Poison gas 'guinea pig' helped others Victim exposed secret U.S. project

January 07, 1993|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Staff Writer

A red ribbon fluttered from a ceiling grate as the vapors streamed out, settling over six Americans who thought enlisting in the Navy was about fighting the Germans and Japanese and saving the world from fascism.

In the stifling heat of a cinder-block room, the recruits wore heavy overalls, hooded jackets and rubber boots and gloves. They had been promised weekend passes in return for what they were told was a test of military clothing under tropical conditions.

But why the gas masks? There seemed no reason for them until the grimy cloud descended.

"It would roll in, a black, brown, oily green-type color," recalled Nathan "Nat" Schnurman, who was a 17-year-old recruit from Roanoke, Va. "It would disperse and basically fall on you as you were walking around. You had no place to go."

It was January 1944 at the Edgewood Arsenal in Aberdeen. On each of six consecutive days, Mr. Schnurman spent an hour in the gas chamber as a "chemist" observed through a small window. The sickening effects began on the first day and culminated on the sixth, when he passed out.

He came to after being thrown in a snowbank.

He got no medical treatment for his injuries: the burns on his genitals, legs, chest, back, arms, neck and face or the huge blisters that broke whenever he shifted in bed.

He and the others went back each day, following orders to return or face a court martial.

It would be years before he or the other recruits realized that they had taken part in one of the darkest chapters of America's involvement in World War II -- the subjection of 4,000 people to tests of mustard vapor and Lewisite, a poisonous gas.

"I had no reason to believe that they would do something like this to humans in the United States when they fought the war against the Germans for what they did," Mr. Schnurman, 66, said last week in an interview at his home in Charles City, Va. "It was disheartening to find out that we, too, found human life was cheap."

Mr. Schnurman was also ordered to keep the grisly experiment a secret. He did so for almost 30 years, sheltering even his wife, Joy, from an account of the gassings he privately believed caused the ailments that had dogged him all his adult life.

The truth came out in 1975, when he was being examined by a doctor who, coincidentally, had trained at Edgewood during World War II. The doctor started asking questions after reviewing the illnesses that plagued Mr. Schnurman.

Had he ever worked around chemicals? In the service? In a special program?

"At that point, I went white, pale," said Mr. Schnurman, a small man who speaks in a soft but purposeful voice. "The tears came up. I said, 'Yes.' "

From that day, the Schnurmans set out on an investigative odyssey that made them leading experts in the history of the chemical experiments and advocates for other servicemen who suffered.

In a relentless pursuit of the facts, they have assembled cartons of government documents listing the names of the subjects -- "guinea pigs" in their view -- and have cracked long-forgotten military codes that tell such useful information as the type of poison used.

"He is probably the most knowledgeable person in the country, if not the world, in chemical warfare testing," said James Gately, information director at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., where similar experiments took place.

The laboratory decided in the mid-1980s to release mountains of documents for public inspection, prompted by Mr. Schnurman's use of the Freedom of Information Act.

"He has great fortitude," said Mrs. Schnurman, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the documents and notations. "The truth never changes. Truth is truth."

Years of battling the government for compensation helped win a landmark ruling in 1991. The Department of Veterans Affairs said that those who were exposed to the gases and now suffer from illnesses ranging from emphysema to chronic bronchitis could collect benefits without proving they contracted the diseases while in the service.

Asked to recall the events of 48 years ago, Mr. Schnurman gives vivid details.

He was a seaman at the Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Cecil County when he agreed to test the clothing. A few days in a tropical climate seemed like a welcome respite in the winter. But when a bus deposited him and two other seamen at the cold Edgewood Arsenal, he knew better than to complain.

His group was joined by three other volunteers. After a night's sleep, they were led to a Quonset hut and told to put on protective gear.

The seamen entered an 8-by-8-foot chamber through a door that resembled the hatch to a walk-in freezer. But it lacked an inside handle that would have enabled them to escape if they had wanted to.

The gas descended.

"I looked up. I turned. I didn't want to see it," Mr. Schnurman said, leaning forward in a gesture of contained outrage. "I had to have faith in them. Here, we had all this heavy

clothing to protect us."

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