U.S. Troops Tested By Race In Secret World War II Chemical Experiments
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As a young U.S. Army soldier during World War II, Rollins Edwards knew better than to refuse an assignment.
When officers led him and a dozen others into a wooden gas chamber and locked the door, he didn't complain. None of them did. Then, a mixture of mustard gas and a similar agent called lewisite was piped inside.
"It felt like you were on fire," recalls Edwards, now 93 years old. "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 were just, they were in bad shape."
About This Investigation
This is Part 1 of a two-part investigation on mustard gas testing conducted by the U.S. military during World War II. The second story in this report will examine the failures by the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide benefits to those injured by military mustard gas experiments.
Edwards was one of 60,000 enlisted men enrolled in a once-secret government program — formally declassified in 1993 — to test mustard gas and other chemical agents on American troops. But there was a specific reason he was chosen: Edwards is African-American.
"They said we were being tested to see what effect these gases would have on black skins," Edwards says.
An NPR investigation has found evidence that Edwards' experience was not unique. While the Pentagon admitted decades ago that it used American troops as test subjects in experiments with mustard gas, until now, officials have never spoken about the tests that grouped subjects by race.
For the first time, NPR tracked down some of the men used in the race-based experiments. And it wasn't just African-Americans. Japanese-Americans were used as test subjects, serving as proxies for the enemy so scientists could explore how mustard gas and other chemicals might affect Japanese troops. Puerto Rican soldiers were also singled out.
White enlisted men were used as scientific control groups. Their reactions were used to establish what was "normal," and then compared to the minority troops.
All of the World War II experiments with mustard gas were done in secret and weren't recorded on the subjects' official military records. Most do not have proof of what they went through. They received no follow-up health care or monitoring of any kind. And they were sworn to secrecy about the tests under threat of dishonorable discharge and military prison time, leaving some unable to receive adequate medical treatment for their injuries, because they couldn't tell doctors what happened to them.
Army Col. Steve Warren, director of press operations at the Pentagon, acknowledged NPR's findings and was quick to put distance between today's military and the World War II experiments.
"The first thing to be very clear about is that the Department of Defense does not conduct chemical weapons testing any longer," he says. "And I think we have probably come as far as any institution in America on race. ... So I think particularly for us in uniform, to hear and see something like this, it's stark. It's even a little bit jarring."
NPR shared the findings of this investigation with Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who sits on a House subcommittee for veterans affairs. She points to similarities between these tests and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, where U.S. government scientists withheld treatment from black sharecroppers in Alabama to observe the disease's progression.
"I'm angry. I'm very sad," Lee says. "I guess I shouldn't be shocked when you look at the syphilis studies and all the other very terrible experiments that have taken place as it relates to African-Americans and people of color. But I guess I'm still shocked that, here we go again."