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Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a two-part report on the history of the deadly bacterium anthrax. Part 2 will detail the usage and production of anthrax since World War II.
The rash of anthrax attacks in the U.S. following the World Trade Center tragedy has spurred widespread interest and concern about what many believe to be a formerly obscure disease. The history of anthrax as a biological weapon, however, reveals a story quite opposite of public consensus.
The first allegations of the use of anthrax as a weapon were made against Germany during World War I. German agents stand accused of infecting cattle and horses with the disease in Bucharest in 1916 and in France in 1917. According to a top-secret 1943 report written by George W. Merck, pharmaceutical magnate and biological-warfare adviser to President Roosevelt, the U.S. possessed “incontrovertible evidence” that “as early as 1915” German agents in New York City’s harbor “inoculated horses and cattle with disease-producing bacteria.”
Dr. W. Seth Carus, an expert on bioterrorism and special adviser to the Department of Defense, writes in an April 2000 working paper that in 1915 German agents carrying bottles filled with liquefied anthrax infiltrated the horse pens in Manhattan’s Van Courtland Park with the objective of injecting the animals there with crude cork-topped needles.
Other declassified U.S. military intelligence documents reveal that in 1916 a covertly placed Prussian medical officer, Dr. Anton Dilger, cultivated anthrax spores in a surreptitious laboratory in Chevy Chase, Md., for use against draft animals in Baltimore’s port. Also, that same year in Argentina, German undercover operatives combed out across several ports, infecting European-bound horses and cattle with sugar cubes laced with anthrax.
British intelligence documents and cable intercepts from 1916-1918 reveal that the Germans infected nearly 5,000 mules and horses employed in Mesopotamia and that agents in August 1916 sent anthrax to Romania to infect sheep being transported to Russia. British documents also reveal that German agent Baron Otto Karl Von Rosen was apprehended attempting to infect draft reindeer in Norway with a vial filled with anthrax.
Dr. Theodor Rosebury, a former U.S. Army microbiologist, claimed in his 1949 book, “Peace or Pestilence,” that German agents operating out of Switzerland during World War I attempted “with possibly some level of success” to spread anthrax and cholera among the “human populations of surrounding countries.” Apart from Rosebury’s sketchy and unverifiable account, there is no known evidence that any country seriously contemplated employing anthrax against human targets during World War I.
This was most likely because of the devastating effectiveness of the poison gases that were widely deployed during the war by both sides and a global mindset that the use of germ warfare against humans was unthinkable. But that changed decidedly in the mid-1930s.
After noting that the Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibited “the use of bacteriological methods of warfare,” a young Japanese army officer and bacteriologist, Dr. Shiro Ishii, nonetheless convinced his superiors in 1935 that he be allowed to research the many potentialities of germ warfare. By 1937, the ambitious Ishii had established a vast germ warfare complex in Pingfan, a small village outside the Manchurian city of Harbin. The complex, innocuously dubbed Unit 731, was composed of over 150 buildings and nearly 3,500 researchers and employees.
Ishii’s scientists concentrated their studies on anthrax, as well as typhus, plague, cholera, botulism, smallpox, tularemia and encephalitis. Bacteria were grown in massive amounts in huge aluminum tanks scattered throughout the site. It is estimated that by 1940, Unit 731 manufactured over five tons of anthrax for placement into bombshell casings.
Ishii’s mammoth complex nearly doubled in size and personnel after Japanese forces claimed that Russian agents attacked Japanese soldiers in China with anthrax and cholera, killing nearly 6,000 troops and 2,000 horses.
Unit 731 began conducting tests around the clock with anthrax. Several types of steel-walled anthrax bombs were developed and tested extensively. In 1938, Ishii himself designed a prototype porcelain anthrax bomb that shattered upon impact, scattering millions of deadly spores into the air.
To give Japanese agents the ability to target individuals in close-in and covert contacts, Ishii’s scientists developed anthrax-infected chocolates and chewing gum, as well as fountain pens, hatpins and umbrellas tipped with the deadly disease.
In addition to anthrax-filled artillery shells, Unit 731 experimented extensively with hot-air balloons filled with the deadly disease.
Declassified documents from Fort Detrick, a military research facility in Frederick, Md., (the installation’s name was changed from Camp Detrick after the war) partially portray a frightening scenario that might have been had World War II gone on much longer.
Beginning in late 1944, areobiologists at Camp Detrick were placed on high alert after several reports were received from western states that large balloons, some up to 150 feet around, had been sighted silently floating over populated areas.
Somewhat skeptical at first, Camp Detrick scientists quickly realized that something serious was amiss after three balloons fell to earth in California, Montana and Washington state. All were composed of a unique lightweight silky material and bore distinctive Japanese markings.
By March 1945, over 250 balloons had been discovered in nine western states, including Hawaii, and in western Canada. The few declassified documents released by the Army on the balloons reveal nothing about their contents but do note that each was armed with an incendiary device. A top secret Chemical Corps report written in 1947 by Rexmond C. Cochrane states that one balloon that fell in Montana killed a woman, that another in Oregon “killed six men in a hunting party,” and that in May 1945, “five women and children in Georgia were killed while tampering with a charge fixed to one of the grounded balloons.”
A massive research program like Ishii’s obviously required numerous experimental subjects or guinea pigs, and there is overwhelming and chilling evidence that Ishii’s unit much preferred human subjects to animals. British investigative journalists Peter Williams and David Wallace recount in their book, “Unit 731,” that Ishii deliberately located his complex “in remote northern Manchuria so he could experiment on human beings.” Ishii’s human experiments with anthrax were especially horrendous.
According to declassified Army documents written after the war, Unit 731 human subjects, many of whom came from the Mukden POW camp and included women and children, “were tied to stakes and protected with helmets and body armor” but “their legs and buttocks were bared and exposed to shrapnel from anthrax bombs exploded yards away.” Wounded thusly, the subjects were untreated but studied closely so as to ascertain how quickly they would die. Documents reveal that none lived longer than a week.
Other human subjects were surreptitiously fed food laced with anthrax and other bacteria and then monitored to measure the arrival of death. Some subjects were forced to drink liquids contaminated with anthrax and typhoid germs.
According to congressional hearings held in Washington, D. C., in September 1986, former American POWs were among Ishii’s experimental subjects.
Said Montana Congressman Pat Williams at the start of the hearings: “These men are victims of a terrible secret, born 44 years ago deep in Manchuria in Japanese POW camps. This perhaps has been the longest kept secret of World War II, long denied by Japan and long concealed by the U.S. government.”
The hearings produced a litany of horror stories told by former American POWs. These survivors of Japanese atrocities maintained that after they were set free at the end of the war they were sent home under strict orders “not to talk about their experiences.”
Following the hearings, an Army spokesman stated that the U.S. had no “documentary evidence to corroborate the allegations” of the former POWs, because all records related to Ishii’s activities had been returned to the Japanese government in the late 1950s, and no copies had been retained.
Amidst the fury of the early months of World War II, the U.S., Britain, Canada and Russia all secretly initiated sophisticated biological warfare programs in response to frequently exaggerated intelligence reports that they were being outpaced in their research by Nazi scientists. Ironically, Army documents released in the 1980s reveal that the U.S. intelligence community had gleaned precious little about the grotesque activities of Ishii’s Unit 731 until near the end of the war.
That Nazi Germany never seriously embarked down the germ warfare trail has perplexed many historians and journalists. Perhaps one of the primary reasons for this was that Hitler, who had been the victim of a near fatal gas attack in World War I, found the subjects of biological and gas warfare to be abhorrent.
This is not to maintain that the Nazis conducted no biological warfare studies. They did, and as might be expected, many of these experiments conducted under the auspices of the esoteric-leaning Ahnenerbe Institute were performed on concentration camp prisoners. Most of these crude experiments were conducted at the Dachau and Ravensbrueck camps and were overseen by Dr. Walter P. Schreiber, a major general in the Nazi army. Schreiber, according to declassified Army intelligence documents and Nuremberg Tribunal testimony, was considered one of Germany’s experts on anthrax. Eminent historian and former investigative reporter Linda Hunt reveals that Schreiber’s litany of horrors included experiments in which camp prisoners were injected “with phenol to see how long it took them to die.”
In July 1998, London’s Daily Telegraph reported that in June 1944 Britain’s Special Operations Executive hatched a plot to assassinate Hitler by sending a lone agent into Germany “to impregnate [Hitler’s] clothing with anthrax.” According to the article, the plot was never carried forward because of concerns that “successful liquidation” would turn Hitler into an unintended martyr. The article quoted one British officer who argued against the plot as saying, “It would almost certainly canonize [Hitler] and give birth to the myth that Germany would have been saved if he had lived.”
British and Canadian researchers were especially aggressive in their pursuit of anthrax as a weapon of mass destruction. In the summer of 1942, after conducting anthrax experiments at their germ warfare center at Porton Down, England, the British initiated a series of large anthrax-bomb tests on Gruinard, an uninhabited island off the coast of Scotland. The first bomb exploded, infecting and killing about 30 test sheep in less than a week’s time. Subsequent tests killed larger numbers of livestock. Camp Detrick liaison officer to Porton Down, William Sarles, witnessed the Gruinard Island tests.
As might have been expected, spores eventually made their way to the Scottish mainland, causing an outbreak of anthrax. As a result of the Gruinard tests, the island was so badly contaminated that it has been completely sealed off to visitors. Over the years, there have been reports that the remaining animals of the island display prominent manifestations of genetic change.
Declassified Porton Down documents reveal that the British, as early as 1941, began a battery of anthrax experiments involving spraying anthrax spores from aircraft. By early 1942, the British had also launched a series of experiments at Porton Down that involved the aerial dispersal of anthrax over herds of sheep and cattle. These same experiments led to the production of what British researchers called “cattle cakes.” These were thick, compressed whey wafers dipped into anthrax and foot-and-mouth cultures. The Canadians were only slightly behind the British with their own anthrax tests conducted on a desolate prairie called Suffield near Calgary and Medicine Hat. Few details about these tests have ever been publicly released.
Encouragement for anthrax research in Britain came from the highest levels. Winston Churchill’s closest scientific adviser, Lord Cherwell, informed the prime minister in early 1944 that because of the “appalling potentiality” of anthrax, Britain had no choice but to develop bombs filled with the disease. In response, Churchill ordered his military leaders to request 500,000 anthrax bombs from the United States.
Since 1942, the U.S. Army had been conducting an ongoing series of secret experiments with anthrax, often in cooperation with biological warfare scientists with the Canadian military. The Canadians were producing anthrax spores at the rate of about 150 pounds per month at a secluded location on Grosse Ile, a St. Lawrence seaway island near Quebec. Before its conversion to the bacteriological cause, the island had served as a quarantine station for immigrants wishing to enter Canada.
Grosse Isle anthrax production was slow and problematic, provoking U.S. officials to decide to produce their own anthrax spores at a multi-million dollar production facility built near Vigo, Ind., south of Terre Haute. Originally designed in 1942 by the Army as a conventional munitions plant, the newly equipped plant held 12 20,000-gallon tanks that within less than one-month’s time could produce enough anthrax for 500,000 bombs. In June 1944, following the British request for a half-million bombs, the U.S. decided to produce one million anthrax bombs, half of which would be stockpiled in the U.S. for possible use.
Ed Regis, in his book “The Biology of Doom,” says the shell casings for the Vigo anthrax bombs were to be “manufactured by the Electromaster Corporation, a commercial bomb maker in Detroit, Mich.” and that “high explosives would be made by the Unexcelled Manufacturing Company of Cranbury, N.J.”
Prior to development of the Vigo plant, the U.S. produced anthrax spores in large quantities – some say well over two tons – at Camp Detrick. Weapons research of the disease began in early 1943 after Dr. Ira Baldwin of the University of Wisconsin was hired to direct research at the just-opened Frederick installation. Baldwin was less than enthusiastic about anthrax as a weapon, as were many of his handpicked scientists. Most notably siding with Baldwin was Dr. William A. Hagen, a member of the National Research Council’s Biological Warfare Committee, the group that paved the way for the creation of Camp Detrick. Hagan, affiliated with Cornell’s New York Veterinary College, believed that exploitation of anthrax was too risky because the disease thrives long after use in the ground and elsewhere and is highly resistant to environmental changes.
Initially, Baldwin left the vast majority of anthrax research to Lord Trevor Stamp, a British bacteriologist who was married to an American. Stamp, who had worked at Porton Down, set up his laboratory in an area that was nicknamed “Old McDonald’s farm” by a number of his colleagues. Former Camp Detrick researchers who knew Stamp report that he was often at odds with Baldwin over anthrax research, but that he “generally won out on most clashes” because he had friends in high places. Not the least of these friends was Stanley Lovell, director of the OSS Research and Development program, Merck, the essential godfather of the U.S. biological warfare program, and several high-ranking U.S. Army Chemical Corps officers who deeply resented civilian Baldwin’s placement as director of Camp Detrick.
By early 1944, largely due to Lord Stamp’s skillful advocacy and work, Camp Detrick engaged a full-blown anthrax weapons development program that rapidly resulted in the cultivation of large amounts of anthrax spores within the confines of the Maryland facility. Additionally, the program produced several hundred prototype anthrax cluster bombs. Expansion of the program into the Vigo operation was viewed at the time as an essential step in keeping pace with the military’s wartime objectives.
Fort Detrick officials maintain that the Vigo plant was “never used to produce pathogenic agents” and that it was abandoned at the end of the war and leased to a large pharmaceutical company for private use. There has never been an official public accounting for the millions of anthrax spores and hundreds of anthrax bombs that were produced by Camp Detrick scientists prior to the re-equipping of the Vigo plant.
H.P. Albarelli Jr. is an investigative journalist who lives in Florida. His articles on the mysterious death of Frank Olson and West Nile virus also appear on WorldNetDaily.