WASHINGTON — The Pentagon finally officially acknowledged Thursday — seven years after the Deseret News first revealed it — that U.S. sailors were exposed to germ and chemical warfare agents in 1960s tests at sea that were ordered by Utah-based Army scientists.
"This is what we've been fighting for since 1994," said Jack Alderson of Ferndale, Calif., who was the officer in charge of five tug boats that participated in the tests. Like many sailors, he suffers from cancer he thinks may have been caused by them.
"We always wanted what we are now getting: names of people involved, agents used and cleanup chemicals used, and to have the health of people checked," he said.
He notes that is far different than early years — until a 1995 Deseret News story revealed the tests — when the military denied they ever occurred.
"I have a letter from Navy headquarters saying they never occurred. Early on, I had someone from the Pentagon tell me I was never there," he said.
Many such sailors have long been denied health and disability benefits for cancer and other illness that they blame on such agents because, until now, they could not prove their exposure through official channels to the Veterans Affairs Department.
For the first time, the Pentagon acknowledged Thursday that tests as part of "Project SHAD" did indeed "involve the use of actual chemical and biological warfare agents."
That 1960s project, designed mostly to test ship defenses against biological and chemical weapons, was designed by the Deseret Test Center. It was initially based at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City and later moved to Dugway Proving Ground.
Among agents that the Pentagon says were used are nerve agent VX (maybe the deadliest agent known to man, a tiny drop of which will kill), deadly nerve agent Sarin and illness-causing germs including staphylococcal enterotoxin and serratia marcescens.
In 1995, the Deseret News, using documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, revealed Project Shad and the use of those and other agents. SHAD stands for "Ship Habitation And Decontamination," and is also the name of a small fish.
Documents the Deseret News earlier obtained showed that people involved with the project were trained how to use germs that cause such diseases as anthrax, the plague, tularemia, parrot fever, Q-fever, African swine fever and botulism. Censored documents did not show which, if any, were used in actual tests.
The Pentagon said it is continuing to search records for other agents that may have been used. A written statement said that search "has been a slow process" because many records remain classified, are "poorly filed" and are about "events that occurred four decades ago."
The Pentagon said it started searching records after the V.A. in August 2000 asked for information to verify claims by SHAD veterans. The Pentagon said it has forwarded its findings.
It said that veterans who believe they were in SHAD tests and desire medical evaluations should call the V.A.'s Helpline at 1-800-749-8387. SHAD fact sheets are available online at: http://deploymentlink.osd.mil/current_issues/shad/shad_intro.shtml.
The Deseret News in 1995 reported how the V.A. had rejected disability and health claims of many SHAD sailors then — and how they said the military would not even officially acknowledge that SHAD existed until the Deseret News obtained documents about it.
Numerous veterans that the newspaper contacted seven years ago could not now be immediately located or contacted Friday, and some may no longer be alive.
But back in 1995, Frank Tetro of Eagle, Idaho, for example, had been fighting the V.A. for 13 years for disability benefits. Since serving as a young sailor in SHAD, he had suffered memory problems, severe headaches, boils, blisters and high sensitivity to chemicals.
Of note, the Army said, in information released Thursday, that the nerve agent Sarin, one of the agents used, can cause "permanent damage to the central nervous system."
Alderson said he has developed both skin cancer and prostate cancer he thinks may be related to the tests. But he's more worried about the men he once commanded in tug boats used in the test.
For example, 90 of them had planned to attend a reunion a year and a half ago.
"But only 23 were there, including wives. A lot called back and said their health wouldn't allow them to travel. They have a lot of respiratory problems, etc."
Alderson said it is important for the sailors and their doctors to know exactly what they faced.
Project SHAD essentially gave the Army and its scientists in Utah their own small navy for experiments conducted in such places as San Francisco Bay, near Hawaii and in the Marshall Islands.
It used two old "Liberty Ships," the mass-produced cargo ships built in World War II, called the USS Granville S. Hall and the USS George Eastman. It also used five tugboats specially equipped to measure exposure to chemical and germ agents.
Documents the Deseret News earlier found showed that the Hall and Eastman had also previously been used to steer through radiation clouds and measure them after atomic bomb tests at Eniwetok and Bikini atolls.
Sailors told the Deseret News the ships still had enough radioactivity years later to set off port alarms when they entered Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, causing officials there initially to think it was caused by leaks from nuclear submarines.
Deseret News documents show that SHAD tests began as early as 1956, although the Pentagon said it has been searching records now only for the period of 1963 to 1970.
In 1956, as part of "Operation Transit III," clouds of bacillus globigii germs were sprayed toward the Eastman as it sailed in San Francisco Bay. Monitoring equipment was transferred to the Hall for evaluation.
Planners then considered bacillus globigii as a safe "simulant" of more dangerous germs, but other scientists warn now that it can cause serious infections to people who are already sick. Of course, San Francisco Bay is in the middle of a heavily populated area.
Virgil Hodges of Portland, Ore., who was also a commander of Army tugboats used in some SHAD tests, explained in 1995 what they had been like.
"The crew stayed inside a citadel," which was airtight and pressurized, he said. "One crew member always stayed on deck, but he wore a full M-3 protective suit and breathed air that was pumped to him."
Documents show that the larger Liberty Ships also had "safety citadels" where crew members would retreat during testing. Crews in protective suits or masks would then handle initial decontamination and the collection of dead test animals.