National Public Radio this week aired reports on secret military experiments in which U.S. soldiers, including Japanese Americans, African Americans and Puerto Ricans, were exposed to mustard gas.
Although the existence of this program was declassified in the 1990s, it is not widely known. NPR obtained additional documents through the Freedom of Information Act, interviewed some of the surviving soldiers, and reported on the failure of the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide benefits to them.
In the early 1940s, medical scientists funded by the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service conducted painful mustard gas experiments on at least 60,000 American soldiers. The Allies, including the governments of Canada, Britain, Australia, and the U.S., conducted these experiments on their own soldiers in order to identify the impact of chemical weapons on the health of soldiers.
Susan L. Smith, Ph.D., a professor of history and classics at the University of Alberta, discussed these experiments at the Lilianna Sauter Lecture “Medicine in Wartime IV: Place, Health and War: World War II Mustard Gas Experiments in Transnational Perspective,” held in May 2008 at The New York Academy of Medicine and hosted by NYAMs History of Medicine section.
According to Smith, one component of the research program involved examining how mustard gas affected men of various races.
“The mustard gas experiments provided evidence of a climate of contempt beliefs of the existence and the meaning of race,” she said.
At least eight separate experimental programs in the U.S. focused specifically on Japanese American and African American soldiers, and one focused on testing Puerto Ricans on an island off Panama. The researchers were searching for evidence of race-based differences in the responses of the human body to mustard gas exposure. No differences were found.
“Mustard gas experiments are a cautionary tale, about risking human health in the name of racialized science,” said Smith. “It shows us that in the appeal and danger of race matters in medical research, especially in times of war, and how the logic of racial thinking shaped scientific procedures in ways that were misguided and produced serious health consequences.”
Smith is the author of “Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Black Women’s Health Activism in America, 1890-1950” and “Japanese American Midwives: Culture, Community, and Health Politics, 1880-1950.”
The NPR report included a formerly confidential document from Army Service Forces at Camp Wolters in Texas provided by the family of Louis Bessho. It reads, in part: “The following named EM (enlisted men) .. are placed on temp duty for a period of approximately one month and will proceed to Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland … not later than 23 Apr 44.”
What follows is a list of Japanese American soldiers ranging in rank from private to sergeant: Sgt. Sho Higashi, Tec 4 (Technician 4th Grade) Louis Bessho, Tec 4 Willie R. Tanamachi, Tec 4 Willie N. Hayashi, Tec 4 Isamu Ogami, Cpl. Tokio Asari, Tec 5 Paul H. Kawasaki, Tec 5 Isao Sasaki, Tec 5 Rikio Nishimatsu, Tec 5 Masaharu Yamashita, Tec 5 Akira B. Kanemoto, Pfc (Private 1st Class) Rihachi Matsumoto, Pfc George T. Fukui, Pfc Roy S. Mitsuda.
The document continues, “Upon completion of this temp duty the above EM will ret to their proper sta. Special equipment other than gas masks will not be taken. Fatigue uniforms will be taken for use in recreational activities.”
David Bessho, who also served in the Army, told NPR that his father had a commendation from the Office of the Army’s Chief of the Chemical Warfare Service hanging on the wall. It read: “These men participated beyond the call of duty by subjecting themselves to pain, discomfort, and possible permanent injury for the advancement of research in protection of our armed forces.”
Bessho quoted his father as saying, “They were interested in seeing if chemical weapons would have the same effect on Japanese as they did on white people. I guess they were contemplating having to use them on the Japanese.”
The military did have at least one secret plan to use mustard gas against the Japanese, according to NPR, but it was never carried out.
Susan Matsumoto, whose husband, Tom, died in 2004 of pneumonia, told NPR that he said he was okay with the testing because he felt it would help “prove he was a good United States citizen.”
A declassified document, dated June 20, 1944, from the Committee on the Treatment of Gas Casualties, Cornell University Medical College, is titled “Tests on the Sensitivity of Whites and Nisei to Mustard gas and Lewiste (including Tests for Allergic Sensitization to Mustard Gas Following Experimental Exposure). The summary reads, in part:
“Drop tests were performed on 40 white and 29 Nisei volunteers for their sensitivity to mustard gas and lewisite. In the tests for sensitivity to mustard gas the dilutions used were: Mustard gas in benzene 1:100; mustard gas in benzene 1:250; mustard gas in benzene 1:500; mustard gas in benzene 1:100; mustard gas in benzene 1:5000.
“There was no significant difference in the sensitivity of white and Nisei volunteers to mustard gas.
“In a second series of tests 19 to 20 days after their first exposure, none of the volunteers showed evidence of allergic sensitization to mustard gas.
“During this second test series, comparisons were also made between the sensitivity of the back, which had been exposed to mustard gas vapor, and the buttocks, which had presumably not been exposed (i.e. covered with impregnated shorts). In about 25% of the white volunteers, the buttock area was less sensitive than the back areas. In 50% of the Nisei volunteers, the buttock area was less sensitive than the back area.
“In the tests for sensitivity to lewisite, the dilutions used were: lewisite to benzene 1:100; lewisite in benzene 1:250; lewisite in benzene 1:500; lewisite in benzene 1:1000.
“There was no significant difference in the sensitivity of white and Nisei volunteers to lewisite.
“In a second series of tests 19 to 20 days after their first exposure, only one white volunteer and none of the Nisei volunteers showed evidence of allergic sensitization tolewisite.”
Individuals’ names were deleted from the document.
The Defense Media Network reported in 2013, “The experiments were for purposes of testing clothing, skin ointments and other protective apparatus to determine their efficacy in the event of enemy mustard gas attacks … The National Toxicology Program of Health and Human Services has outlined three types of mustard gas experiments on the military in World War II – patch or drop tests on the skin, closed-chamber tests and open field tests.
“The greatest amount of full-body system exposure occurred in the chamber and field tests. Outfitted with protective clothing, participants were placed in a gas chamber for an hour or more until penetration of the clothing occurred. This penetration often resulted in moderate to severe chemical burns.
“The protocol for the field tests consisted of placing men in open ground areas that became saturated with mustard gas. Some wore protective clothing and apparatus but others were left exposed. Experimentation took place at numerous sites across America …
“After years of ignoring veterans who had participated in these experiments, the government finally issued a directive in the 1990s for The Institute of Medicine to research the long-term impact of these experiments on veterans. It was determined that no central database of participants existed. It was impossible to learn the identities of many of the men, since record-keeping was spotty and varied greatly by test site …
“It is possible that scores of World War II veterans with health issues, including emphysema, respiratory cancers, and leukemia, which are related to mustard gas exposure, never realized the connection and kept their vow of secrecy until the end of their lives.”
NPR reported Tuesday that the VA made little effort to compensate or even locate these veterans: “When those experiments were formally declassified in the 1990s, the Department of Veterans Affairs made two promises: to locate about 4,000 men who were used in the most extreme tests, and to compensate those who had permanent injuries.
“But the VA didn’t uphold those promises … NPR interviewed more than 40 living test subjects and family members, and they describe an unending cycle of appeals and denials as they struggled to get government benefits for mustard gas exposure. Some gave up out of frustration.
“In more than 20 years, the VA attempted to reach just 610 of the men, with a single letter sent in the mail … Yet in just two months, an NPR research librarian located more than 1,200 of them, using the VA’s own list of test subjects and public records.”
The VA’s website states that veterans exposed to mustard gas during field or chamber testing may be eligible for compensation, but must show evidence of exposure and evidence of a disease or disability caused by the exposure.