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Poisonous Secrets in the Pines

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Sep 18, 2019

Surf City — World War I ended in 1918. Most Americans wanted to move on and forget rationing, the draft, chemical weapons and international affairs. The Lakehurst Chemical proving grounds were sold to the Navy as a home for airships, and thoughts of what had been done there quickly faded.  Unfortunately, some problems caused by World War I would remain for the next hundred years. In May 1921, The New York Times ran a story that would haunt the nation for the rest of the 20th century and into the next.

   “Guarded night and day and far out of human reach, on a pedestal at the Interior Department Exposition here, is a tiny vial. It contains a specimen of the deadliest poison ever known, ‘Lewisite,’ the product of an American scientist. … (T)en airplanes carrying ‘Lewisite’ would have wiped out, it is said, every vestige of life – animal and vegetable – in Berlin. A single day’s output would snuff out the millions of lives on Manhattan Island. … ‘Lewisite’ is another of the big secrets just leaking out. It was developed in the Bureau of Mines by Professor W. Lee Lewis, of Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., who took a commission as a captain in the army. … The poison was manufactured in a specially built plant near Cleveland, called the ‘Mouse Trap,’ because every workman who entered the stockade went under an agreement not to leave the eleven acre space until the war was won.”     

In his book Gas Warfare, Gen. Alden Waitt explained what happened to 150 tons of the chemical.

“The Armistice took place before shipment of the first supply could leave port, and it was sunk at sea soon after the Armistice in order to destroy the gas.”

A 1923 article in the San Francisco Journal told a somewhat different story, saying, “At last the makers decided to sink the cylinders containing it in the waters of Chesapeake Bay, on the theory that it would disintegrate so gradually that no harm would be done.”

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. With the coming of World War II and rumors that the Japanese had used Lewisite in China, the U.S. again began production and stockpiling of the gas.

In May 1942, a United Press article stated, “If Hitler goes through with his reported plans to introduce gas into total warfare, the United States is prepared to retaliate with ‘Lewisite.’ A secret gas ‘more deadly’ than any used in World War I, according to its inventor, Prof. W. Lee Lewis.”

The professor explained, “Lewisite is more humane than mustard and other gases used in the World war, in that its deadly effectiveness reacts more quickly. … Lewisite is infinitely superior to World war gases in several respects. … Because some persons were dubious over the safety of retaining it for any period of time, large metal containers of the liquid were loaded onto ships and dumped into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Baltimore.”

Fortunately, the United States never used the gas during the war, but again peace brought problems. The March 27, 1946 Trenton Times announced, “The Army’s Chemical Warfare Service is disposing of huge quantities of poisonous gases and other war chemicals of no use to civilian industry by dumping them into the sea, it was disclosed today. … The biggest consignment to date – 10,000 tons of Lewisite, the gas with an odor like geraniums – will be spilled into the sea shortly by chemical warfare experts. … The dumping at sea will take place beyond the continental shelf at a depth of over 5,000 feet. This will prevent it from being injurious to humans or commercial types of fish. … The containers sink to the bottom and release their contents at such a slow rate that they do no great damage in such great volumes of water, it was said.”

What was being dumped into the ocean was out of sight. Then what about on land? In November 1993, newspapers across the country ran “The Pentagon yesterday listed Mitchell Field on Long Island and three bases in New Jersey among 215 sites nationwide where outdated and unwanted nerve agents, mustard gas and other weapons are stored. … The Pentagon report said they pose no immediate threat to health and safety. … And, said the report to Congress, the job may take until the year 2034. … Sites in New Jersey include Lakehurst Naval Air Station, Raritan Arsenal, Fort Hancock in Sandy Hook and the Delaware Ordnance Depot in Pedericktown.”

In 1997, U.S. Navy spokesman David Brouwer told the Asbury Park Press, “As we discover unexploded ordnances we remove them. … Since 1900 we’ve removed more than 200,000 items of ordnance from the ground – from small shells to grenades and metal fillers. … If everything goes the way we’ve planned, we hope to have the project completed by the year 2000 or shortly thereafter.”

With this, the problem finally seemed to be solved – until July 2016, when the Asbury Park Press reported, “Two chemical weapons dating to the first World War will be destroyed this month at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. … A 75mm round of a mustard agent and a projectile containing the poisonous gas phosgene were found last year near the parachute jump circle on the Lakehurst side of the base, a large grassy area once used as a bombing target in the early 20th century, according to base officials. … The mustard agent round was found on Nov. 23 while the phosgene was discovered Dec. 2, said Staff Sgt. Caitlin Jones, a spokeswoman for the Joint Base. … Munitions, including ones containing chemicals, have been found on the base before, Jones said. In 2012, a 75mm round of sulfur trioxide was discovered at the Joint Base, she said.”

Years later, the process for disposal is much more complicated than after World War I.

“‘Army technicians will use an Explosive Destruction System on-site to destroy the gases and their containers. The Explosive Destruction System was invented for (missions like this). There’s layers and layers of safety,’ Chemical Materials Activity’s EDS project manager Derek Romitti said in a news release. The Explosive Destruction System is placed within an enclosure that filters air before it is released into the environment, according to Army officials. The Army’s Recovered Chemical Materiel directorate has used the Explosive Destructive System more than 2,200 times to date, according to base officials.”

The Pine Barrens and Atlantic Ocean hold many secrets … hopefully no more chemical weapons.

Next Week: Eugenics in the Pines.


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