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Deadly Doings in the Pinelands Revealed

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Sep 11, 2019

Mention the name “Lakehurst” to most people and they think of the U.S. Navy and giant airships. But for a brief period of time, a hundred years ago, it was a location of an Army base called Camp Kendrick. The base was one of the centers operated by the United States to oversee its use of chemical weapons in World War I.

Gen. Amos Fries wrote of the base in 1921.

“The Proving Division had its origin in the decision to build an Experimental Ground for gas warfare under the direction of the Trench Warfare Section of the Ordnance Department. While this decision was reached about September, 1917, actual work on the final location (Lakehurst, N.J.) was not started until March 26, 1918, and the construction work was not completed until August 1, 1918. However, firing trials were started on April 25, 1918, and in all 82 were carried out.

“The Proving Division was created to do two things: To experiment with gas shell before they reached the point where they could be manufactured safely in large numbers for shipment overseas; and to prove gas shell, presumably perfect and ready for shipment, to guard against any mechanical inaccuracies in manufacture or filling.”

Why was Lakehurst chosen? On Oct. 7, 1919, Gen. William Siebert, the head of the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service, appeared before the House of Representatives to explain.

“At the American University, which is practically in Washington, and with a force that was new to the proposition, we carried on for more than a year preliminary and small-scale experiments with all kinds of gas substances. We also had there small-scale manufacturing plants. In so far as I know there was never but one slight accident. … That was not due to an experiment with gas; it was due to an accident. A small-scale manufacturing plant blew up and liberated some material in a place where we would not have liberated it. … If you will compare the casualties resulting from the manufacture of powder in this war with the accidents due to gas you would have to stop the manufacture of powder if you stopped the manufacture of gas, for the reason that it might do damage to the bystander.”

With this in mind, the project was moved to the wilds of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Siebert continued.

“We had at Lakehurst proving ground a place where we prove everything. We let loose there one morning 6½ tons of gas in a small area, in order to try out our new gas masks. We had soldiers go into that concentration and dig in, that gas drifted away, and we never heard anything about it. We know the distance that gas will drift; we know the distance within which it is safe to approach a concentration of gas made by the Artillery. … If a citizen comes within 10 miles of the front lines and he is gassed that is his own fault. He comes there with the knowledge that he is liable to be gassed.”

When asked about the safety of the tests, he replied, “You misunderstood me. We let loose the gas in clouds at Lakehurst, N.J., where we had 14,000 acres of land rented. That is a sandy waste country; nobody lives in it; and we had a reservation of 14,000 acres, on which we carried out extensive experiments in every phase of the use of gas, including clouds, and other methods.”

What precautions were taken to ensure the poison gas didn’t leave the test area?

“It would depend upon the way the wind was blowing. There we had a land and a sea breeze. Those winds are quite a constant thing, and you would know which way it was going to blow, and we would get on one edge of that with the wind blowing in a certain direction, so that we would have the entire width of the tract. … You can get 6½ miles there. You can use a special strip of sufficient width to cover that particular phase of experiment.”

Just how dangerous were the gases being tested at Lakehurst?

“Nearly all of our gases, if you have no protection from them, will kill if you can get a high-enough concentration. But all of our gases will not kill vegetable life. All of the gases that have chlorine in them will kill vegetable life and our phosgene, which is largely chlorine and carbon monoxide, will kill all vegetable life. It is a very lethal gas. It will kill men quickly, but your gas mask will give you protection. If you are not protected against them the gases would put an army out in a few minutes.”

While Siebert didn’t give many details, the Tuckerton Beacon of July 10, 1919, had discovered some.

“Now that the camp is disbanded, scarcely a trace of it remaining, Lieutenant Colonel W.S. Bacon, chief of the proving division, tells of the work of the camp in the Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry.

“While the camp lasted all the things done with gas on the combat fields of Europe were tried out there. The camp had trenches, dugouts, concrete bomb-proof retreats, so that gas effects might be accurately noted and results applied to overseas work. There were hospitals for the gassed, goats, dogs, guinea pigs and monkeys that were subjected to military exposure, and the sort of care that humans received abroad was given to those animal sufferers. They were saved when possible, and when not possible, the camp authorities knew they had a gas which would be fatal also to enemy soldiers.”

Col. Bacon explained.

“To make clear the trials and tests necessary … before a substance was finally recommended, let us take as an example substance X, which has been found in the research laboratory to be promising, both as to toxicity and ease of manufacture. Enough of this substance was made to fill several hundred shells of various calibres. The first step toward making a recommendation was to determine a proper bursting charge for the substance. … After the bursting charge had been determined large numbers of the shell were repeatedly fired on trenches, wooded areas, rolling and level ground, etc., in the same numbers as used in actual warfare.”

Next came the goats and dogs. According to Bacon, “Animals were placed in these areas and samples of the gas taken. After a number of such experiments, very accurate and constant results were obtained, upon which, if the substance proved satisfactory, data could be given to the artillery as regards how many shells of this particular gas should be used, with corrections for size of area, wind velocities, temperatures, ground conditions, etc. Trials were continually held to determine how many high explosive shell could be fired with gas shell on the same area without affecting the concentrations.”

In 1997, Kirk Moore wrote a series of articles for the Asbury Park Press, saying, “According to research by the Navy’s environmental experts at Lakehurst, the American chemical service fired various gas projectiles, from 75 mm field artillery shells up to massive gas canisters ejected from the 8-inch bores of Livens mortars.

“Named for its British inventor, the Livens weapon was deployed in rows of hundreds of tubes, all simply dug into the earth and pointed toward enemy trenches. At the signal to fire, all the tubes would be triggered electrically, hurling 60-pound gas canisters up to 1,800 yards.

“They dug trenches through the Pine Barrens, and tethered goats, dogs and guinea pigs as stand-ins for enemy soldiers. They fired Livens canisters and cannon shells loaded with chemicals, observed the burst and drift of gases and moved in to assess the results.

“The injured animals showed how many shells per yards of terrain would create lethal concentrations, and the soldiers could learn how long chemical agents would linger on the field after a barrage.

“Oddly, archives searched by the Navy researchers indicated some goats survived the tests – and were even sold as government surplus when the war was over.”

With the end of the war, in November 1918 operations and testing at Camp Kendrick were discontinued, and the base was eventually sold to the Navy. There was one small problem … while the surviving goats could be sold as surplus, what do you do with tons of poison gas?

Next Week: “Dew of Death.”

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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