Hazardous Duty: The Pentagonís Secret Chemical Spraying
By William Triplett
DoD promised to investigate the program
that used servicemen as human guinea pigs without their
knowledge - In direct violation of U.S. law.
Shad exposed men in the Navy and Marine
Corps to biological agents, two of which simulate the
infectious profile of Anthrax.
To Homer Tack and R.J. Goin and about three hundred other
sailors aboard the USS "Power", the January 1965 cruise
from Florida to Newfoundland was supposed to be just another
routine port-of-call mission. "All the 22 years I was in the Navy,
weíd go to different ports and say here we are, this is the Navy,
that kind of thing," Goin said. "We did it all the time."
No one had said to expect anything different; and indeed, when
the destroyer put in to New York harbor along the way, visitors
came aboard and sailors went ashore as they normally did.
However, when the ship sailed into Argentsia, Newfoundland, the
only things waiting on the pier were several truckloads of sealed
boxes. The crew loaded them aboard. "But we were never told what
was in them," Goin said.
The "Power" then put out to sea, well into the miserable
cold of the North Atlantic winter. During the next few weeks--on
four and possibly more occasions--an American military jet flew
over the ship. Minutes later a mist descended. "Some of us were
inside the ship," Tack recalled, "but most of us were outside when
the stuff came down."
All Goin knew was that some sort of test was being conducted.
Heíd been ordered to go on deck into the mist with a pump-like
device that collected air samples. He believes that the device and
other similar equipment had been inside those boxes on the
Agentsia pier, but Goin canít say for sure. This much, however, he
knows: As instructed, he recorded the readings registered on the
deviceís gauges and turned over the data to the officer in charge.
Goin remembers collecting air samples two or three times.
Crewmen talked to each other about the mists, wondering what
exactly was happening. But no one had any information. Tack said
he asked the divisional officer what was going on and remembers
being told, "Nothing. Nobodyís doing anything."
Before the cruise ended in late February, Tack told several of
his shipmates that someday something would come out about what had
just happened to them. He didnít know when or what it would be,
but he was certain it would not be welcome news.
In May of 2000, 35 years after the cruise, CBS News proved Tack
right when the network aired a two-part investigative report on a
highly classified biological and chemical warfare program
conducted by the U.S. military in the 1960s. The program was known
as Shipboard Hazard and Defense, or SHAD. According to the news
report, SHAD exposed men in the Navy and Marine Corps to
substances including the allegedly benign and live chemical and
biological agents, two of which simulate the infectious profile of
The methods and means of exposure almost were always the same.
Aircraft would release a cloud or mist of agents that would
descend onto ships at sea or into their immediate, oncoming path.
Sometimes men were on deck; other times they were kept inside. The
ostensible purpose was to determine the vulnerability of ships to
biological warfare (BW) or chemical warfare (CW) agents.
At the time, Pentagon experts considered the live agents
essentially harmless to people. However, the news report noted
that several substances used in SHAD later were deemed dangerous,
particularly to the human respiratory system. Tack, who watched
the report in his home in Pennsylvania--and who had a cancerous
lung removed since his time in the Navy--called to his wife and
daughter to come see what was on television.
Goin happened to catch the report in Illinois, where he now
lives, and he remembered Tackís prediction. In the past three
years, Goin has suffered severe bouts of pneumonia, having once
been forced to go to a hospital in an ambulance. He admits his
smoking "probably has something to do with" the pneumonia. But he
wonders if cigarettes are the only contributing factor.
Unfortunately, he may have to keep wondering for a long time,
given the Department of Defenseís response--or lack of one, some
would argue--to the disclosure of Project SHAD. Despite a DoD
promise to investigate the full extent and implications of a
program that used servicemen as human guinea pigs without their
knowledge--in direct violation of U.S. law--veterans say that the
Pentagon has all but ignored their requests for help. Caught
somewhere in the middle is the Department of Veterans Affairs,
which must rely on a Pentagon reluctant to supply classified
records that would help confirm the validity of any claims.
Vietnam veterans will recognize a pattern of governmental
indifference and resistance reminiscent of treatment they received
on the issue of Agent Orange. Some may find it ironic that while
the government has been denouncing whoever is responsible for
threatening the lives of innocent people by putting anthrax spores
in the U.S. mail, veterans who had no idea their government was
exposing them to dangerous BW and CW substances are left in the
"Donít get me wrong," said Tack. "If they needed me for
Afghanistan, Iíd be the first to volunteer. But if Afghanistan
sprayed our ships like this, weíd be bombing them back into the
THE SHAD STORY
The story of SHAD--or at least the portion on which the
Pentagon has released information--is both simple and complicated.
Facts not in dispute are essentially these:
* The project ran from 1962 to about 1970 and involved about
113 separate tests, only three of which the Pentagon has publicly
* Though Marine Corps and Navy personnel were used along with
Navy ships and Air Force jets and pilots, the U.S. Armyís Deseret
Test Center (now Dugway Proving Ground) in Utah was in charge.
* Results of most tests remain classified.
The parties involved with the SHAD issue agree on very little
else, leaving a sea of concerns and contentions open to debate.
First and foremost has been the DoDís handling of SHAD since the
CBS News report in 2000.
The story of SHAD in general initially broke in an October 1995
newspaper article in the Salt Lake City "Deseret News".
That report, based on declassified documents obtained through the
Freedom of Information Act, outlined a massive BW-CW testing
program carried out on U.S. military ships at sea. But the article
did not mention the involvement of any unwitting personnel.
It focused instead on the secrecy of the program and on how
certain participants of the tests had been specially trained,
equipped, and briefed ahead of time about what would happen. The
veterans quoted had been sworn to secrecy about SHAD, but they
were now disclosing their participation because many had since
developed illnesses they suspect were related to the tests.
The CBS News report, however, zeroed in on veterans who claimed
they had not been told anything about being used in any BW-CW
tests. Pentagon officials immediately denied that anyone had been
exposed to any dangerous substances. In a written statement the
Pentagon also claimed that the men involved in the experiments
"were not test subjects, but test conductors." In other words, all
participants fully knew and understood what was happening.
To Eric Longabardi, who produced the report for CBS News, this
has been the cornerstone of DoDís response strategy--focus
attention on a comparatively small number of participants who were
told in advance about the experiments, while refusing to
acknowledge the possible thousands of men like Homer Tack and R.J.
Goin who had no idea of what was being done to them.
Still, DoD promised a full investigation. The task fell to the
Office of the Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of Defense
(Personnel and Readiness) for Gulf War Illnesses, OSAGWI. Until
then, OSAGWI was exclusively investigating the many illnesses
Persian Gulf war veterans have been suffering, commonly known as
Gulf War Syndrome.
Steve Robinson, a 20-year Army veteran who spent three years as
a research analyst with OSAGWI until retiring last October, said
the effort to gather information on SHAD began in earnest. The
OSAGWI investigators, he said, "werenít your typical analysts.
They were young and new to the organization, new to this task, and
they did a really good job of pulling together information."
They focused on three specific SHAD tests, code-named Shady
Grove, Autumn Gold, and Copper Head. "Initially we were told that
the thing we should be most concerned about was the
decontaminants," said Robinson, referring to substances that
sailors were given to clean themselves with after the tests. "Some
of them have since been identified as carcinogenic. But as we got
into it we found there were many other things these guys were
exposed to." That included sarin and tularemia, potentially lethal
chemicals and biological agents.
According to Robinson, the priority was to identify exposed
servicemen so that they could be alerted to seek VA medical
attention, if necessary, for possible service-connected illnesses.
From deck logs and other records, the team of investigators
compiled a list of about 1,200 men whoíd been aboard the ships
during the tests.
At this point, Robinson said, something happened. "Either the
VA or DoD didnít want to be responsible for releasing the list of
names because it would be a black eye for either agency." He said
superiors in OSAGWI then took over the investigation, but did
nothing with it.
OSAGWI publicly released the results of its investigation
September 13, two days after the terrorist attacks. Given the
mediaís almost exclusive focus on the attacks, very few articles
appeared on those results. Not that there was much to report:
OSAGWI had released three "Fact Sheets," essentially a bare-bones
outline of each test it had researched--Autumn Gold, Shady Grove,
and Copper Head.
The Fact Sheets gave the dates and locations of the three
tests. Shady Grove and Autumn Gold had occurred in the Pacific,
the first on the open seas and the second approximately 60 miles
from Hawaii. Copper Head, which Goin and Tack unwittingly
participated in, occurred in the North Atlantic winter because the
Army had wanted to determine the effects of cold weather on BW-CW
The sheets also listed some of the agents and decontaminants
that had been used in each test, but not all of them. Named in the
sheets were bacillus globigii (BG), coxiella burnetii, pasteurella
tularensis, zinc cadmium sulfide, and betapropriolactone. However,
a VA letter to agency doctors and clinicians dated almost one year
earlier stated that CW agents sarin and VX also were used. An
OSAGWI e-mail to VVA last October further revealed that
escherichia coli (EC), serratia marcescens (SM), and sodium
hydroxide were used.
As information on SHAD came out, DoD and OSAGWI officials have
maintained that the tests posed no health threats to those who
might have been exposed to any of the substances. For example, BG
was the most commonly used substance because it simulates the
dispersion characteristics of anthrax while possessing none of the
toxicity. But by the late 1980s, an Army biologist had warned
against continued spraying of BG because to say it was harmless
was "patently erroneous." OSAGWI, however, continues to describe
BG as "generally harmless."
The VA doesnít agree. In a letter to agency doctors and
clinicians, VA Under Secretary for Health Thomas Garthwaite noted
that while BG "is not normally considered to be pathogenic," it is
nonetheless "associated with a number of opportunistic
infections." Along with sarin, VX, and zinc cadmium sulfide, BG
exposure is considered by the VA to "represent the greatest health
The CBS News segment stated: "In large doses, and in rare
cases, BG and related bacteria can cause pneumonia, allergic
reactions, nausea and vomiting." The report quoted a former
medical corpsman from the USS "Power"--the ship involved in
Copper Head--saying that shortly after the spraying, the crew
experienced "an upsurge of upper respiratory tract infections,
colds, sore throats." The corpsman also said that since the tests,
he and other ex-crewmen have suffered a range of health problems,
such as chronic pneumonia, sterility, skin rashes, allergies, and
Similarly, SM is anything but harmless, according to Dr. Donald
Fox, who worked for the U.S. Army biological warfare program in
the mid-1950s. By then, the program knew that for mass
annihilation via biological warfare, anthrax was an unparalleled
weapon. Finding the best delivery system, though, was still in
question. The Army decided to try aerosol spraying from airplanes.
Like BG, SM was chosen because it, too, mimicked anthrax
dissemination but was not lethal. Or so the Army thought.
In the very early hours of one morning, military aircraft
blanketed a large portion of Washington, D.C., with a mist of SM.
The following day, investigators from Fort Detrick, home of the
Army BW program, scoured the city looking for trace evidence of
the bacterium. Fox said they found it everywhere. The Army thought
it had chalked up a successful secret experiment, until six months
later when SM-induced respiratory infections began springing up
all across Washington. Fox said "several deaths" were direct
results of the experiment, which remained secret for about twenty
The harmlessness of coxiella burnetii is also open to dispute.
Fox said Army strategists considered this agent to represent "a
more humane" form of biological warfare because Q Fever, which it
causes, does not usually kill people. By inducing blinding
headaches, fevers, and chills and effectively prostrating people
for three days, Q Fever incapacitates an enemy long enough for an
attacking force to gain control of targeted territory without much
"Itís much less likely to cause death than anthrax," said Fox,
but it can cause violent, if temporary, illness.
Tularemia, caused by the bacteria pasteurella tularensis, which
was used in Shady Grove, "is not as potent as anthrax or smallpox,
but itís not as benign as Q Fever," said Fox. For example, it is
directly related to plague. "If treated early, most often people
exposed to tularemia have a favorable outcome," said Fox. But, he
pointed out, the Army BW program eventually discarded both
tularemia and another of its cousins, brucellosis, "because itís
very easy for people handling them to come down with the disease.
Thereís no real vaccine or ability to protect your own people."
As for sarin, an extremely potent chemical nerve agent that is
fatal in high doses, very little is needed to compromise the human
nervous system. The National Academy of Scienceís Institute of
Medicine concluded that there is suggestive evidence of long-term
health damage from sarin exposure, including fatigue, headache,
visual disturbances, asthenia, shoulder stiffness, and symptoms of
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
Fox said that not everyone exposed to a particular agent will
always develop the associated disease. "There are certain rules of
infection that determine whether someone comes down with a
disease, and it varies from person to person." The variables
include the virulence of the agent, the amount of the agent youíre
using, and whether youíre introducing it into the body through the
blood, lungs or skin. Perhaps most important is the resistance of
the victim. "A vigorous, healthy 22-year-old can obviously resist
lot more than can a 94-year-old woman," he noted.
A normally healthy person, however, can be more susceptible to
certain infections if, at the time of exposure, he or she is on
resistance-lowering drugs, or if the immune system has been
compromised in any way. The only way to be sure that no one in
SHAD experienced any ill effects from exposure would have been to
do follow-up studies. However, both groups of SHAD veterans--those
who knew in advance what was going to happen and those who had no
idea--say they never received any follow-up.
They still havenít. Neither OSAGWI nor the VA has made any move
toward notifying the 1,200 veterans they know participated in
SHAD--most of them unwittingly--that they should have a complete
evaluation of their health done.
Next: Why havenít SHAD veterans been notified? Has the
government been as forthcoming as it claims? OSAGWI and the VA
Veterans who served on the following ships or in the following
capacities during the specified periods should contact the VA
Health Benefits Service Center, toll free, at 877-222-VETS for a
medical evaluation or health risk assessment.
Operation Shady Grove--January 22 through April 9, 1965
USS "Granville S. Hall"; Army light tugs 2080, 2081,
2085, 2086 and 2087; Marine Air Group 13 and First Marine Brigade.
Operation Autumn Gold--May 3-31, 1963
USS "Navarro", USS "Tioga County", USS
"Carpenter", USS "Hoel", USS "Granville S. Hall";
Marine Air Group 13 and First Marine Brigade.
Operation Copper Head--January 24 through February 25, 1965 USS