Race-based experiment: Pentagon Mustard Gas

Published: June 23, 2015

Race-based experiment: Pentagon Mustard Gas, In secret chemical weapons experiments conducted during World War II, the U.S. military exposed thousands of American troops to mustard gas.

When those experiments were formally declassified in the 1990s, the Department of Veterans Affairs made two promises: to locate about 4,000 men who were used in the most extreme tests, and to compensate those who had permanent injuries.

But the VA didn’t uphold those promises, an NPR investigation has found.

NPR interviewed more than 40 living test subjects and family members, and they describe an unending cycle of appeals and denials as they struggled to get government benefits for mustard gas exposure. Some gave up out of frustration.

In more than 20 years, the VA attempted to reach just 610 of the men, with a single letter sent in the mail. Brad Flohr, a VA senior adviser for benefits, says the agency couldn’t find the rest, because military records of the experiments were incomplete.

“There was no identifying information,” he says. “No Social Security numbers, no addresses, no … way of identifying them. Although, we tried.”

Yet in just two months, an NPR research librarian located more than 1,200 of them, using the VA’s own list of test subjects and public records.

The mustard gas experiments were conducted at a time when American intelligence showed that enemy gas attacks were imminent. The tests evaluated protective equipment like gas masks and suits. They also compared the relative sensitivity of soldiers, including tests designed to look for racial difference.

The test subjects who are still alive are now in their 80s and 90s. Each year more of their stories die with them.

“We weren’t told what it was,” says Charlie Cavell, who was 19 when he volunteered for the program in exchange for two weeks’ vacation. “Until we actually got into the process of being in that room and realized, wait a minute, we can’t get out of here.”


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