For the first time, the U.S. government is confirming that it conducted secret chemical experiments on World War II troops by grouping them according to race, NPR reports.
While Black, Japanese-American, and Puerto Rican soldiers were tested with mustard gas and lewisite, a similar chemical agent, White soldiers were often used as a control group. NPR tracked down troops forced to participate in the program, which remained classified until 1993.
U.S. Army soldier Rollins Edward recalled undergoing the experiment — the now 93-year-old told NPR he remembers walking into a wooden gas chamber with a dozen other soldiers, not knowing what to expect, finally experiencing the release of gas that made some of the troops faint, and feeling like he was on fire.
“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,” Edwards said.
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.
White troops who participated were only used to “establish what was normal” and then compare it to the minority troops, NPR writes.
While the U.S. government has not yet provided records that show the motivation behind the race-based experiments, a Canadian researcher published a 2008 article in The Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics that suggested minorities were tested in the search for an “ideal chemical soldier.”
If they were more resistant, they could be used on the front lines while white soldiers stayed back, protected from the gas.
The effects on any race were devastating. Exposure to mustard gas can cause burns and skin blisters and can lead to skin cancer, asthma and emphysema. Furthermore, mustard gas damages DNA shortly after exposure. Sadly, test troops were given no health care monitoring or follow-up care.
Edwards, like many of the 60,000 enrolled in the program, knew better than to go public with what they knew and what they were enduring. Via NPR:
“…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.
Edwards says that crawling through fields saturated with mustard gas day after day as a young soldier took a toll on his body. Rollins Edwards, who lives in Summerville, S.C., shows one of his many scars from exposure to mustard gas in World War II military experiments. More than 70 years after the exposure, his skin still falls off in flakes. For years, he carried around a jar full of the flakes to try to convince people of what happened to him. “It took all the skin off your hands. Your hands just rotted,” he says. He never refused or questioned the experiments as they were occurring. Defiance was unthinkable, he says, especially for black soldiers. “You do what they tell you to do and you ask no questions,” he says. Edwards constantly scratches at the skin on his arms and legs, which still break out in rashes in the places he was burned by chemical weapons more than 70 years ago. During outbreaks, his skin falls off in flakes that pile up on the floor. For years, he carried around a jar full of the flakes to try to convince people of what he went through.”
While the Pentagon has acknowledged the injustice done to soldiers of color during WWII, they have insisted chemical weapons testing was a thing of the past. Army Col. Steve Warren, the director of press operations at the Pentagon, told NPR that the Department of Defense has “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,” he said.
NPR is expected to soon release part two of the investigation on mustard gas testing carried out by the U.S. government. NPR, despite months of federal records requests, has not received documents related to the experiments, noting that most of what they gathered during their investigation was provided by living test subjects.