Sailors Sprayed With Nerve Gas in Cold War Test, Pentagon Says
By THOM SHANKER with WILLIAM J. BROAD
WASHINGTON, May 23 —
Department sprayed live nerve and biological agents on ships and
sailors in cold war-era experiments to test the Navy's
vulnerability to toxic warfare, the Pentagon revealed today.
documents made public today showed that six tests were carried
out in the Pacific Ocean from 1964 to 1968. In the experiments,
nerve or chemical agents were sprayed on a variety of ships and
their crews to gauge how quickly the poisons could be detected
and how rapidly they would disperse, as well as to test the
effectiveness of protective gear and decontamination procedures
in use at the time.
Hundreds of sailors
exposed to the poisons in tests conducted in the 1960's could be
eligible for health care benefits, and the Department of
Veterans Affairs has already begun contacting those who
participated in some of the experiments, known as Project
Shipboard Hazard and Defense, or SHAD.
committed to helping every veteran who took part in these
tests," said Anthony J. Principi, the secretary of veterans
affairs. "If we find any medical problems or disabilities
we can attribute to Project SHAD, we'll ensure these veterans
receive the benefits they deserve."
Of the six tests,
three used sarin, a nerve agent, or VX, a nerve gas; one used
staphylococcal enterotoxin B, known as SEB, a biological toxin;
one used a simulant believed to be harmless but subsequently
found to be dangerous; and one used a nonpoisonous simulant.
a medical official in the office of the assistant secretary of
defense for health affairs, said it was unclear whether sailors
had been intentionally exposed to the germ and chemical agents
without the benefit of protective masks and gear. Also
uncertain, he said, was whether any had given their permission
to become human guinea pigs in medical experiments with the
"When you read
the overarching plans for the testing, people were to be
protected," he said in an interview. "But when we get
to individual reports, we do not see things like informed
consent or individual protection. We don't have the records for
what, if any, protection was given to people."
The implication, he
said, is that in some cases sailors may have been exposed to the
chemical and germ dangers.
Dr. Kilpatrick added, "the important thing now is that the
Defense Department and veterans affairs are cooperating for the
benefit of the veteran."
The Department of
Veterans Affairs has notified 622 of about 4,300 military
personnel, mostly from the Navy, identified as participants in
Project SHAD. The process of identifying the veterans who
participated in the program began in September 2000 under
pressure from Representative Mike Thompson, Democrat of
California, who was responding to claims by veterans that they
had suffered health damage from the tests.
information is significant since we now know that our military
personnel were exposed to sarin gas and VX nerve agent, which
are both highly lethal, and other agents that are known
carcinogens," Mr. Thompson said.
While noting that
the documents made public today by the Pentagon were the third
installment of fact sheets on Project SHAD, bringing to 12 the
number of tests that had been declassified, he demanded that the
Defense Department release additional information on the 113
secret SHAD tests believed to have been planned.
"It is only
fair to inform service members, some of whom may not even know
of their exposure, of the specific harmful agents used in SHAD
tests," Mr. Thompson said.
Leonard A. Cole, an
expert on biological weapons at Rutgers University who wrote
"Clouds of Secrecy," a book on the government's germ
testing program, said the new disclosures were troubling but
important because they add to a whole pool of knowledge about
what the military was doing," he said. "But they don't
shock me. We've known that the Army had exposed human subjects
to biological agents," though always with permission.
"If there was
no informed consent," Dr. Cole added, "that would be a
big deal. I know of no large-scale testing on human subjects
with chemical or biological weapons that was performed without
some level of informed consent."
A number of the SHAD
tests used harmless simulants that were meant to mimic and trace
the dissemination of real agents. But others used deadly
chemicals and germs.
One test, named
"Fearless Johnny," was carried out southwest of
Honolulu during August and September of 1965. The George
Eastman, a Navy cargo ship, was sprayed with VX nerve agent and
a simulant to "evaluate the magnitude of exterior and
interior contamination levels" under various conditions of
readiness, as well as study "the shipboard wash-down
system," according to the new documents.
VX gas, like all
nerve agents, penetrates the skin or lungs to disrupt the body's
nervous system and stop breathing. In small quantities, exposure
A 1964 test named
Flower Drum Phase I, conducted off the coast of Hawaii, sprayed
sarin and a chemical simulant onto the same ship and into its
ventilation system while the crew wore various levels of
protective gear. In phase 2 of the test, VX gas was sprayed onto
a barge to examine the ship's water wash-down system and other
decontamination measures, according to the documents.
Deseret Test Center Test 68-50, was intended to determine the
casualty levels from an F-4 Phantom jet spraying SEB, a
crippling germ toxin. The test was done in the Marshall Islands
in September and October of 1968. The jet sprayed the deadly
mist over part of Eniwetok Atoll and five Army light tugs, the
SEB, a report added,
"is not generally thought of as a lethal agent" but
instead as an incapacitating agent that can knock out people for
one or two weeks with fever, chills, headache and coughing. The
SEB came from a bacteria that causes a common type of food
Deseret Test Center
Test 69-32, done southwest of Hawaii from April to June 1969,
used two germs that were thought to be harmless, Serratia
marcescens and Escherichia coli, the germ of the human gut. But
Serratia marcescens in time turned out to be dangerous.
"It is an
opportunistic pathogen," the report said today,
"causing infections of the endocardium, blood, wounds, and
urinary and respiratory tracts."
The documents said
the Pacific test of the two germs, which were meant to simulate
dangerous biological agents, was meant to see how sunlight
influenced their survival. A military aircraft sprayed the germs
on five tugs, "each converted to serve as an oceangoing
sampling platform and laboratory," the documents said.