“It felt like you were on fire,” a black U.S. Army veteran tells NPR of being a test subject for the effects of mustard gas in a once-secret government program to determine the effects of chemical weapons on different races.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army had a secret program to test mustard gas and other chemical agents on U.S. troops during World War II.
The program was declassified in 1993, and it was revealed in 2008 that the experiments had been race-based. On Monday, NPR reporter Caitlin Dickerson released an investigative report with interviews of some of the 60,000 enlisted soldiers subjected to these tests, bringing fresh attention to America’s history of racialized testing.
“I don’t appreciate what they did, no I don’t, but everybody don’t get a chance to serve the country,” said Rollins Edwards, 93, a black man from Summerville, South Carolina, who was subjected to these experiments in 1944.
Edwards says he and a dozen other black soldiers were locked in a wooden gas chamber, where mustard gas and lewisite, another chemical weapon, was circulated inside. Edwards told Dickerson, “They said we were being tested to see what effect these gases would have on black skins.”
“It felt like you were on fire,” Edwards told NPR. “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 they were just, they were in bad shape.”
Soldiers who didn’t comply were threatened with prison.
‘A lot was asked’
During the war, the U.S. government tested mustard gas, nitrogen mustard, and lewisite on 60,000 American soldiers to prepare the military for potential chemical warfare, according to Susan Smith, author of “Mustard gas and American race-based human experimentation in World War II,” a 2008 research paper published by The Journal of Law Medicine & Ethics.
“In at least nine research projects conducted during the 1940s, scientists investigated how so-called racial differences affected the impact of mustard gas exposure on the bodies of soldiers,” according to the report.
The studies included black Americans, Japanese-Americans and Puerto Ricans, as well as white Americans, who were used as a control group. The report explains that white people were clumped together because of a notion that racial and ethnic differences among European immigrants were becoming less prominent.
Tests were conducted to evaluate the protective qualities of various respirators (gas masks), ointments and clothing. To examine the effectiveness of an ointment, for example, mustard gas was applied directly to bare skin and to skin treated with ointment. In another test, soldiers stood in an open field, wearing various types of protective clothing, and were sprayed with mustard gas by a plane flying overhead. And in the “man-break test,” soldiers were locked in gas chambers while the chemical agent was piped in.
Smith reports soldiers undergoing these tests suffered numerous problems, including severe damage to the eyes and lungs, grotesque burns and blistering of the skin, oozing sores, and chronic health problems such as emphysema, asthma, psychological disorders, cancer, and blindness.
“After exposing dozens, perhaps hundreds, of men to harmful chemical agents in these nine projects, they concluded that race matters were less significant than they had anticipated,” the report notes.
The racialized experiments are part of a long history of testing in the United States which divided test subjects based on race. The practice, which purported to advance medical science, affected generations of Native Americans and enslaved black Americans.
“The most well-known American example of racism and medical experimentation is the Tuskegee Syphilis Study,” Smith’s report states, referring to experiments conducted from 1932 to 1972, when U.S. Public Health Service told black men in Alabama that they were receiving free health care, but were in fact being monitored to see how untreated syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, progresses through the body. Over 100 people died due to complications related to the disease.
NPR’s Caitlin Dickerson spoke with Army Col. Steve Warren, director of Defense Press Operations at the Pentagon, to get the government’s response to these experiments.
“The first thing to be very clear about is that the Department of Defense does not conduct chemical weapons testing any longer,” Warren told NPR. He continued:
“The idea of conducting racially-based experiments is just not something we would even consider, doesn’t enter the thought process. … It was a terrible, terrible, terrifying time. I don’t know that Americans knew what was next, they saw the Japanese and the Germans encircling the world. Everyone had to do their part, and in some cases a lot was asked.”
Indeed, Rollins Edwards, who Dickerson reports still has huge scabs on his arms and legs, which he scratches until they bleed, said: “My hands would get so bad I couldn’t even wash my hands. And they would actually stink.”