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Secrets at sea: Cloud of secrecy lifting on Dugway Navy's tests of germ and chemical agents in the Pacific during Vietnam War (reprint)

Editor's note: This story, originally published on Sunday, Oct. 22, 1995, is being reprinted online as reference to today's story by Lee Davidson regarding exposure to chemical and germ warfare testing.

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While the 1960s movie and TV series "The Wackiest Ship in the Army" poked fun at the idea of the Army sailing ships, the Army's Dugway Proving Ground and Fort Douglas actually had a secret navy to test germ and chemical arms in the Pacific.

Unlike the Hollywood comedies about World War II, Dugway's Vietnam War era work was deadly serious: — Their ships sailed through clouds of germ and chemical agents, and some sailors now blame cancer and other diseases they suffer on it — or on the mix of chemicals used for decontamination.

• While germ and chemical tests usually occurred in remote areas of the Pacific for safety and secrecy, at least one test was conducted in San Francisco Bay.

• Some of the ships had already been contaminated by radiation when used earlier as test ships during ocean nuclear bomb tests — which sailors also say may have sickened them.

• The ships also conducted tests designed to see if migratory birds could be infected far from an enemy's shores to later fly in and spread diseases — or whether examining birds from afar could show if enemies were working with deadly germs.

• One of the sailors says he was even sent into Laos and Cambodia to discharge germ and chemical weapons for tests — which, if true, likely violated treaties.

The story about Dugway's navy emerges from once-secret documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Deseret News and from interviews with sailors involved.

More documents, including some from a request specifically for data about any U.S. chemical and germ arms work in Cambodia and Laos, have not yet been released. The Pentagon has been reviewing them for months to determine if they will be declassified after they were identified by Dugway.


Documents said the Navy was worried about how to protect and decontaminate its ships in the event of chemical or germ attacks. So Army scientists in Utah assembled an ocean-based test project similar to trials conducted on land at Dugway for decades.

The at-sea testing was overseen by the Deseret Test Center — named for the Mormon pioneers' proposed-but-rejected name for the state of Utah — located at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City and later moved to Dugway Proving Ground.

Deseret's insignia showed it was not only an Army program but a joint operation with the Navy, Marines and Air Force.

Because Deseret Test Center oversaw the experiments, documents often call its overall testing program "Project Deseret."

Its small support navy was called "Project Shad." That was both an acronym for "Ship Habitation and Decontamination" studies and the name for small fish similar to herring.

The earliest at-sea testing mentioned in documents obtained occurred in 1956, and tests appear to have continued through the late 1960s.

For the experiments, Deseret Test Center obtained the use of two "liberty" ships, the mass-produced Merchant Marine cargo ships made during World War II. Tests also included five tug boats and the occasional use of submarines, jets, barges and assorted smaller vessels.

The idea, documents said, was to have various ships crisscross through germ and nerve agent clouds to collect information about exposure and decontamination. Crew members occupied protected spaces, and information was evaluated by on-board lab facilities.


The liberty ships selected — the Granville S. Hall (with call letters YAG40) and the George Eastman (YAG39) — were uniquely configured and had a dubious history before Project Shad.

They were rigged in the early '50s so they could be steered by remote control so they could be "driven through downwind radiation clouds resulting from atmospheric detonations of nuclear devices" near Eniwetok and Bikini atolls, according to Guy Willis of Tennessee, who wrote about his work on the Hall in the mid '50s for a newsletter, "The Navy Liberty Ship Sailor."

Willis wrote that the crew, which reboarded the ship only hours after passing through such clouds to wash it down, "experienced considerable radiation exposure," especially during long voyages back to the United States.

Despite the radiation exposure, the Hall and Eastman were included in Deseret Test Center's navy, possibly because of the remote steering capability or because of their rigging with cages for test animals and lab equipment that would be needed again.

Still, Frank Tetro, who sailed on the Hall between 1966 and 1968, said the Hall would set off alarms at Pearl Harbor that were designed to detect radiation leaks from nuclear submarines. "Once they found out it was us, they would let us come on in," he said.


Sailors selected for Project Shad operations had to obtain clearance to work with "secret" data and were sent to Dugway for special classified training.

Training outlines from 1962 show they were briefed on work with germs causing some of the deadliest diseases known to man, including tularemia, anthrax, parrot fever, Q fever, African swine fever, the plague and botulism.

Participants were also given numerous inoculations, although documents do not say specifically which ones, for such diseases.

Sailors also worked with nerve agents GB and VX — a small drop of which is deadly — and were taught how to protect themselves and use gas masks if accidents occurred.

They were trained how to prepare germ and chemical "agents" for spraying in field testing, how to perform autopsies on test animals, how to decontaminate areas with chlorine and other chemicals, and how to test for contamination.

Several training sessions were devoted to "safeguarding of classified information" — including its transmission, storage and destruction — and making clear participants were restricted to "need-to-know" information and were warned against "excess knowledge."


One of the ships' first tests occurred in San Francisco Bay in 1956 as part of "Operation Transit III," designed for "the assessment of the ship's protective defenses against a covert BW (biological warfare) attack."

In September 1956, plans called for a 40-foot munition boat to create clouds of bacillus globigii germs that the Eastman would travel through and then turn over its sampling devices to labs on the Hall for study.

Plans called for enough germs to ensure "a minimum respiratory dose of 10,000 organisms is received on deck."

Planners considered bacillus globigii a safe "simulant" of more dangerous germs, and the Army still uses it for some field testing.

However, Rutgers University political science professor Leonard Cole, who has written books on secret Army testing, notes that standard bacteriology textbooks warn the germ can cause serious infections to people who are already sick. And its spores can live literally for centuries before causing such infection.

Planning documents said later phases of Operation Transit III were to use the more dangerous serratia marcescens germ at open sea if the San Francisco test proved successful.


But the mere mention of a test series involving serratia and San Francisco raises eyebrows among some researchers because of mysterious serratia infections in San Francisco hospitals.

The first such infections occurred in 1950 days after, the military later admitted, it had sprayed serratia around San Francisco Bay. Such infections had never been seen there previously. One man died. His family later sued in 1981. The case made the early 1950 test widely known.

Doctors reported a later epidemic of serratia infections around San Francisco in the 1960s. John Mills, then a professor at the University of California Medical Center, wrote a paper questioning whether Army tests "could have seeded the Bay area" with the germs.

Mills, now at the Macfarlane Burnet Centre for Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, now doubts Army tests were related to the serratia outbreaks.

"Subsequently we were able to serotype some of the strains causing endocarditis (a heart infection) . . . and none of them were the same serotype used by the Army — (and) the latter information was not made available to us willingly! Therefore, the outbreak was unrelated to the Army's biological warfare testing," he told the Deseret News.


Documents show tests occurred for years with both chemical and biological agents, usually in remote areas of the Pacific.

As documents for "Operation Flower Drum Phase I" in 1964 said, "Isolation from shipping and air traffic lanes is required. Incidental presence of unidentified vessels and aircraft in this area (170 miles from Pearl Harbor) will be avoided."

One reason for that is the test spread 600 pounds of deadly, vaporized nerve agent GB (laced with radioactive particles to make it easier to trace) that had been flown to Hawaii from Utah. The remoteness provided safety and secrecy.

Virgil Hodges of Portland, Ore., who commanded five tug boats assigned to the Dugway navy, said during such tests, the tugs would often crisscross through clouds of agent while detection devices on board collected information.

"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 would then handle initial decontamination detail and the collection of dead test animals.

The range of such tests included dropping "20,000 gallons of BG (bacillus globigii) slurry" from helicopters and jets during Operation Autumn Gold in 1963 to working with nerve agents GB and VX and other tests where agents used remain "secret."

One test in 1965 involved a submarine. The USS Carbonero had bacillus globigii placed aboard to see if fumigation could decontaminate it.

The number of all such tests is unknown. Documents obtained by the Deseret News mention only a dozen or so trials. But a letter obtained by one of the sailors show hundreds are likely.

When Tetro, who sailed on the Granville Hall, requested help from former Sen. Steve Symms, R-Idaho, to prove that the testing may have caused diseases he suffered, Maj. Gen. L.J. Del Rosso, Army director of space and special weapons, wrote Symms in 1992 with a summary of some of Project Shad's activities.

Del Rosso said Project Shad ships "participated in some 111 tests" from January 1963 to September 1965 and used the nerve agents GB and VX and biological "simulants" bacillus globigii, Serratia marcescens and Escher-ichia coli.

However, Del Rosso's 1992 letter does not mention the tests as early as 1956 found by the Deseret News. It also does not mention other biological and germ tests it found planned for 1966 with "secret" agents flown from Utah. And Dugway historical records show it maintained a Pacific liaison office in Hawaii to help coordinate such tests through at least 1967 — after Del Rosso's letter suggests such work ceased.


Del Rosso's letter also does not mention a series of tests involving migratory birds — tests the Washington Post uncovered in 1985. The Post was most interested in disclosing that the Smithsonian Institution had participated in germ weapons research contrary to its non-military scientific mission.

The Post's story said the bird experiments occurred on the Granville Hall and were designed by Deseret Test Center. Those tests involved visiting many out-of-the-way islands and water routes to document which birds and other animals migrated there to help determine whether birds could be infected with germs before they migrated toward an enemy's borders.

Tetro says he remembers scientists shooting many birds and trying to get them to land on the deck of the Hall. He retrieved those that fell into the sea with a whaling boat.

He said he remembers the birds were often gutted and sent to the ship labs for study. Most of the remains were dried and sent back to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Richard Smith, Tetro's shipmate on the Hall, said he remembers hearing that scientists also studied the dead birds to determine whether the Soviet Union or other nations may have been experimenting with germ weapons — which could be shown through traces found in the birds.

The Washington Post said such migratory bird research continued through 1970, when funding disappeared after President Nixon renounced the use of chemical and biological arms. Nixon's action was prompted by a Dugway nerve gas accident that killed 6,000 sheep in Skull Valley.


Also not mentioned in Del Rosso's letter is a six-week assignment Tetro says he's reluctant to mention because it brings trouble whenever he does. But he says he was sent to spray chemical and germ weapons in Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War.

"We took canisters of them on gunboats up the river to test them. I set them off at predetermined locations." He said he had the understanding that other personnel would monitor and measure their effect.

The only monitoring devices he said his ship carried were some petri dishes on the deck.

The United States, however, had signed treaties agreeing not to use chemical and biological arms. For that reason, Tetro says former shipmates have warned him not to discuss it and said they won't either. He says he brings it up only to try to help prove for his VA disability claims that he was exposed to such agents.

Tetro said the mission required boats designed to go 50 miles per hour with the ability to skim on as little as 6 inches of water, powered by engines in both front and back. Only three of the special-mission boats were made, he said. Two of the boats and three-member crews were used in the operation.

Tetro also says he helped transport some special operations soldiers into Laos and Cambodia on the boats.

He said the spraying rig used would send the agent far from the ship — and that he and others wore no special protective clothing. "Dungarees, T-shirts, shower shoes and tank helmets were the uniform of the day," Tetro said.

Other Project Shad participants contacted by the Deseret News either said they had no knowledge of such an operation or said they would not discuss details of any specific operation because of vows of silence they had taken.

Smith, however, said when Tetro told him of the assignment in later years, he tried to find references to the boats he mentioned — and did find mention of their use in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and how they were loud but so fast the enemy often didn't have time to target them.

The Deseret News has requested documents that might verify Tetro's story about missions into Cambodia and Laos. Dugway identified documents that possibly respond to those missions and sent them to the Pentagon, which has had them under possible declassification review for months, following the Deseret News' Freedom of Information Act request for them.


By all accounts, Dugway's navy disbanded by the early 1970s — and sailors who had served with it "were given heavy-duty security debriefings and told never to talk about it. I am still under that commitment," said Jack Alderson of Ferndale, Calif., who commanded five tugboats assigned to the project.

Some sailors, however, began experiencing health problems that they blame on the tests. They have had trouble proving a connection or receiving disability payments because, in part, of military secrecy. (See accompanying story.)

Tetro, for example, said his service on the Hall is to blame for memory problems, boils, sores and incisions that will not heal, severe headaches and extreme sensitivity to chemicals.

Several others have reported skin cancer they believe might be related to the radiation on the boats, the chemical and germ weapons tested or the chemicals used for decontamination. They are still fighting to find out exactly what was used.

While they fight to ensure they are not forgotten or tossed aside — that is more or less what happened to their old ships.

For example, Tetro's wife, Ruth, found in research that the old Granville S. Hall had been sold as surplus in 1972 to a Japanese company that dissembled it as scrap. "I suppose some of the Japanese cars running around contain parts of it now," she said.

The tug boats attached to the project will soon be up for sale, too. Those last-remaining portions of Dugway's navy are now tied up on a pier at a naval operations center in Stockton, Calif. The warrant officer at the pier said he suspects they will go for scrap, too.

In the 1960s Frank Tetro, right, served on the Granville S. Hall, top which was used in tests of germ and chemical warfare. Crew members took a launch, right to a south Pacific beach for R&R.