Boing Boing 

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.

Watch a WWII plane pick up a man and a sheep while flying at full speed

People do weird things for war.

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Women Are Needed: WWII-era U.S. government poster art, 1943.

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1943 U.S. Employment Service propaganda poster.

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Short documentary puts World War II fatalities into context

WWII

More people died in World War II than in any other conflict in history, yet it can be hard to conceptualize that massive loss of life.

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How a WWII unit deceived the enemy with audacious fakery

They jokingly called themselves Cecil B. DeMille Warriors. To others, they were the Ghost Army. To the Army itself, they were the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. To everyone, they were undoubtedly the most surreal soldiers of WWII.

Created in the summer of 1944, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was comprised mainly of artists, engineers, and movie effects technicians. Amongst the unit’s ranks were a young future fashion icon Bill Blass, Color Field painter Ellsworth Kelly, wildlife artist Arthur Singer, and photographer Art Kane. Their top-secret mission sounds like the punchline to some drunken soldier’s joke: to use an inflatable army of tanks, vehicles, sound effects, and other movie trickery to convince the Germany army that there were significant forces where there were none. Well, none other than DeMille’s finest. The unit plied their trade from Normandy to the Rhine.

So, what do you get when you send a lot of nervous artists and creative types off on a dangerous assignment? Lots and lots of art – made in boredom, in fear, and in celebration. The Ghost Army of World War II is a beautifully-produced print documentary of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and the role they played in WWII. The book is filled with countless paintings, sketches, cartoons, photos, hand-drawn maps, sketchbook pages, letters and post cards, and the military ephemera of the 23rd. All of these visuals are beautifully animated by the writing of authors Rick Beyer (who also produced a 2005 PBS documentary on the 23rd HST), Elizabeth Sayles (daughter of Ghost Army vet William Sayles), and the amazing stories recounted by the soldiers themselves.

It is unclear the full extent to which the deceptions of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops changed the outcomes of battles and the course of the war, but there is no doubt that their audacious and dangerous actions saved the lives of thousands in its waning hours.

Note: Our Discordian readers (and fans of sketchy Jim Carrey thrillers) will certainly appreciate the auspicious number of the unit.

Previously on Boing Boing: WWII's "Ghost Army" that tricked German troops with inflatable tanks and sound effects

See sample pages from this book at Wink.

Katusha: Girl Soldier of the Great Patriotic War

Katusha

Amid the real war reporting on Medium's online magazine War Is Boring is a profile of comics artist Wayne Vansant, who, at 65, is still drawing wartime comics with his signature attention to accuracy and detail.

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Leaving China – a painted memoir about growing up during WW2

James McMullan, an illustrator and watercolorist known for his popular theatrical posters for Lincoln Center as well as various children’s book covers, has created a beautiful memoir entitled Leaving China.

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Alan Turing's lost notes discovered as crumpled insulation in Bletchley Park huts


After the war ended, Churchill ordered all of Bletchley's work -- the computers, the notebooks -- destroyed, but some of Alan Turing's notes were discovered between the walls of Hut 6 during a recent renovation, and are now on display at Bletchley Park.

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Pretend cities to fool bombers through history


Starting with a fake Paris built to lure Kaiser Bill's incendiary bombs, through to the pretend industrial towns used in WWII England to divert 900 tonnes of munitions, to the pretend airbases built in the Pacific Northwest and through to the Viet Cong's pretend villages to disguise tunnel complexes.

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Kickstarting Night Witches, an RPG about WWII Soviet airwomen


Night Witches is the latest game from Jason Morningstar, creator of the excellent caper/heist game Fiasco.

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WWII's VD posters: exciting nexus of propaganda, Mad Men, gender and design


Ryan Mungia's Protect Yourself: Venereal Disease Posters of World War II uncovers many obscure propaganda posters that were, once upon a time, just as popular as the iconic "We Can Do It!" woman.

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Duration of WWII vs duration of movies about WWII

In today's What If?, Randall "XKCD" Munroe tries to answer the question: "Did WWII last longer than the total length of movies about WWII? For that matter, which war has the highest movie time:war time ratio?" (Cue the theme from M*A*S*H).

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Dada vs Hitler: the anti-Nazi collages of John Heartfield


In the runup to WWII (and during it) Dadaist photographer John Heartfield and his collaborator George Grosz produced a startling series of anti-Nazi collages that echo through to today's practice of political shooping. An informative Metafilter post by Adamvasco has lots more links.

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Hitler's bookbinder

Michael Shaughnessy reports the untold story of Frieda Thiersch—and the mysteries of her life, her motives and her booksRead the rest

Jo Walton's "My Real Children": infinitely wise, sad and uplifting novel

An ambitious and nuanced story that left Cory Doctorow in tears, the new novel from award-winner Jo Walton is about an elderly woman who remembers two lives.Read the rest

Kickstarting an Arduino-based Enigma machine

ST Geotronics have exanded their Instructables project for building your own Arduino-based Enigma and turned it into a Kickstarter. $40 gets you some boards you can kit-bash with; $125 gets you the full kit; $300 gets you the whole thing, beautifully made and fully assembled.

The Open Enigma Project (Thanks, Tina!)

Massive collection of Soviet wartime posters


The University of Nottingham's Windows on War is one of the world's premier collections of WWII Soviet posters related to their war with the Nazis on the eastern front. The scholarly notes that accompany the exhibit are a treat, though they are presented in a way that makes it nearly impossible to read them. But the entire collection has been scanned and posted, and is available for viewing at very high resolutions.

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