Veterans kept the military's secret, some until death 

After chemical tests revealed, redress promised

November 11, 2004

BY DAVID ZEMAN
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Al Felgendreger entered World War II an anonymous Army grunt. He exited a war hero, gaining three Bronze Stars in the Pacific.

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  • ZENON SIEPKOWSKI:
    Decorated vet gets no benefits
    A Chicago Army recruit, Zenon Siepkowski won a Purple Heart and Bronze Star while fighting in Europe. He died in 1999 from respiratory failure after years of battling leukemia, both of which have been linked to chemical testing. He never sought benefits from the VA and the government never contacted him.

    After he died, his family asked the VA to help pay for his burial. The VA refused, saying Siepkowski was "not ... entitled to disability compensation" when he died. "We never followed up on that," said his son Richard Siepkowski, "because it just wasn't worth it."

    FRANK CAVANAGH:
    Lifetime of secret battles
    A junior at Yale when he entered the Army, Frank Cavanagh suffered mustard burns on his scalp, neck and hands in Edgewood's chemical testing chambers, before commanding a chemical mortar unit in the Pacific.

    He died Jan. 2, 2002, in a West Palm Beach, Fla., hospital after a 30-year battle with squamous-cell skin cancer on his scalp, neck, ears, face and torso. He refused to file a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs, even though he "was constantly having things cut off and burned off," said Carol Hickman, his daughter.

    "I said to him, 'I'm sure you can go to the VA,' " Hickman said. "He wouldn't even discuss it."

    After his death, she found a military roster from Edgewood among his belongings. She searched for the soldier listed below her father's name, a search that took her to back to Yale, where that soldier, William Chupka, is now a professor emeritus.

    Three weeks after burying her dad, the professor told Hickman about her father's sacrifice in 1943, and she finally learned the story of Edgewood.

    ALBERT JASUTA:
    He cataloged testing program
    One of six Army recruits from the University of Scranton who volunteered for testing, Albert Jasuta was treated in his final years for cataracts and pulmonary fibrosis (lung scarring) that left him short of breath and coughing to clear his lungs.

    He was hospitalized with acute myelogenous leukemia in 2000, suffered a stroke and died.

    Afterward, his daughter Jill was sorting through papers at his home near Philadelphia and discovered a cache filled with military secrets. For years, he had quietly saved scraps of articles and government studies on the WWII testing program, underlining passages on diseases that matched his own.

    "See what happens when one has been involved with Army poison gases ..." he wrote seven weeks before his death.

    Friendly and bright, Felgendreger returned to Philadelphia after the war to embrace his new wife and his own lofty ambitions.

    His life was busy, secure, overflowing with promise.

    And then, suddenly, it was not.

    In 1955, Felgendreger suffered what his wife Eleanore characterizes as a nervous breakdown. The outgoing chemist was now depressed, sluggish, and reluctant to leave home. There were times when he drank too much. He asked his pastor to care for his wife and three children if something happened to him. He spent two months in a hospital.

    "I've always wondered," Eleanore says now, "if those tests could have caused that."

    The tests that haunt Eleanore Felgendreger do not appear in her husband's Army records. Like thousands of World War II soldiers and sailors, Felgendreger's work as a human guinea pig was omitted from his file. In the autumn of 1943, he served in the 1st Chemical Casual Company, a unit exposed to mustard agent and other poisons in the gas chambers of Maryland's Edgewood Arsenal -- tests that would stalk some men, physically and psychologically, until their deaths.

    Tests they were forbidden to discuss.

    With the help of a psychiatrist, Felgendreger eventually regained his footing and returned to work.

    But he never discussed his breakdown again.

    Best and the brightest

    If ever an Army unit was poised for excellence, it was the 1st Chemical Casual Company.

    Mostly young science buffs, the soldiers of 1st Chemical had been culled from science programs across the country for chemical warfare training. But they soon learned that their value to the Army was more as lab rats than lab scientists.

    They were shipped to Edgewood and herded into chambers to test how long uniforms, ointments and gas masks could withstand chemicals that might be unleashed in combat. When the experiments ended two months later, some, like Felgendreger, would gain Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts overseas, or embark on estimable careers in science, medicine or academia.

    Their ranks included Ivy League professors, computer pioneers, chemists at Fortune 500 firms, a Guggenheim Fellow, and another fellow who pursued the life of a pastry chef.

    Scanning the resumes, one might assume Edgewood was but a brief interlude in a soldier's life -- distasteful, perhaps, but long since forgotten.

    Yet many soldiers quietly took Edgewood to their graves. Sworn to secrecy, or just plain stoic, the men of 1st Chemical rarely spoke of the harrowing experiments at the Maryland camp -- not to their families, and not to their doctors, even as they succumbed to diseases they traced to Edgewood. Decades later, no one can say for sure whether Felgendreger's collapse also was linked to those chambers. What is known is that, for many of these men, the silence that surrounded the project began to feel like a prison, one that separated them from their wives and children, one they felt they could never escape. In 1983 -- 40 years after the chamber tests -- Lee Landauer of suburban Baltimore began treatment for skin cancer that still bedevils him. His elderly mother delicately broached the subject of his service. What, she asked, really happened at Edgewood?

    "Nothing I can tell you," the ex-platoon sergeant said.

    And that was that.

    Some families learned of the chambers and their psychological hold on the soldiers only after the men died. They would be sorting through papers left by the men and discover a journal or note that betrayed a well-guarded despair.

    "See what happens when one has been involved with Army poison gasses?" Albert Jasuta, a veteran with leukemia and lung disease wrote, seven weeks before his death.

    To be sure, of the scores of soldiers from 1st Chemical interviewed for this article, several spoke favorably of their work at Edgewood and defended the military's decision to expose at least 4,000 soldiers and sailors to dangerous levels of toxins in chamber and field tests. Germany and Japan had used chemical and biological weapons in the past, they noted. The United States had a duty to protect its troops, to learn all it could about how mustard might spread along the front lines of Europe, or the tropics of the Pacific.

    "We were going against Hitler!" said Brooklyn recruit Abe Hedaya, pausing to let his point register. "He was crazy, and we had to get him!"

    Whatever the program's merits, this much is certain: Pentagon officials lured young recruits from boot camp with the promise of furloughs, then bullied them if they tried to back out. They misled the men about the health risks involved, then denied the tests ever took place. For nearly 50 years, the secret held.

    Even as some men faltered.

    Worse than combat

    For many relatives, the soldier who marched off to Edgewood in '43 was different from the one who returned after the war. Of course, that is generally true of soldiers in all conflicts; war changes those who fight it. But something about the experiences of the chemical volunteers in sealed chambers, and their inability to talk about their experiences, transformed them in ways even combat never would.

    Pvt. Francis Earnshaw Jr., a lanky blond chemical engineering student from West Virginia, saw his military career collapse one afternoon in November 1943, a few weeks after he left the chemical testing at Edgewood and returned to boot camp at Camp Sibert, Ala. As his company drilled that day, Earnshaw was overcome with anxiety and laid down in the field, unable to move until other soldiers carried him to bed. When Camp Sibert doctors saw him later, Earnshaw's lip quivered and he fought back tears. He'd been having headaches, he said, brought on by "nerves." He was hospitalized for a month.

    "He does not have enough confidence to feel that he will be able to adjust," an Army psychiatrist wrote. "Diagnosis: Psychoneurosis, anxiety type, manifested by sleeplessness, nervousness and mild depression."

    Earnshaw's records are typical of ailing chemical soldiers in that they make almost no reference to the experiments that preceded his hospitalization. From his file, it is unclear whether Earnshaw even told doctors he had taken part in chemical tests. This was not unusual. Even doctors stationed at Edgewood during the war were often not told what chemicals had injured their patients.

    Earnshaw received an honorable discharge in December 1943. Yet even though he was released on medical grounds, the government denied his claim for disability, ruling that his nervous condition was unrelated to his military service.

    He died of a heart attack in 1997, having never discussed Edgewood with Mary Jo, his wife of 50 years.

    Not every soldier's life ended badly -- far from it. For many in the unit, the postwar years were marked by academic success and staggering career advancement.

    After his war service, Bill Chupka left the coal country of eastern Pennsylvania for a classical education at the University of Chicago. One of his Sigma Chi fraternity brothers was Howard Hoffman, a former chamber mate at Edgewood, who later became a professor at Bryn Mawr.

    Fraternity life, as Chupka tells it, was more "Masterpiece Theatre" than "Animal House."

    "The evening conversations were very civilized arguments more typically centered on Socrates, Plato, Aristotle ... Nietzsche, Einstein, national politics and other serious affairs," Chupka, now professor emeritus of chemistry at Yale and a former Guggenheim Fellow, recalled in an e-mail. "The music was exclusively classical and opera."

    Other soldiers flourished as well. Walter Butinsky became patent counsel for Eli Lilly and Company. Roy Wiig was a pioneer in computer program development at IBM. John Hogan returned to Bountiful, Utah, as a family doctor. Thomas Mullen was an engineer at B.F. Goodrich. Cason Callaway Jr. became a respected businessman and philanthropist in Pine Mountain, Ga.

    The veterans of 1st Chemical grew comfortably into middle age, gradually putting their war service behind them, or so they thought.

    Cold War changes

    As the Cold War shifted the focus of military research, Edgewood also evolved.

    From 1950 well into the 1970s, Edgewood scientists -- concerned that the communists were developing truth serums -- began their own research into mind control. They began testing the effects of LSD and other hallucinogens on U.S. servicemen and civilians, often without their consent. It was not until the early 1970s that the military's treatment of its servicemen was seriously scrutinized as evidence also emerged that Americans were being mistreated in a variety government research -- from bacteria injected into children at an Ohio orphanage; to radiation exposure on prison inmates; to the Tuskegee Experiment, in which government researchers declined to treat 400 impoverished black men for syphilis so the scientists could monitor the course of the illness.

    Like the World War II chemical program before them, the studies marked an unsettling shift in scientific research. With each new experiment, wrote medical ethicist David Rothman, clinical investigations were being designed "to benefit not the research subjects, but others."

    Yet while dozens of government abuses were exposed, the World War II chemical tests remained shrouded in the decades-old vow of secrecy.

    In the 1970s, a few Army and Navy veterans claimed illnesses they traced to chemical testing. But one by one, the Defense Department thwarted the claims by simply denying the experiments took place.

    Most veterans accepted the rejections and faded away.

    Nat Schnurman plowed on.

    Finally, some answers

    Schnurman, who lives on a bluff above the James River outside Richmond, Va., was sitting with his wife in his doctor's office one day in 1975, wondering why his body seemed to be breaking down at age 50. He had lung disease, hearing loss and vision problems. He had chronic pain in his legs, chest and stomach. After undergoing medical examinations for decades, he was at a loss to explain his faltering health.

    His doctor, who by coincidence had once trained at Edgewood, asked Schnurman if he had ever worked with chemicals.

    "No," Schnurman replied.

    "Were you ever in the service?"

    "Yes."

    "Were you ever in any..." and here the doctor paused, "special programs?"

    Joy Schnurman, who until then had known nothing of her husband's participation in mustard gas testing, recalls vividly what happened next.

    "Nat just turned white as a sheet," she said. "And then the tears came and came, and out came the story."

    Schnurman joined the Navy at 17 and was sent to Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Maryland, where volunteers were being recruited to test "summer clothing."

    He was sent to a gas chamber at Edgewood six times in seven days. On his last visit, a blend of mustard gas and lewisite was piped in. Schnurman was overcome with toxins, vomited into his mask and begged for release. The request was denied. His next memory is of coming to on a snowbank outside the chamber.

    He completed his Naval service, but his health steadily grew worse. He told no one of the tests at Edgewood until that 1975 doctor's visit.

    Schnurman filed for benefits from the VA and spent the next 17 years pursuing records that would support his claim. Blocked at every turn by a bureaucracy that denied access to his files -- that denied in fact that he was ever at Edgewood -- Schnurman eventually collected box loads of documents.

    His cause also benefited from renewed attention to chemical warfare in the late 1980s, most notably by Iraq's use of mustard gas on its own Kurdish population and in its war with Iran. In 1989, an Australian documentary, "Keen as Mustard," exposed how the Australian government denied the claims of its World War II soldiers because it did not want to reveal its role in human testing. That same year, a Canadian journalist exposed Canada's World War II program. In July 1990, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published the first of many stories on U.S. chemical gas veterans.

    Around the same time, Schnurman's story caught the interest of producers at "60 Minutes" and Porter Goss, a Florida congressman. Goss, who is now CIA director, lobbied colleagues in Congress to compensate Schnurman and other World War II chemical volunteers for their illnesses.

    But not until June 11, 1991, days before a "60 Minutes" expose on Schnurman's saga, did the Pentagon acknowledge the WWII program for the first time. The VA immediately announced it would compensate veterans who took part in chamber or field tests, or who were exposed to high levels of toxins in the production or transport of chemicals, for any of seven illnesses.

    VA promises action

    Because the military destroyed or hid many records relating to chemical testing, the VA also said it would relax the evidence required to prove an illness was linked to service. Under the new rules, veterans exposed to poisonous gases would only have to show they later suffered from laryngitis, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, asthma or some eye diseases to win benefits.

    The VA asked a committee of the National Academy of Sciences to see if any other diseases could be linked to the chemicals. Jay Katz, a Yale University law professor and ethicist, urged the committee to look beyond the medical literature and demand that the military track down every veteran, or his family, and warn them of the health risks. "The soldiers who 'volunteered' for these experiments had every expectation that they would be treated fairly by their officers and surely by the physicians," he wrote. "As doctors, we ask our patients to trust us, and this trust was manipulated, exploited and betrayed...You have no choice but to recommend that [the volunteers] be apprised of what had been done to them. Doing otherwise is an abdication of medical responsibility."

    In January 1993, the committee issued "Veterans at Risk," a chronicle of the mistreatment of World War II chemical volunteers. The servicemen, the committee found, were recruited "through lies and half-truths."

    "Most appalling," the committee wrote, "was the fact that no follow-up medical care or monitoring was provided for any of the World War II human subjects," for thousands of chemical warfare production workers or for the hundreds of military personnel who survived a mustard gas ship explosion in Bari, Italy, in 1943.

    The committee urged the VA to identify "each human subject in the WWII testing program's chamber and field tests," as well as chemical production workers so they could "be medically evaluated and followed by the VA."

    Even for dead veterans, "their surviving family members deserve to know about the testing programs, the exposures and the potential results of those exposures," the committee said.

    The report also added to the list of diseases linked to testing: respiratory cancers, skin cancer, a variety of skin abnormalities, leukemia, chronic pulmonary disease, sexual dysfunction, and mood and anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

    The report dismissed the argument that the exigencies of war justified the tactics used to recruit volunteers. The military's use of its own personnel in LSD and radiation programs "demonstrated a well-ingrained pattern of abuse and neglect," the panel concluded.

    Upon the report's release, the Defense Department quickly accepted the recommendations, apologized, and pledged to help the VA find the men.

    "The years of silent suffering have ended for these WWII veterans who participated in secret testing during their military service," declared Anthony Principi, then acting VA secretary.

    The VA announced it already was taking steps to find veterans involved in the tests and grant them the benefits they deserved. The agency directed its regional offices to track Navy and Army claims involving chemical exposure. "This log should be kept current and available for random review," the directive said.

    The VA asked the Defense Department for any rosters of servicemen involved in the tests. Once the names were gathered, the VA pledged to collaborate with the Internal Revenue Service and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to obtain current addresses for the veterans so they could be contacted directly. Valid claims could fetch up to $1,730 a month in disability, as well as free medical care. Widows also could qualify.

    By early 1993, government assurances were plentiful and upbeat.

    "Be assured this will not be treated as business as usual," President Bill Clinton declared in February 1993.

    Nobody really knew how many WWII gas veterans and chemical workers were still alive.

    "It may be in the tens of thousands," Goss told a House subcommittee. "That is an astonishing number of people to have gone through a process, which we have, as a government, officially denied ever happened."

    But for many of the soldiers in the 1st Chemical Casual Company, the assurances were too late.

    Albert Pike, who owned a medical supply store in Akron, Ohio, died of lung cancer and respiratory failure on May 8, 1990, 13 months before the military came clean.

    He received no benefits for those diseases.

    Pike, however, had received compensation for mustard burns shortly after the war. On Jan. 30, 1946, one day after he was honorably discharged, the VA awarded Pike a monthly disability pension of $11.50 for the burns.

    During the long illnesses that killed him at age 67, Pike never contacted the VA to file a new claim. And for many years after "Veterans at Risk" was published, his family never heard from the government. But in 1998, his children said, Pike's widow received a letter from the military inquiring about his health. The answer was in Pike's VA file, if anyone had bothered to look. The VA had paid $450 for Pike's burial. It classified his death as "non-service related."

    His widow was given a flag.

    Contact DAVID ZEMAN at 313-222-6593 or zeman@freepress.com.