DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Since June, we have been bringing you stories about once classified experiments conducted by the United States military during World War II. These are tests that exposed American troops to mustard gas. And today, NPR is publishing the first searchable database of nearly 4,000 men who were used in this testing. NPR's Caitlin Dickerson has been doing this investigative reporting. And she's in the studio with me. Caitlin, good morning.
CAITLIN DICKERSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So just remind us of the background here. What happened?
DICKERSON: So during World War II, the U.S. military exposed more than 60,000 American troops to mustard gas to learn more about it. Most of the tests involved rubbing small amounts of gas directly onto the soldiers' skin to evaluate how they reacted. But about 4,000 men had what's called full-body exposure. That means they were locked inside gas chambers while mustard gas was piped inside, or they simulated combat drills outdoor and were sprayed from overhead.
GREENE: This was basically testing to see how mustard gas affected people, using Americans but presumably to use mustard gas as weapon in wars at some point in the future.
DICKERSON: Exactly, to evaluate how well American protective gear, like gas masks and clothing, worked. There were also tests that were done to compare different race groups to see if people reacted differently, based on their skin tone, to chemical weapons. So the tests were both for defensive and offensive preparations.
GREENE: You've actually spoken to some of the men who were exposed to this, right?
DICKERSON: Yeah. So one of the men I spoke to for this story is Walter Langston. I went out to see him at home in Delaplane, Va. Like a lot of the veterans, at first he didn't really feel comfortable talking to me. We actually did the interview in my car.
WALTER LANGSTON: So what was it you wanted to find out?
DICKERSON: Here he is describing some of the injuries he had from the testing.
LANGSTON: I spent two weeks in the infirmary recovering because the blisters on my back, they were from a quarter to half-a-dollar in size.
GREENE: God, that's amazing. So he was in an infirmary, in a hospital, all these years ago. Was he able to tell people what he thought had happened to him?
DICKERSON: He couldn't tell anyone. All the men used in these tests were sworn to secrecy.
DICKERSON: So this changed in 1993, when the testing was declassified. But by then, the youngest World War II vets were in their 60s or 70s. So a lot of people actually died before they could even tell anybody. And even veterans who lived long enough to share the experience didn't always open up.
GREENE: Because it was so painful, probably, going through this and memories you kind of didn't want to - didn't want to think about.
DICKERSON: Didn't want to think about, weren't used to talking about - I mean, these people couldn't even tell their families, couldn't even tell their doctors. So Beverly Neurock is actually the daughter of Walter Langston, who you just heard a moment ago. She heard our stories, and she went online to look them up. Neurock and her dad were estranged for most of her life. She says he was a very angry man.
BEVERLY NEUROCK: Our relationship has been hit-and-miss most of my life.
DICKERSON: Neurock told me that hearing the stories helped her sort of understand what her dad has been struggling with all these years. Like a lot of the veterans I interviewed, Langston not only participated in these painful tests, but he also fought for decades to get benefits for his injuries from the VA. And it took him almost 50 years to get them.
NEUROCK: He joined the service when he was a young man. And he has a lot of heartbreak from having not been able to get the assistance he probably should have been able to get hands down.
DICKERSON: Another person I heard from after these stories aired was Nan Moore. Her father had been used in testing that took place in Panama. But he never told his family about the experiments.
NAN MOORE: The one thing we knew is that he had been in Panama. Literally, they were married for over 40 years, and my mother could never get him to go on a cruise in the Caribbean. And he would never tell her why. All he would say was he hated Panama, and he didn't want to go anywhere near the Caribbean.
GREENE: Wow, that's amazing.
DICKERSON: It is. And Moore says that after her dad died in 1989, she actually came across a military award he'd received for participating in chemical weapons testing.
GREENE: People got awards for taking part in this?
DICKERSON: They did. The award said, we thank you for basically going beyond the call of duty and putting yourself in pain and sustaining injuries for the advancement of research. So Moore found that award. But she says at the time, it just felt like too much to deal with. She was grieving the father that she knew. She couldn't really take any more painful information. So she just shoved the documents back into a drawer and tried to forget about them.
GREENE: So she saw these documents that basically said her father's name, chemical weapons testing, and was like, I don't even want to go there.
DICKERSON: Exactly. But when she heard our stories - so 26 years later this summer - Moore says a light bulb went off in her mind right away. She thought, this must be what I read about in my dad's old records. And eventually, she reached out to me. I referred her to documents that detailed the specific test her dad was in. It was called Exercise Sandfly. And it turned out that her father, Richard Mintz, had spent 24 hours huddled outside in the Panamanian jungle while Army bombers dropped two tons of mustard agent onto his platoon.
MOORE: You know, he was my hero. He was just a wonderful, openhearted, sensitive, beautiful man but could shut down in a moment (laughter). And I'm beginning to understand why. Sometimes, you know, we'd joke and call him Silent Sam and stuff, you know what I mean? He just would go - you know, go away for a while.
DICKERSON: So David, Moore never got to hear about these tests from her dad. But she says reading about them has offered her some closure that she didn't even realize she needed.
MOORE: I understand my dad a lot better now. It means a lot to me personally.
GREENE: And Caitlin, let's talk about this database because I'm getting the feel here that these are the kinds of connections that you want to offer to people if they want to get to know parents, family members, more, who went through this pain and understand them. I mean, they'll be able to get information from your reporting. Is that what - is that what this is about?
DICKERSON: You know, we don't want to tell people how to use the database. But the fact is that up until now, there was no way to check whether your family member or someone that you knew had been exposed to mustard gas. So the database that we put together, it includes more than 3,700 test subjects. So anyone can go online, and they can look up veterans by their names, their birthdays or their last known city of residence. And I should also mention that the list is not complete. And as we get access to more information and names through federal records requests, we'll add them to the list.
GREENE: And if people want to look at this database, it's on our website, npr.org. That's where they can find it, right?
GREENE: OK. And again, that's a database of men who were used in World War II military mustard gas experiments. And this all came out in reporting done by Caitlin Dickerson, who'd here in the studio with me. Caitlin, thanks a lot.
DICKERSON: Thank you.
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