US Navy tested mustard gas on its own sailors: In 1943 the Americans used humans in secret experiments. Patrick Cockburn in Washington reports on the survivors who bear the scars

FIFTY years ago, the US Navy locked 17-year-old Glenn Jenkins into a gas chamber within sight of the dome of the US Capitol in Washington. It then poisoned him with mustard and lewisite (arsenic) gas. He never recovered his good health.

Nathan Schnurman, another 17-year-old, was asked to test summer uniforms for the navy. 'I thought it meant a trip to Florida,' he says. Instead the Virginian, who had just completed his basic training, was taken to a small army encampment called Edgewood in Maryland, where he was issued with a gas mask and told that the experiment was really about how well navy equipment resisted poison gas.

He was locked in a small hut heated by a furnace and with a door that could be opened only from the outside. 'I looked up at the ceiling and saw dark yellow oily mist rolling in.' When something went wrong with his mask, he asked over the intercom to come out, but was refused. He vomited into his mask, passed out and had a heart attack, coming to later to discover that somebody had dragged him into the fresh air.

The plight of Mr Jenkins, Mr Schnurman and 2,500 other sailors who were used in what the navy called 'man break' experiments with poison gas, has remained a secret for five decades. Only last week, under pressure from the victims, did the Pentagon agree to let them tell their stories.

Throughout the Second World War the US and Britain feared Germany or Japan would use poison gas against them, and they wanted to develop better protective clothing and gas masks. Because tests using animals did not go well, researchers decided in 1942 to use human beings.

It was these experiments, the worst of which were at the Naval Research Laboratory in Anacostia in Washington and the Edgewood arsenal in Maryland, that got out of control. The US Army, with strong memories of the effects of mustard gas during the First World War, refused to let its men be used as guinea-pigs. The navy not only volunteered its own men, but for decades after the war also refused to compensate them for crippling injuries.

Constance Pechura of the Institute of Medicine told a congressional committee last week that official documents made clear that 'the end point of the gas-chamber experiments was tissue injury'. Mr Jenkins, who was locked in the Anacostia gas chamber, says that even now 'some of my neighbours just don't believe an American government would have done this to its own people'.

All the survivors, now in their late sixties, tell similar stories. Russell O'Berry, then a 17-year- old Virginian, says: 'After eight weeks at boot camp, an officer came to us and said by taking part in a secret experiment we could shorten the war. At 17 or 18, everybody is gung-ho, so we said yes.'

Mr O'Berry had a physical examination which he passed - the last time in his life he was able to do so. Only when he got to the Naval Research Laboratory in Anacostia did the officers tell him the experiment involved mustard gas. He says: 'Some of the men refused to go into the gas chamber and were given a direct order. We were told if we did not go through with it we would get 40 years in Fort Leavensworth in Kansas (the army prison).'

With nine others, Mr O'Berry was locked in a small dark room with a thick door, like a bank safe, that could be opened only from the outside. He did not see the gas being pumped into the room through a hole in the ceiling, but he felt it beginning to burn 'around my right eye, buttocks and genitals'. As the experiments continued 'I developed blisters as big as hen's eggs on my buttocks'. As the gas ate into his lungs, he developed a hacking cough.

The mustard gas was of the type first used by the Germans against the British at Ypres in France in 1917; in the First World War alone, it caused 400,000 casualties. The short-term disabling effects were severe skin blistering and damage to the eyes and respiratory tract. Victims died if the gas was heavily concentrated. What the US Navy ignored in its experiments in the 1940s was a series of studies of First World War gas casualties showing that they had also suffered serious long-term health damage. Lewisite, of later invention, also had catastrophic long- term effects.

The bitterness of the veterans who were used as guinea pigs at Anacostia and Edgewood stems from the refusal of the armed forces to acknowledge what had happened to them. Until 1991, they had to prove that their ailments were the result of poison gas, an almost impossible task. Many, who had been told that the Espionage Act would be used against them, did not even tell their doctors what had happened. Doctors at Saipan in the Pacific diagnosed Mr Jenkins as having tuberculosis until a doctor with experience of the First World War realised that his lungs were showing signs of mustard gas damage. Mr O'Berry returned to Richmond, went blind in one eye and, unable to get a better job, ran a sandwich bar.

The navy's own reports, entitled 'Chamber Tests with Human Subjects', dated 1943 and now declassified, are extraordinarily blase about the results of the experiments. They say: 'Occasionally there have been individuals or groups who did not co-operate fully. A short explanatory talk and if necessary a slight verbal 'dressing down' have always proved successful.' Surviving sailors say the 'dressing down' consisted of a threat of immediate court martial and 40 years in prison.

The experiments were for nothing. Mustard gas was used just once in the Second World War by the Allies, and then by accident. Fearing Hitler would use poison gas against advancing Allied troops in Italy in 1943, the US sent a liberty ship called the John Harvey, loaded with mustard gas bombs, to Bari harbour to retaliate if necessary. A surprise German air attack on 2 December sank the ship and mustard gas spread across the harbour. More than 1,000 civilians died. Winston Churchill, fearing that Germany would exploit the incident, purged all mention of mustard gas from British reports, and directed that casualties be attributed to 'enemy action'.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Games Developer - HTML5

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£26000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Product Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to on-going expansion, this leading provid...

Recruitment Genius: Shift Leaders - Front of House Staff - Full Time and Part Time

£6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a family ...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'