets included small glass containers filled with various chemical agents that were packed in metal shipping containers or wooden boxes.
These chemical training materials as well as other munitions and explosives were stored in Quonset huts and dome- or igloo-shaped buildings at Fort Crowder.
"Historical records do not include any information on the final disposal of the CAIS," the 2015 report notes.
However, an earlier report disputes that.
Fort Crowder, which was built in 1941, eventually grew to nearly 43,000 acres and could accommodate 43,000 soldiers and officers. A contingent of 1,000 women from the Women's Army Corps also was stationed there, and it also housed up to 2,000 German prisoners. In 1946, most of the buildings and nearly 30,000 acres were declared surplus and sold. More than 4,300 acres of the former Fort Crowder site are used still by the Missouri Army National Guard.
An earlier U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report from 2005 notes that some of the chemical storage buildings were among those declared surplus and sold, and "crews removing the igloos took anything found in the structures, dumped it out nearby and buried it."
In 1981, three National Guard soldiers were excavating near the location of a former storage igloo on National Guard property when they were "overcome by vapors apparently coming from the ground. They experienced difficulty breathing, burning eyes and nausea, and were treated and released from a local hospital with no apparent long-term effects."
A follow-up investigation did not reveal the source of the vapors, but the report notes: "The soldiers doing the excavation work in 1981 may have encountered some of the former igloo contents. Their injuries were consistent with exposure to phosgene gas. Descriptions from witnesses and the patient report for one of the injured soldiers suggest that components of a CAIS were disturbed."
The Missouri National Guard referred Globe questions on the matter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Five years later, in 1986, a bulldozer operator working near the former Fort Crowder pistol ranges accidentally hit what were described as "vials of unidentified liquid and metallic material of military nature.
"A white gaseous cloud filled the air behind the bulldozer after it ran over some of the vials. The operator's eyes became watery, and he had difficulty breathing. After resting a while, he returned to work. The next day, he reported the incident."
A U.S. Army unit sent to the site removed military-related debris that included mine fuzes, mine components, surface trip flares, grenade fuzes and "30 glass vials containing chemical agent or chemical agent simulants."
Nine of the vials were from CAIS kits, and three contained mustard gas.
The Army unit cleared the site of munitions and vials by sifting the loose soil moved by the bulldozer and decontaminated the site.
Because of those incidents, the Corps of Engineers conducted a site investigation in 2003, said senior project manager Josephine Newton-Lund. She said investigators combed the area looking for any remnants of the chemicals or the metal containers or buildings they would have once been stored in but did not find any. The survey included air monitoring, soil sampling and other tests on more than 30 acres.
"Because of that 1986 incident, we couldn't write off this site as a no-further action (recommendation)," Newton-Lund said. "So what we implemented was what we call educational awareness. And what that is ... we emphasize the '3 R's' to the property owners: recognize, which is when you have encountered a CAID set (vial of chemicals); retreat, don't touch it, move it or disturb it; and the last is report and call 911. And so this educational awareness was implemented and expressed to the specific property owners."
Newton-Lund also said she continues to visit the area on at least an annual basis as part of the Corps' continued long-term management of the site. Those visits include assessments of the land and its use, whether either has changed and interviews with current property owners.
Globe attempts to locate property owners were not successful.
The next phase of the Corps' management of the site will be five-year reviews, and those reviews will be conducted until the project can be completed to satisfy various regulatory agencies, according to the 2015 report detailing the plan for dealing with the site. The operation will not be concluded until the site "no longer poses a risk," the report says.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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