Honor Betrayed: Chemical Veterans from World War II
(2/18/2005) UPDATE- The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is now giving specifics about what it will do for World War II veterans used in secret chemical warfare tests.
10 Investigates reported this week that thousands of WWII vets suffered injuries, physical and psychological, from the chemical warfare tests. Most have never been provided medical benefits.
Renee Szybala, director of the VA’s compensation and pension service says up to 60,00 veterans could now get benefits because of their chemical exposure during WWII. Szybala said the first letters will go out by the end of the month and notify 4,500 veterans, the first group identified by the U.S. Department of Defense as being eligible for the chemical exposure benefits. “This is a rolling out reach,” said Szybala. “We will be sending letters to everybody.”
The letters will go to veterans who had full body contact with mustard gas, lewisite and other chemical agents or veterans who had partial body contact with the chemicals. Szybala said a third letter will be sent to surviving spouses of veterans who have died and were exposed to the chemicals during their WWII service years. The basic compensation rates go from $400 to $2,200 a month, depending on the percentage of disability.
Vice Admiral Daniel L. Cooper (Ret.), Under Secretary for Benefits in the Department of Veterans Affairs also said a toll-free phone number will be set up so that veterans or veterans’ families can learn more about applying for the benefits. “We’re giving them a 1-800 number to call,” said Cooper. “We’re having them go into the hospitals and get checked. I think we’re thoroughly marching down a plan and that’s essentially where it is.”
Ohio Congressman Ted Strickland, (D) Lisbon, says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is finally keeping its promise to help the World War II veterans who were exposed to chemicals by the U.S. military. “It appears that they are taking this seriously and that they are beginning to take the steps necessary to communicate with these individuals who were used as experimental animals, basically,” said Rep. Strickland.
(2/14/2005) World War II (WWII) has been called ”the unfought chemical war.” Both sides produced millions of tons of chemical weapons and made massive preparations for their use, yet the weapons were never used. These preparations included secret research programs in the United States to develop better weapons and better methods of protecting against these weapons. By the time the war ended, 10 Investigates learned over 60,000 U.S. servicemen had been used as human subjects in this chemical defense research program. At least 4,000 of these subjects had participated in tests conducted with high concentrations of mustard agents or Lewisite in gas chambers or in field exercises over contaminated ground areas.
They volunteered to defend America. Instead, in a 10 Investigates review of declassified documents, thousands of World War II veterans became subjects for secret chemical warfare tests. It was one of the U.S. military’s darkest secrets and many Ohio soldiers were among those tested at an Army base in Maryland.
A vacant building at the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground is where some of the tests were conducted. It’s a faded reminder of what happened in the fall of 1943 on this portion of the Maryland facility known then as Edgewood Arsenal. “They said they had some experiments,” said 84-year-old Bill Biggs of Athens, Ohio. He was a private in the Army and one of the volunteers who didn’t know the true risks of the experiments until after they had been conducted. Biggs and 99 other members of the 1st Chemical Casual Company thought they were doing their patriotic duty. “We didn’t know exactly what we were getting into,” said Biggs.
That fall, the military herded several soldiers into sealed gas chambers at Edgewood Arsenal to test the effects of chemical warfare. Biggs said some of the chemical warfare experiments went too far. “But they should of stopped short of hurting somebody,” said Biggs. Biggs says he and some of the other volunteers were lucky. They were tested with a classified nerve gas that was meant to blur the enemy’s eyesight. It reduced Biggs pupils to pin-points. “And left them that way. Mine for 10 days,” said Biggs.
Other soldiers were tested with mustard agents (sulfur and nitrogen mustard) and Lewisite (an arsenic-containing agent) to see if the experimental clothes or skin lotions they wore could repel the chemical weapons. Mustard gas burns eyes and skin. It can cause permanent lung damage even cancer. “Those guys really had it tough,” said Biggs who grew concerned as the military kept raising the mustard gas concentrations to the point where they caused severe injuries to many of the volunteers. “When they found that out, it was too late for the guys that were in there last, or next to last,” said Biggs.
In Mansfield, James Earnshaw’s family didn’t know about the tests. Sworn to secrecy, Earnshaw couldn’t tell his family why he received a medal whose true purpose was even cut out of his letter of commendation. Released early from the Army, Earnshaw was denied medical benefits for a nervous breakdown he suffered shortly after the experiments. Earnshaw’s wife Mary Jo read to us the Army’s medical report on her husband. “ ‘Anxiety type manifested by sleeplessness, nervousness and mild depression.’ It was just too much for him,” said Mrs Earnshaw.
Sixty two years later, 10 Investigates learned the secret contents that had been clipped from of Earnshaw’s commendation letter. It commended Earnshaw and other members of the 1st Chemical Casual Company for subjecting themselves to “pain, discomfort and possible permanent injury” from exposure to “chemical agents.” Even so, the government denied Earnshaw’s request years later for medical benefits.
Jim Earnshaw died in 1997 from heart disease never knowing the military had finally admitted to the chemical warfare tests in 1991. Shortly afterwards, the VA promised to track down the victims, to get the word out. It didn’t happen. There were no letters, no phone calls from the VA. The VA only ran limited public service adsdescribing the benefits in veterans magazines that most veterans didn’t read. The medical benefits were finally there, but Earnshaw never knew about them. “I am sure that if he had known about it he would have probably asked,” says Earnshaw’s son Jim Earnshaw, Jr.
Dan Brock, Harvard University Medical Ethics Professor called the secrecy surrounding the tests a classic Catch-22, especially for the veterans who later suffered health consequences. “You’re sworn to secrecy and then when you come back that secrecy is used against you in order to keep you from being able to get compensation and simple benefits,” said Brock.
To further underscore the importance of
contacting the affected veterans the Institute of Medicine in 1993 was asked by the VA to conduct its own study on the WWII Chemical experiments and concluded; “The human subjects had experienced a wide range of exposures to mustard agents or Lewisite, from mild (a drop of agent on the arm in “patch” tests) to quite severe (repeated gas chamber trials, sometimes without protective clothing). All of the men in the chamber and field tests, and some of the men in the patch tests, were told at the time that they should never reveal the nature of the experiments. Almost to a man, they kept this secret for the next 40 or more years…. The lack of follow-up of these subjects particularly dismayed the committee for a number of reasons. For example, the end point of the chamber and field tests was tissue injury, but it was already known by 1933 that certain long-term health problems resulted from sulfur mustard exposure. Further, it was documented that numerous subjects suffered severe injuries that required up to a month of treatment. Finally, the exposure levels were sufficiently high that even the most efficient gas mask would have leaked enough mustard agent or Lewisite to cause inhalation and eye injuries.”
The Institute of Medicine study also noted the psychological effects associated with the chemical tests experienced by Earnshaw and other members of the 1st Chemical Casual Company. “Psychological disorders mood disorders anxiety disorders (including post-traumatic stress disorder) other traumatic stress disorder responses.”
In Washington, we asked the Department of Veteran’s Affairs what happened. Renee Szybala is director of the VA’s compensation and benefits service. “I’m fairly new to the VA,” said Szybala. “And I’m not well versed on what went on there. We’re more looking to the future.” Szybala explained that the VA was creating a new data base of potentially thousands of surviving WWII veterans who were exposed to chemicals or their surviving spouses. Once that task is done, Szybala says the VA will begin immediately contacting people by letter. That’s something Ohiocongressman Ted Strickland says should have happened long ago. “They promised several years ago to do something about this problem,” said Rep. Strickland. “They have done little or nothing to this point.”
The VA says this time it will notify the Veterans or their surviving spouses who are eligible for the benefits. “I’m hoping that it’s thousands that we’ll be able to reach. I’m hoping that it is,” said Szybala. Strickland, a member of the Veteran’s Affairs Committee, says until convinced otherwise, he’s doubtful. “To hear them say now that they’re going to correct this and do the right thing I just simply don’t think they’re telling the truth.” Last week, Rep. Strickland sent a letter to the Secretary of Veteran’s Affairsasking him to ” take action and give these veterans the benefits they rightfully deserve.” Szybala says this time it will happen. “I’m content with that. I mean we’ll convince him (Rep. Strickland) because this is going to happen.”
If it happens, Bill Biggs says he’d be convinced the country he volunteered to serve 60 years ago is finally willing to admit it made a mistake. “If you pay these veterans for damages they received for doing this test then you’re admitting that you over did it.” The Department of Veterans Affairs promised to have more details about its efforts to contactWWII veterans exposed to chemicals later this month.
The Detroit Free Press and U.S. Army historian Jeffrey Smart at Aberdeen Proving Ground contributed to this report.
For information about benefits, contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs toll free at 800-827-1000. The VA Web site is www.va.gov.
Make your Voice Heard
Ohio Congressman Ted Strickland: 202-225-5705
U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs: 202-225-3527
U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs: 202-224-9126