Veterans fight military over '40s chemical tests

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Glynn M. Wilcox, emaciated after a forced march of 52 days as a prisoner of the German army, returned to the United States in the summer of 1945. With time left to serve, the Army machine gunner's assistant wanted to be stationed near his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Mr. Wilcox, then 18, volunteered for seemingly benign tests of military clothing to protect against mustard agent and other dangerous or deadly chemical liquids. He was sent to a secret field station at Bushnell, Fla., operated by the Army Chemical Warfare Service at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland.

Today, Mr. Wilcox and other veterans who submitted to similar tests say trusting the government was a mistake. Some say they are still fighting an immense government bureaucracy, trying to receive proper medical treatment and disability compensation.

As news of Cold War-era radiation testing with human subjects continues to wear on the public conscience, a review of the military's well-documented use of human guinea pigs in Maryland and elsewhere to test a variety of chemicals and drugs can be no less troubling.

Since 1918, the old Edgewood Arsenal, occupying a 13,000-acre peninsula in Harford County, has been the hub of the U.S. military's research and development related to chemical warfare. Now part of Aberdeen Proving Ground, the sprawling collection of laboratories is to chemical warfare what Johns Hopkins Hospital is to medicine.

Between 1922 and 1975, more than 10,000 people, mostly military personnel, submitted to experiments at Edgewood with mustard and nerve agents, LSD and other "psychochemicals" and irritants.

The most severe chemical tests -- and the only ones for which the government has an organized compensation program for chronic injuries -- occurred in the 1940s at Edgewood and eight other sites around the country.

At the Army's Fort Detrick in Frederick, formerly under the command of Edgewood and a focal point of biological warfare research, humans have been used to test biological agents or antidotes. The work, which continues, focuses on ways to defend against a germ attack.

Officers from the now-closed Fort Holabird, an Army intelligence installation in Baltimore, collaborated with Edgewood scientists to test the use of hallucinogenic drugs during interrogations. Researchers from the University of Maryland's School of Medicine assisted Edgewood scientists in conducting separate, secret experiments into the use of such drugs in "incapacitating" weapons.

Maryland's military installations were the brain trusts of chemical and biological testing.

'Everybody got burned'

Like others subjected to World War II-era chemical tests, Mr. Wilcox, the former POW, said he was misled into thinking his government would protect him from harm, but in stead he was sworn to secrecy, cast off without any medical follow-up and forgotten about until recently.

Upon arrival at the test sites, the veterans said they were no longervolunteers, but under strict orders.

"We had absolute faith in our government," said Mr. Wilcox, now 67.

"When anybody got burned bad, they hauled them away, and we never heard from them again," Mr. Wilcox recalled. "Everybody got burned."

He said he suffers from respiratory congestion, skin rashes, a weakened immune system and other ailments. He is working with the Disabled American Veterans, a private group, and the Department of Veterans Affairs to obtain compensation for chemical injuries.

He has difficulty talking about his military days -- both his prisoner of war experience and the testing. "One is just as traumatic as the other."

But he says he is not bitter. "I consider myself a loyal American."

Other veterans, such as Nathan Schnurman of Charles City, Va., harbor more anger.

"I was used, abused, lied to and lied about," said Mr. Schnurman, 67, who "celebrated" the 50th anniversary of his first experimental exposure at Edgewood last Tuesday.

He received 100 percent disability compensation for his injuries after a 17-year battle with the government, and he continues to carry the flag for other test subjects.

His exposure to a mixture of mustard agent and Lewisite, an arsenic compound that also is a blistering chemical, seems among the more severe.

As a 17-year-old Navy seaman at the old Bainbridge Naval Training Center, near Port Deposit in Cecil County, he had volunteered to test new summer clothing. He soon found himself at an isolated section of Edgewood Arsenal.

Along with a handful of other subjects, he was told to put on protective gear from head to toe. Then he was led into a locking chamber.

"I'm being burned daily. . . . On the sixth [day], I was ill. I went to the small window on the big wooden door on the chamber. There was an intercom system. . . . I said, 'I've got to come out. Something's wrong with my suit or my mask.' "

A Navy corpsman running the test "came back on the intercom and said, 'No, you can't come out.' "

He passed out twice.

When he came to a second time, he was lying on a wooden table in one of the huts. His suit and mask had been removed.

"I'm throwing up violently. My eyes were burning. My nostrils were burning. I couldn't speak."

One of the test operators asked another if an ambulance should be called. "No," the other said. "Let's wait and see what happens to him."

Soon, they put him on a train to his home near Roanoke with just a tube of cream to treat blisters, some as large as his hand. He got pneumonia, expelled tremendous amounts of mucus and had hoarse speech. His mother fed him soup, but he couldn't tell her what had happened, just that he was in an "accident."

"I was threatened not to reveal this under the threat of a court martial. Everything was an order."

Health studies conflict

In the later years of the human testing program spearheaded by researchers at Edgewood, the Army insisted that concentrations the chemicals were controlled to prevent serious, long-term injury.

In the 1980s, the National Research Council released reports that reviewed the health of the nearly 7,000 soldiers who were chemical agent test subjects at Edgewood between 1955 and 1975. The council found that 90 percent of the subjects who responded to a questionnaire reported no health problems related to the exposures.

Still, researchers concluded that they did not have enough information to say definitively that some of the test subjects did not or would not suffer long-term or delayed effects.

In a 1980 study ordered by Congress, the Army Medical Department reviewed the health of many of the 741 subjects who submitted to LSD tests at Edgewood between 1955 and 1967. Researchers found that, as a group, there was no evidence that the subjects suffered long-term damage, but they added that some subjects "seem to have legitimate complaints" that should be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

Long-term health effects resulting from the World War II-era chemical tests are more clear.

In a comprehensive study released a year ago, the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine reviewed the early testing program that used 60,000 military personnel as subjects. About 4,000 received higher concentrations of mustard agent and Lewisite in chamber or field tests, sometimes without protective clothing.

Some experiments, the study found, "resulted in exposure levels as high as those reported on World War I battlefields." Many of the experiments, called "man-break" tests, were designed to see how long it took for subjects to be seriously injured.

The researchers found "causal" relationships between some of the exposures and 12 illnesses, including respiratory and skin cancers, leukemia, eye ailments, mood disorders and sexual dysfunction. The illnesses were added to seven others that the VA had recognized two years earlier, making some of the former subjects eligible for compensation.

In search of fairness

But today, the slow pace of compensation for World War II test subjects continues to breed discontent.

Just last week, the federal veterans department published proposed regulations to expand the compensation program. Officials say the rules won't be final until the fall.

"That's the way bureaucracy works," said Patricia E. Carrington, a special assistant to Jesse Brown, secretary of veterans affairs. She said she knows that some veterans find that unacceptable.

"We're looking for fairness," said Bernard E. Gisriel, 70. The Lutherville resident, along with thousands of young seamen from the Bainbridge Naval Training Center, volunteered for mustard agent tests at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington during the early 1940s.

Today, he continues to be treated for skin cancer, including some malignant lesions.

Mr. Gisriel and others are disturbed by Washington's current fixation on radiation testing, considering the government's "unfinished business" in helping the former chemical test subjects.

"The public thinks we are getting compensation and medical treatment. That's bull," said John W. Allen, 66, of Orefield, Pa. Mr. Allen also went through chamber tests at the Navy lab and said he suffers from numerous ailments.

"What they are waiting for is for all of us to die and forget about it."

Proud of Edgewood

For some who worked in the offices and laboratories at Edgewood and elsewhere, pride is very much alive. They say their research into chemicals and weaponry, despite human and monetary costs, warded off any enemy chemical attacks against U.S. forces since World War I.

"I'm still a very loyal and faithful chemical officer," said John G. Appel, 75, a retired major general who served 34 years in the Army.

Mr. Appel, who lives in Churchville near Bel Air, worked in intelligence and administration at Edgewood in the 1940s and later became the Army's top chemical officer at the Pentagon.

Asked how he felt about chemical tests with human subjects, he said, "I never worked with any of those programs. I know they did them. I thought it was honest research.

"They were using these people to learn. . . . I realize people make mistakes."

The 'executors'

After decades of denials, military officials at Edgewood and elsewhere acknowledge that some of the testing is a dark legacy. But, they add, the experiments were done in a far more hostile global environment than exists in the 1990s.

"What people were doing at the time . . . was what they thought was best for the country to try to defend against this horrific spectacle of chemical warfare," said Mickey Morales, a spokesman for Army's Chemical and Biological Defense Command, the successor of Edgewood's Chemical Warfare Service. "Their intentions were noble.

"The methods may not have been up to today's medical standards. I'm not saying that there were no mistakes made," he said.

"We were the executors" of the tests, he said. "These decisions were approved and directed from a higher headquarters."

But, by the Army's own admission, not all the experiments were sanctioned by the Pentagon.

In the Edgewood-Fort Hollabird LSD tests around 1960, for example, approval came from no higher than officials at the two installations, according to an Army inspector general's office report in 1976.

Today, although the United States has entered into an accord that bans the production of chemical weapons, what remains of the old Edgewood Arsenal and Aberdeen Proving Ground makes up Harford County's largest employer, with a regional economic impact in payroll and contracts of $1.4 billion a year.

The chemical command and related Army units -- using simulants, computers, small mammals and cultures such as rabbit sperm, instead of humans -- continue to search for better ways to defend against a chemical attack.

The Army is planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on environmental cleanup at the proving ground.

The entire Edgewood section has been classified as a Superfund toxic waste site.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
54°