The Pentagon disclosed that it tested poisonous mustard gas on soldiers and grouped the test subjects by race in order to determine if there would be different responses based on skin color, according to National Public Radio. The tests were used to determine if African American, Japanese Americans, and Puerto Rican soldiers would respond to the gas differently than Caucasians.
The mustard gas experiments were performed secretly and were not recorded in the official records of the subjects. The subjects were also sworn to secrecy and were threatened with prison time and dishonorable discharge if they mentioned the experiments to anyone. As a result of the classified nature of this program, many of the soldiers were unable to receive treatment because they could not explain to their doctors what had happened to them, nor could they show any records of the experiments.
NPR located some of the 60,000 men that were used in these race-based tests. The white men were used to determine the normal parameters of the damage done by the gas, and these results were compared to the effects that it had on the skins of other racial groups.
Susan Smith, a historian at the University of Alberta in Canada, published an article in The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics. In the article she suggested that black and Puerto Rican troops were tested to find out which race would be an “ideal chemical soldier.” If a certain race was more resistant to chemical weapons they could be used on the front lines while white soldiers stayed back.
Rollins Edwards was a young U.S. Army soldier who was assigned to the experiments. In an NPR interview he recalled being locked in locked in a wooden gas chamber by Army officers. He said, “It felt like you were on fire…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.”
As reported by The Independent, the Pentagon made sure it was clear that experiments like these no longer occur in the modern military. Colonel Steve Warren, director of press operations at the Pentagon, confirmed NPR’s discoveries, saying, “The first thing to be very clear about is that the Department of Defense does not conduct chemical weapons testing any longer, and I think we have probably come as far as any institution in America on race. … So I think particularly for us in uniform, to hear and see something like this, it’s stark. It’s even a little bit jarring.”
The results of NPR’s investigation were shared with Representative Barbara Lee, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. She pointed out the similarity of these experiments with the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. She stated, “I’m angry. I’m very sad. I guess I shouldn’t be shocked when you look at the syphilis studies and all the other very terrible experiments that have taken place as it relates to African-Americans and people of color. But I guess I’m still shocked that, here we go again.”