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America's broken promise to veterans who survived race-based chemical weapons testing in WWII

Three test subjects enter a gas chamber, which will fill with mustard gas, as part of the military's secret chemical warfare testing in March 1945. Courtesy of Edgewood Arsenal


Three test subjects enter a gas chamber, which will fill with mustard gas, as part of the military's secret chemical warfare testing in March 1945.
Courtesy of Edgewood Arsenal

NPR this week reported about secret chemical experiments performed by the U.S. military during World War II that grouped men by race. White soldiers were considered the "normal" test subjects. Black, Puerto Rican, Japanese, and other non-white populations were singled out, and sometimes used as proxies for "the enemy."

The formerly classified government program that tested chemical weapons on our own troops was first made public in the early 1990s, but the revelation that the experiments segregated participants by race is sparking new outrage.

When records of the tests were declassified in the early 1990s, the Veterans Administration promised it would find some 4,000 veterans who survived, and offer them compensation. Very few of these survivors, who experience serious health problems and disabilities, have received any aid.

Members of the 3d Ammunition Company, part of the 2nd Marine Division, relax with a captured bicycle after the Battle of Saipan. [Wikipedia]


Members of the 3d Ammunition Company, part of the 2nd Marine Division, relax with a captured bicycle after the Battle of Saipan. [Wikipedia]

Some of these men were literally locked inside gas chambers and tortured with poison gas, then told that if they spoke to anyone about what happened, they'd end up in a military prison.

NPR reports that while the Veterans Administration has responded to the story, the radio news organization is still waiting for the government to hand over documents related to the experiments done on some 60,000 soldiers. Still, NPR has "for the first time" tracked down some of the men who survived the race-based gassing.

"It took all the skin off your hands," says former Army soldier Rollins Edwards, who was exposed to mustard gas in a gas chamber experiment.

He is black, and was also ordered to crawl through fields coated in mustard gas.

"Your hands just rotted."

Mr. Edwards describes being led into the wooden gas chamber and locked inside with other soldiers.

“It felt like you were on fire,” the 93-year-old says. “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.”

Rollins Edwards as a young soldier in 1945, in the Philippines.


Rollins Edwards as a young soldier in 1945, in the Philippines.

A total of 60,000 veterans participated in the tests, which sought to reveal what clothing, barriers, or ointments might protect U.S. soldiers attacked with mustard gas by foreign forces. The tests were conducted at bases like Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, Camp Sibert in Alabama, as well as research institutions like the University of Chicago.

Caitlin Dickerson, reporting for NPR:

While the Pentagon admitted decades ago that it used American troops as test subjects in experiments with mustard gas, until now, officials have never spoken about the tests that grouped subjects by race.

For the first time, NPR tracked down some of the men used in the race-based experiments. And it wasn't just African-Americans. Japanese-Americans were used as test subjects, serving as proxies for the enemy so scientists could explore how mustard gas and other chemicals might affect Japanese troops. Puerto Rican soldiers were also singled out.

“The Germans put Jews in the gas chamber,” veteran Johnnie H. Ross told a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1992. “The United States put their men in the gas chamber.”

In response to NPR's reports, the VA said:

"The Department of Veterans Affairs appreciates the service and sacrifices of those World War II Veterans who may have been injured in mustard gas testing. VA recognizes that disabilities may have resulted due to full body mustard gas exposure. VA has established presumptions of service connection for certain disabilities that may have resulted from this exposure.

"The NPR story rightfully points out the sacrifices that Veterans and their families have gone through during the years when they were sworn to secrecy. VA is prepared to assist any Veteran or survivor who contacts us in determining their entitlement to benefits. Additionally, if NPR is willing to share with us the list of 1,200 or so Veterans who they have been able to identify as having been exposed, VA will attempt to contact them to ensure they are receiving all the benefits and services to which they are entitled under the law."

These historical photographs depict the forearms of human test subjects after being exposed to nitrogen mustard and lewisite agents in World War II experiments conducted at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the Naval Research Laboratory


These historical photographs depict the forearms of human test subjects after being exposed to nitrogen mustard and lewisite agents in World War II experiments conducted at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the Naval Research Laboratory

"Mustard gas and American race-based human experimentation in World War II." Susan L. Smith, University of Alberta, Canada. [The Journal of Law Medicine & Ethics, 2008]

"The VA's Broken Promise To Thousands Of Vets Exposed To Mustard Gas" [NPR]

"Secret World War II Chemical Experiments Tested Troops By Race" [NPR]

Related item at The Daily Caller, New York Magazine, PBS NewsHour.

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