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What’s Happening in the Pines?

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Sep 04, 2019

Surf City — The Pine Barrens of New Jersey are a place filled with legends and stories. Some, like the Jersey Devil, have been countlessly retold, while others have slowly faded from the pages of history. One hundred years ago, the Tuckerton Beacon ran a story that even today can make you uneasy.

“Public Now Permitted to Know Details of The Tests Conducted … Tucked away in a barren pine belt in New Jersey, near Lakehurst, was located one of the most interesting army camps in the country, for there tests were made in actual large-scale field trials of new gases which looked promising for warfare in laboratory tests. Of course, the greatest possible secrecy guarded all proceedings there, the personnel, both enlisted and commissioned having been selected with great care, so that nothing would leak out.”                                             

In 1997, Kirk Moore dug into the history of Lakehurst for the Asbury Park Press.

“Lakehurst is bound up with the history and romance of carrier jets and giant airships, but its military roots go back to a darker part of human history: the advent of chemical warfare during World War I. … During World War I, Eddystone produced 3-inch shrapnel shells for the Russians and 10-inch shells for the French. By November 1915, the weapons manufacturer had leased 1,500 acres to build a munitions plant at Lakehurst. Just one month later it leased an additional 2,500 acres to build a four-mile firing range. … A contingent of 20 Imperial Russian army officers and 50 soldiers with cannons arrived in 1916 to test-fire and analyze the 3-inch ammunition being sold to Moscow.”

World War I was a modern technological war with new weapons such as tanks, flamethrowers and poison gas. Moore continued, “In April 1917 the United States entered World War I. Within a year the U.S. Army took over what became known as the Lakehurst Proving Ground. A new Army Chemical Warfare Service began testing the first U.S. weapons of mass destruction.”

Even before the U.S. entry into the war, the local New Jersey Courier, in Toms River, took notice on March 15, saying, “Lakehurst reports that the Eddystone range is to be taken over by the government, lengthened out three miles, a number of new buildings put up, and guns of larger caliber used to test shells there.”

Two weeks later, still before the U.S. declaration of war, the Courier reported, “Present indications are that the government will make extensive changes at the Eddystone range, west of Lakewood, and one rumor is that it may be connected with Camp Dix, and used for artillery practice and shell testing combined.”

After war was declared, the Courier editor became uneasy, saying, “Report says that the Eddystone range is to be used to try out gas shells and gas warfare in various forms, at any rate the gas shells. If that be so, the question of winds will be an important one, as it may be necessary to try them out when the wind is in just the right quarter to do as little damage as possible.”

Finally, a few days later, “Rumor is busy about Lakehurst, telling of many plans projected by the War Department at the Lakehurst Experiment Station, formerly the Eddystone test range. Back of the many rumors is generally some bit of fact. … Another rumor says that gas experiments will be made, and goats used to test the poison qualities of the gas; fact, two cars of wire fencing, which another rumor says is to be used to fence in the goats.”

In 1919, Army Maj. Alexander Powell wrote “The Army Behind the Army.” In it he explained, “The tract of land near Lakehurst taken over for experimental purposes was 5 miles long and 4 wide and had an area of nearly 14,000 acres. As the nearest habitation was 2½ miles away no difficulty was experienced in conducting the highly important experiments with the necessary secrecy. The camp included quarters for 50 officers and barracks for 800 men, a completely equipped chemical laboratory, the staff of which included expert glass-blowers who could make every kind of apparatus required, a meteorological station, commanded by a former official of the Government Weather Bureau, equipped with the latest apparatus necessary for making and recording meteorological  observations.”

The rumors reported by the Courier were supported, and according to Powell, there were “a goat hospital, a dog hospital, a dog kitchen, and enclosures for animals which had to be kept under observation for long periods. In order to determine the effects of the various gases on living subjects a large stock of animals – goats, dogs, cats, rats, mice, guinea-pigs, and monkeys – had to be kept constantly on hand.”

Keeping the project secret did create some problems.

“These animals were not obtainable in the necessary numbers without considerable difficulty, it being necessary, on one occasion, to send an officer to Mexico to purchase 1,500 Angora goats, experiments having shown that the goat possesses powers of resistance to gas which more nearly approximates those of a human being than does any other common animal.”

But there was a war on.

“A human note enters into this grim business of preparing for war in the fact that those animals, particularly the dogs, which survived such an experiment were not subjected to it again. I imagine, however, that the officials of the S.P.C.A. would have entered a vigorous protest had they been permitted to lift the veil of secrecy which for many months enveloped the operations of the Chemical Warfare Service at Lakehurst.”

Powell also explained there was danger to the humans preparing the shells to be tested at Lakehurst.

“(O)nly four fatalities were directly traceable to poisoning by gas. This should not be construed as minimizing the peril attached to the work, however, for, though every possible precaution was observed in the construction and operation of the plants, there were 925 casualties between June and December, 1918, of which 674 were due to mustard-gas. During the month of August, when the gases were most volatile as a result of the excessive heat, and when the weather caused the soldiers to somewhat relax their precautions, the hospitals were on several days filled at the rate of 3½ percent of the entire force of the mustard-gas plant.”

With the winds monitored by a government meteorologist and no locals within 2½ miles, the U.S. Army was willing to test poison gas on animals and its soldiers, in the wilds of the Jersey Pines.

Next Week: The legacy.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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