As a young U.S. Army soldier during World War II, Rollins Edwards knew better than to refuse an assignment.
When officers led him and a dozen others into a wooden gas chamber and locked the door, he didn’t complain. None of them did. Then, a mixture of mustard gas and a similar agent called lewisite was piped inside.
“It felt like you were on fire,” recalls Edwards, now 93 years old. “Guys started screaming and hollering and trying to break out. And then some of the guys fainted. And finally they opened the door and let us out, and the guys were just, they were in bad shape.”
This is Part 1 of a two-part investigation on mustard gas testing conducted by the U.S. military during World War II. The second story in this report will examine the failures by the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide benefits to those injured by military mustard gas experiments.
Edwards was one of 60,000 enlisted men enrolled in a once-secret government program — formally declassified in 1993 — to test mustard gas and other chemical agents on American troops. But there was a specific reason he was chosen: Edwards is African-American.
“They said we were being tested to see what effect these gases would have on black skins,” Edwards says.
An NPR investigation has found evidence that Edwards’ experience was not unique. While the Pentagon admitted decades ago that it used American troops as test subjects in experiments with mustard gas, until now, officials have never spoken about the tests that grouped subjects by race.
For the first time, NPR tracked down some of the men used in the race-based experiments. And it wasn’t just African-Americans. Japanese-Americans were used as test subjects, serving as proxies for the enemy so scientists could explore how mustard gas and other chemicals might affect Japanese troops. Puerto Rican soldiers were also singled out…
The VA’s broken promise to those exposed to 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.
Charlie Cavell at his home in Virginia. He is one of 60,000 World War II veterans exposed to mustard gas as part of secret experiments by the U.S. military.
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.