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‘On This Day’ 2000: Project SHAD Revealed– US Military Intentionally Sprayed Deadly Chemicals On Unwitting Sailors

On May 12, 2000, the CBS Evening News revealed the existence of Project SHAD, a series of 1960s and 1970s US military experiments in which more than a dozen Navy ships and their personnel were sprayed with various chemical and biological agents, some of them among the deadliest substances known to man.

SHAD, which stood for Shipboard Hazard And Defense, consisted of 113 separate tests on between 11 and 14 ships involving personnel from the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. The purpose of SHAD was to study shipboard dispersal patterns of chemical and biological weapons and to learn how to protect and decontaminate ships and sailors in the event of an enemy attack using such weapons. The Pentagon decided that the best way to study this was by unleashing those same weapons on its own ships.

Robert Bates, an electrician aboard the USS Navarro, remembers a strange man in a chemical-biological suit aboard a 1963 cruise to Hawaii. There were rumors of a project called Autumn Gold that involved airplanes spraying the Navarro. But spraying them with what?

Bates soon developed pneumonia. He then began suffering from severe eye pain. Breathing grew difficult. His testicles swelled up to the size of softballs, leaving him unable to walk. The sailor filed a claim with the Department of Veteran Affairs, mentioning Autumn Gold, but he was told that there was no such thing. His claim was denied.

James Druckemiller was a medical corpsman aboard the USS Power at the same time Bates was serving on the Navarro. After the Power was sprayed nine times with a mysterious misty substance, Druckemiller started getting sick. He had to have lesions removed from his head and his foot, then he was hospitalized with bacterial pneumonia and chronic respiratory illness.

Druckemiller was far from the only sailor on his ship to experience severe health problems as a result of the aerial spraying: cysts, scarred lungs, sterility, chronic pneumonia, allergies, and heart, skin and kidney problems plague the men who served aboard the Power. These sailors strongly suspected something was terribly amiss but they didn’t ask too many questions.

“The old school of thought was yours wasn’t to reason why, but to do or die,” Druckemiller explained to CBS News.

And die he nearly did: eventually he suffered a massive congestive heart failure that landed him in intensive care.  Druckemiller got to talking to a fellow Power sailor, a senior corpsman who was also suffering from heart problems. This man also had to endure an emergency kidney bypass, five multiple-bypass surgeries and was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. The ex-shipmates found it very strange that they were both suffering from the same severe heart problems.

Druckemiller went to the VA; they told him the chemicals sprayed over his ship were harmless and his benefits would be denied. Hundreds of ex-sailors were developing terrible illnesses and nobody wanted to give them any answers, let alone any relief from their suffering.

Then, thanks to Congresswoman Jolene Unsoeld (D-WA), in 1993 Robert Bates received a copy of a military report that mentioned the supposedly non-existent Project Autumn Gold. The only problem was that the report was devoid of any operational details. Bates then approached independent journalist Eric Longabardi, who found the ‘smoking gun’– actual film of an Autumn Gold test. This was one year after Pentagon officials told the VA that they had no information regarding Autumn Gold. By 1998, however, it admitted there were fifteen bound volumes on the secret project.

But the most important find of all, “the smoking, smoking gun,” according to Longabardi, was an Autumn Gold document referring to those men in protective suits as the “control group” and the ship’s crew as “test subjects.”

SHAD ironically ended up harming the very sailors the Navy was purportedly trying to protect. Two of the substances sprayed over American sailors by American airmen were sarin, the nerve gas that killed a dozen people in the 1995 Tokyo subway attack, and VX nerve gas, which the Pentagon calls “one of the most toxic substances ever synthesized.” Just one drop of VX could kill a human being.

Other dangerous agents sprayed over ships during SHAD tests included: francisello tularensis, which causes ulcerating lesions and enlarged, draining lymph nodes; coxiella burnetti, which causes potentially fatal Q fever, E coli; zinc cadmium sulfide (which was also tested inside an unwitting Minneapolis elementary school, with devastating effects), which is toxic to kidneys and bones and causes lung cancer; and serratia marcescnes, which causes pneumonia.

It wasn’t the first time that the Pentagon had unleashed serratia against unsuspecting victims. For six days in 1950 the Army sprayed a massive cloud of serratia particles over San Francisco that dispersed in the wind and spread throughout the Bay Area. Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed. They soon began showing up at local hospitals with serious infections, and at least one person died. A similar experiment took place in Washington DC, where several deaths were reported.

Throughout the whole ordeal, even as the truth gradually came to light, Pentagon officials insisted that the sailors “were not exposed to any harmful chemical and biological compound,” and that all of them “were fully informed about the details of each test.” Tell that to the sailors involved, many of whom have died or are dying from SHAD-related exposure to deadly toxins, and they vehemently disagree.

“We weren’t given any information,” Robert Bates told CBS News, “we didn’t know anything.”

Senator Max Cleland (D-GA), former chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was outraged at this lack of informed consent.

“Do you find it the height of irony, as I do,” he asked, “that we’re going after Saddam Hussein because he possesses the very weapons that we possess and possessed in those days and used them on our own people, our own veterans, without their knowledge?”

The National Academy of Sciences investigated SHAD and in 1991 penned a scathing critique of both the Department of Defense and the VA. “There can be no question,” the report somberly assessed, “that some veterans, who served our country with honor and at great personal cost, were mistreated twice. First, in the secret testing, and second, by the official denials that lasted for decades.”

To this day, the VA has refused to adequately care for SHAD victims, men who dutifully served their country while their government sprayed them with toxic chemicals and then turned its back on them.

The Defense Department did belatedly conducted a thorough investigation and released a frank assessment of SHAD, which included a list of all the deadly and dangerous chemical and biological agents employed in the tests. The Pentagon report was released on September 13, 2001. The nation’s attention was understandably focused elsewhere.

The Pentagon’s website now mentions Project SHAD but falsely claims that “there is no clear evidence of specific, long-term health problems associated with participation” in the tests.

Rick Weidman, director of government relations at Vietnam Veterans of America, says US veterans suffering as a result of the secret tests deserve better treatment.

“The Department of Defense continues to withhold the evidence needed by these veterans to meet the burden of proof that VA requires for care and compensation,” said Weidman. “It is unconscionable for the Department of Defense to treat SHAD veterans this way. Every day that [the Pentagon] delays the release of the truth is another day that SHAD veterans are denied proper health care and benefits.”

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3 Comments

  1. John k ConnollyFebruary 12, 2014 at 7:03 pmReply

    My ship was sprayed with this stuff when I was stationed on it

    • Brett WilkinsFebruary 12, 2014 at 11:15 pmReplyAuthor

      Sorry to hear that. Which ship? When?

      • John k connollyJune 7, 2015 at 8:19 pmReply

        Uss fort Snelling lsd30 1970—-1972

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