Secret Tests May Have Harmed Over 2,000 Sailors

On April 7, DefenseWatch ran my article outlining the existence of a highly-classified Navy testing program called Project SHAD. In that article, I revealed that dramatic differences apparently exist between official published rules for the experiments carried out under Project SHAD, and what actually happened as narrated by several enlisted participants.

This article explores additional details that have emerged about the experiments and the ongoing Department of Defense (DoD) investigation into these events.

The experiments lumped together under Project SHAD were conducted over a period of several years during the early and mid-1960s, in Pacific locations near Hawaii and along the Atlantic coast. They were designed to determine the vulnerability to chemical and biological attack of ships, ship systems and shipboard personnel. The objective was to learn how chemical and biological warfare agents would disperse throughout a ship, and then to use that information to develop procedures for protecting personnel and shipboard decontamination.

At least initially, none of the experiments were designed to use live, potentially dangerous bacteria or chemicals. Instead, the designers proposed that traceable substances well known to be benign and harmless form the basis for these experiments.

What actually happened, however, is that the project designers moved the basis away from presumed biologically neutral markers and simulants to employ real biologically active bacteria and actual deadly toxins.

I’m not claiming that these guys were monsters who deliberately exposed unsuspecting sailors to such things. What appears to have happened is that the military bureaucracy played a significant role in the process. While it cannot be verified for certain right now, the initial test protocols probably mandated that all test subjects (read this as the crew members of all the affected ships) be outfitted with and trained in the operation and use of so-called NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) garb. These typically consisted of full-body, watertight coveralls with integral boots, gloves and hoods. They were designed to protect the wearer from any contact with whatever bad stuff was floating in the surrounding air or lurking on nearby surfaces.

It appears, however, that the bean counters decided the cost was too high, especially since the projected test materials were actually benign anyway. Consequently, the NBC garb never made it into the final protocols.

Parallel to this probable sequence of events, another set of project planners decided to take advantage of the fact that every participant with any risk of exposure would be adequately protected by the NBC garb. Since there really was no way to simulate the actual dispersal of active biological and chemical agents, and since absolutely no data had been collected on this subject, they must have decided to introduce the real stuff.

I suspect they had no idea the bean counters had, in the meantime, nixed the protective outerwear.

It appears, therefore, that the participating skippers received test protocols that made no mention of real biological contaminants or real toxic substances. Under these circumstances, especially in the military climate of the mid 1960s, the likely response of a Division Officer to a junior seaman’s question about what was happening would be to admonish him to follow orders and to send him back to the job at hand – which in this case was to collect air samples containing highly toxic, very dangerous biological and chemicals agents, and to do so with no protection of any kind.

Here are some of the substances employed in Project SHAD, according to information disclosed by the DoD, along with a brief description of their toxicity or biohazard compiled from information supplied by the VA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), or as listed on WebMD:

Biological Warfare Agent Simulants:

Bacillus globigii (BG), also known as B. licheniformis: Members of the genus Bacillus are spore-forming bacteria typically found in decaying organic matter, dust, soil, vegetables, and water. Anthrax is caused by a member of this species, Bacillus anthracis. The DoD apparently did not consider BG to be pathogenic, and selected it as a less infectious biological warfare agent to simulate Anthrax in the Project SHAD tests. BG is, however, associated with a number of opportunistic infections that would be expected to occur shortly after an exposure event, and it appears that these infections can lead to long-term health effects. Symptoms of BG infection include ocular infections, deep-seated soft tissue infections, and systemic infections, such as meningitis, endocarditis, osteomyelitis, and recurrent bacteremia.

E. coli: Common bacterium that has been studied intensively by geneticists because of its small genome size, normal lack of pathogenicity, and ease of growth in the laboratory. E. coli has been associated with food poisoning, diarrhea, urinary tract infection, and even Rheumatoid Arthritis. It doesn’t appear to have any long-term effects, except with its possible not-yet-understood association with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Serratia marcscens: One of several opportunistic pathogens, that causes infections of the skin, blood, wounds, and urinary and respiratory tracts. It doesn’t appear to have any long-term effects.

Biological Warfare Agents:

Coxiella burnetii (OU): Hosted by domestic animals like cats, sheep, cattle, goats, wild animals, and ticks, causes Q fever in humans. Humans normally can become infected after contact with contaminated feces or blood, by inhaling contaminated dust or droplets, or ingesting contaminated food or raw milk. Symptoms of the disease include fever, headache, muscle pains, arthralgia, and a dry, non-productive cough. Hepatitis or pneumonia also may develop during the early stages of the disease. In rare occurrences, Q fever can cause endocarditis and subsequent aortic heart valve complications. Generally, however, victims recover, even without treatment.

Pasteurella tularensis, also known as Francisella tularensis (UL): Causes the infectious disease tularemia, also known as rabbit fever, deer fly fever, or Ohara’s disease. Infected wild rabbits, other infected animals, ticks, or contaminated food or water transmit tularemia. The symptoms, high fever and severe constitutional distress, appear suddenly within 10 days of exposure. One (or more) ulcerating lesion develops at the infection site, usually the arm, eye, or mouth. The regional lymph nodes enlarge, suppurate, and drain. Pneumonia, meningitis, or perionitis may complicate the infection, whose mortality rate is about 6 percent.

Chemical Warfare Agents:

VX Nerve Agent: Six to ten milligrams of this substance absorbed through the skin or ten milligrams breathed into the lungs as an aerosol will kill. For reference, a grain of rice weighs about ten milligrams. VX is stable; it sticks to things as a slightly sticky, oily film. Its high toxicity and ability to remain on surfaces for a long time make this agent an excellent killing weapon.

GB Nerve Agent (Sarin): Requires about fifteen times the breathing dose and 200 times the skin dose of VX to be lethal. Sarin is very volatile so that it is most effective as a gas. This makes it excellent for use in enclosed areas like a large building or a subway.

Exposure to high doses of both GB and VX can result in widespread over-stimulation of muscles and nerves, and convulsions and death can occur. Limited evidence indicates that possible exposure levels of GB and VX during Project SHAD could have produced long-term health effects, including fatigue, headache, visual abnormalities, asthenia, shoulder stiffness, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and abnormalities on various psychomotor and EEG tests.

Chemical Warfare Agent Simulants:

Methyl acetoacetate: Listed with the FEMA as a toxic substance with a health hazard level of 2 (out of a possible 3).

Sulfur dioxide: Fatally toxic. Contact causes severe burns and blindness. Listed with the FEMA as a toxic substance with a health hazard level of 3 (out of a possible 3).

Tracer Material:

Zinc cadmium sulfide (ZnCdS): Used by DoD as a tracer material for studying potentially harmful particles dispersed in air. ZnCdS particles dispersed in air behave similarly to some biological agents. Since they fluoresce under ultraviolet light, they can be detected easily. ZnCdS is not acutely toxic when given orally, consistent with its low solubility and apparent lack of bioavailability. The particle size used in these tests could have been inhaled, however, and deposited in the deep lung. There are no data on the toxicity of inhaled ZnCdS, but toxicity data on cadmium, which is the most toxic component of ZnCdS, strongly indicate that inhaled ZnCdS causes lung cancer. The estimated upper-bound, lung-cancer risk ranges from less than one per million to 24 per million.

Bear in mind that all of these substances were used at one time or another on the unsuspecting crews of at least the following ships, according to the VA: USS Carpenter (DD-825), USS George Eastman (AG-39), USS Granville S. Hall (YAG-40), USS Hoel (DDG-13), USS Navarro (LPA-215), USS Power (DD-839), and USS Tioga County (LST-158). There may have been others, but this is the current list available according to declassified Navy documents. In addition to ships, I have identified five Army light tugs that were manned by Navy personnel during Project SHAD: LT-2080, LT- 2081, LT-2085, LT-2086 and LT-2087.

Using a 1960s-era edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships, it appears that the tests involved over 2,000 sailors serving aboard the seven ships and five tugs.

The DoD currently acknowledges several tests took place in the Southwest Pacific, and at least one in the Atlantic. The exact number of Project SHAD tests remains unavailable. The DoD has largely declassified and released information on six tests: Autumn Gold, Copper Head, Shady Grove, Eager Belle I, Eager Belle II and Scarlet Sage. DoD officials are currently researching other suspected Project SHAD tests referred to as Flower Drum, Night Train, Big Tom, Fearless Johnny, Half Note, Purple Sage, Red Beva, 68-50, 69-31 and 69-32. My private reports indicate there may have been other tests, including several more in the Atlantic.

The real tragedy of this scandal is not only that it happened in the first place, but that still living participants seem unable to get any assistance with their consequential ailments from either the VA or DoD. The stated reasons are that the information is classified and that its release would be detrimental to the country.

I have been in contact with the now retired executive officer of one of the vessels. He steadfastly refuses to divulge any information, citing documents he signed upon retirement that specifically prohibit him from any direct comment on anything related to Project SHAD.

While I respect his decision, I have serious doubts about the underlying official reasons for the nearly complete lack of any substantive information on Project SHAD. I can see no reason whatever for withholding information on who may have been exposed, and to what chemical or biological agents they may have been in contact with.

But information released to date strongly indicates that the Navy exposed a relatively large number of American fighting men to biological and chemical toxins, with potentially serious long-term effects, without their knowledge or consent. It also appears that DoD officials are stonewalling any serious effort to establish the facts and proffer appropriate relief and compensation to the unwitting victims.

It is time for an immediate in-depth effort by the highest-ranking DoD officials to bring this sorry chapter of Cold War military history to a close.

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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