Project SHAD: Lesson from a Secret Experiment

Autumn Gold, Eager Bell, Copper Head, Scarlet Sage, Shady Grove – these innocent-sounding names contain a sinister secret.

All six were experimental projects conducted in the early 1960s under the umbrella of Project SHAD: Shipboard Hazard and Defense. SHAD was part of the joint service chemical and biological warfare test program, whose tests were designed to “identify US warships’ vulnerabilities to attacks with chemical or biological warfare agents and to develop procedures to respond to such attacks while maintaining a war-fighting capability,” according to Deployment Link, the information disseminating branch of the Directorate of Deployment Health Support, itself a part of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs.

If you haven’t heard of it, don’t feel bad; neither has anyone else.

But as the Pentagon and other federal agencies race to develop defenses against the threat from chemical and biological warfare attacks, the emergence of a long-hidden military experimentation program – which used unwitting military servicemen as guinea pigs – offers a cautionary warning about the need for honesty and candor in the ongoing effort.

Project SHAD is classified. Nevertheless, under orders from the White House and pressured by the U.S. news media, the Department of Defense has declassified some – but not all project details.

The basic problem with these releases is that they contain only an outline of the specific project goals, and discuss briefly how these goals were approached. They contain no detailed information about the experiments, nor do they reference specific dates, exact locations, or personnel involved.

In researching the declassified documents, I have discovered dramatic differences between the published reports and the experiences of some of the personnel who actually participated in these experiments.

Perhaps the most significant discrepancy is the difference between the official report and the accounts of participants. For example, all the reports specifically state that degree of safety awareness and training preparation were high. As one report stated:

Participants should have been fully in formed of the details of each test. Before testing began, all persons involved in Autumn Gold should have received comprehensive biological and chemical agent training. Trial tests conducted before the actual test should have reinforced the training already received and ensured everyone involved knew their role in the test. The training program should have included training in the areas of using protective masks and clothing, medical training and immunizations, knowledge of chemical and biological agents and simulants, and knowledge of test procedures and processes. Under actual test conditions, test conductors should have worn appropriate nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) protective equipment and should have taken extensive safety precautions to prevent any adverse health effects from the testing.

A sailor aboard the destroyer USS Power (DD-839), on what the crew was told was a routine January 1965 cruise from Florida to Newfoundland, writes that no one had said to expect anything different. The crew loaded sealed crates aboard the vessel in Argentia, Newfoundland, but, he added, “We were never told what was in them.”

The sailor said that on four or five occasions during the next few weeks in the North Atlantic, an American military jet over flew the ship. Minutes later a mist descended. “Some of us were inside the ship,” another sailor recalled, “but most of us were outside when the stuff came down.”

Several sailors had been ordered on deck into the mist with pump-like devices to collect air samples. They talked among themselves, wondering what was happening. One sailor who asked what was going on, was told by his division officer: “Nothing. Nobody’s doing anything.”

Other discrepancies include the use of ships not named in the reports, ships in locations differing from those reported in the reports, and the inclusion of actual biological agents instead of simulants for part of the tests.

In May 2000, CBS News aired a two-part investigative report on Project SHAD. According to that report, aircraft would release a mist onto or near ships at sea, to determine the vulnerability of ships to biological or chemical warfare agents. CBS reported that Pentagon experts considered the live agents essentially harmless to people, but noted that later several of the substances used in SHAD were determined to be dangerous to the human respiratory system.

Based on this CBS report, several sailors submitted claims to the Department of Veterans Affairs, but the VA has had difficulty confirming the information they supplied, no thanks to the DoD’s piecemeal and spotty release of details of the experiments.

A subsequent article will examine in greater detail exactly what is known about these tests, and what possible remedies exist for the participants who suffered as a result.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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