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Chemical Warfare Service

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Chemical Warfare Service

The Chemical Corps is the branch of the United States Army tasked with defending against Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) weapons. The corps was founded as the Chemical Warfare Service during World War I. Its name was changed to the Chemical Corps in 1946.


Early history

The use of chemical weapons in an offensive context by the United States military did not actually begin until World War I but discussion of the topic dates back to the American Civil War. A letter to the War Department dated 5 April 1862 from New York City resident John Doughty proposed the use of chlorine shells to drive the Confederate Army from its positions. Doughty included a detailed drawing of the shell with his letter. It is unknown how the military reacted to Doughty's proposal but the letter was unnoticed in a pile of old official documents until modern times. Another American, Forrest Shepherd of New Haven, also proposed a chemical weapon attack against the Confederates. Shepherd's proposal involved hydrogen chloride, an attack that would have likely been non-lethal but may have succeeded in driving soldiers from their positions. Shepherd was a well-known geologist at the time and his proposal was in the form of a letter directly to the White House.[1]

The earliest predecessors to the United States Army Chemical Corps owe their existence to the changing of military technology, through the use of poison gas, early in World War I. The United States War Department's first interest in providing individual soldiers with personal protection against chemical warfare came in 1915 and they tasked the Medical Department with developing the technology. Despite this early interest, troops were neither supplied with masks nor trained for offensive gas warfare until the U.S. became involved in World War I in 1917.[2] By 1917 use of chemical weapons by both the Allied and Central Powers had become commonplace along the Western, Eastern and Italian Fronts, occurring daily in some regions.[3] In 1917, Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane, directed the Bureau of Mines to assist the Army and Navy in creating a gas war program. After the Director of the Bureau of Mines formally offered the bureau's service to the Military Committee of the National Research Council, the council appointed a subcommittee on noxious gases.[2]

World War I

On 5 July 1917 General John J. Pershing oversaw the creation of a Gas Service Section.[4][5] The predecessor to the 1st Gas Regiment was the 30 Engineer Regiment (Gas and Flame). The 30th was activated on 15 August 1917 at Camp American University, Washington, D.C.[6] An 17 October 1917 memorandum from the Adjutant General to the Chief of Engineers directed the Gas Service Section consist of four majors, six captains, 10 first lieutenants and 15 second lieutenants.[5] Additional War Department orders established a Chemical Service Section that included 47 commissioned officers and 95 enlisted personnel.[5]

Before deploying to France in 1917 many of the soldiers in the 30th Engineer Regiment (Gas and Flame) spent their time stateside in training, training that did not emphasize any chemical warfare skills.[7] Much of the training stateside for the members of the army's only chemical unit focused on drill, marching, guard duty, and inspections.[7][8] Despite the conventional training, the public perceived the 30th as dealing mainly with "poisonous gas and hell fire".[8] By the time those in the 30th Engineers arrived in France most of them knew nothing of chemical warfare and had no specialized equipment.[7]

The 30th Engineer Regiment (Gas and Flame) was redesignated the First Gas Regiment in 1918 and deployed to assist and support Army gas operations, both offensive and defensive. The Chemical Warfare Service (CWS), the predecessor to the Chemical Corps, was officially formed on 28 June 1918 and encompassed the Gas Service and Chemical Service Sections.[4][5] By 1 November 1918 the CWS included 1,654 commissioned officers and 18,027 enlisted personnel.[9] Major General William L. Sibert was appointed as the first director of the CWS on the day it was created.[10] He served in that post until he resigned in April 1920.[11]

Chemical Warfare Service

In the interwar period, the Chemical Warfare Service maintained its arsenal despite public pressure and presidential wishes in favor of disarmament. Major General Amos Fries, the CWS chief from 1920–29, viewed chemical disarmament as a Communist plot.[3] Through his leadership, the CWS and its various Congressional, chemist, and chemical company allies were able to halt the U.S. Senate's ratification of the 1925 Geneva Protocol.[3] Of significance, even those countries who had signed the Geneva Protocol still produced and stockpiled chemical weapons, since the Protocol only forbade "first use" of chemical weapons – not retaliation in kind.

Roosevelt's view on the Service

In 1937 President Roosevelt opposed changing the name of the Service to Corps, stating:[12]

It is my thought that the major functions of the Chemical Warfare Service are those of a "Service" rather than a "Corps." It is desirable to designate as a Corps only those supply branches of the Army which are included in the line of the Army. To have changed the name to the "Chemical Service" would have been more in keeping with its functions than to designate it as the "Chemical Corps."

I have a far more important objection to this change of name. It has been and is the policy of this Government to do everything in its power to outlaw the use of chemicals in warfare. Such use is inhuman and contrary to what modern civilization should stand for.

I am doing everything in my power to discourage the use of gases and other chemicals in any war between nations. While, unfortunately, the defensive necessities of the United States call for study of the use of chemicals in warfare, I do not want the Government of the United States to do anything to aggrandize or make permanent any special bureau of the Army or the Navy engaged in these studies. I hope the time will come when the Chemical Warfare Service can be entirely abolished.

To dignify this Service by calling it the "Chemical Corps" is, in my judgment, contrary to a sound public policy.

World War II

The Chemical Warfare Service deployed and prepared gas weapons for use throughout the world during World War II. However, these weapons were never used in combat.[13] Despite the lack of chemical warfare during the conflict, the CWS saw its funding and personnel increase substantially due to concerns that the Germans and Japanese had a formidable chemical weapons capability. By 1942 the CWS employed 60,000 soldiers and civilians and was appropriated $1 billion.[13] The CWS completed a variety of non-chemical warfare related tasks and missions during the war including producing incendiaries for flame throwers, flame tanks and other weapons. Chemical soldiers were also involved in smoke generation missions. Chemical mortar battalions used the 4.2 inch chemical mortar to support armor and infantry units.[14]

Use of chemical and biological weapons were extremely limited, by both sides, during all parts of the war. Italy used mustard gas and phosgene during the short Second Italo-Abyssinian War, Germany employed chemical agents such as Zyklon B against Jews, political prisoners and other victims in extermination camps during the Holocaust, and Japan employed chemical and biological weapons in China.[15] In 1943 a U.S. ship carrying a secret Chemical Warfare Service cargo of mustard gas as a precationary retaliatory measure was sunk in an air raid in Italy, causing 83 deaths and about 600 hospitalized military victims plus a larger number of civilian casualties. Generally speaking, World War II was conducted (1939–1945) without use of chemical or biological weapons on the conventional battlefield, and certainly not on the scale of the use of poison gas during World War I.

Though the political leadership of the United States remained decidedly against the use of chemical weapons, there were those within the military command structure who advocated the use of such weapons. Following the Battle of Tarawa, during which the U.S. forces suffered more than 3,400 casualties in three days, CWS chief Major General William N. Porter pushed superiors to approve the use of poison gas against Japan. "We have an overwhelming advantage in the use of gas. Properly used gas could shorten the war in the Pacific and prevent loss of many American lives," Porter said.

Popular support was not completely lacking. Some newspaper editorials supported the use of chemical weapons in the Pacific theater. The New York Daily News proclaimed in 1943, "We Should Gas Japan", and the Washington Times Herald wrote in 1944, "We Should Have Used Gas at Tarawa because “You Can Cook ’Em Better with Gas".[15][16] Despite rising between 1944 and 1945, popular public opinion never rose above 40 percent in favor of the use of gas weapons.[16]

Post World War II and Korea

In 1946 the Chemical Warfare Service was re-designated as the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, a name the branch still uses.[14] With the change came the added mission of defending against nuclear warfare, in addition, the corps continued to refine its offensive and defensive chemical capabilities.[14] Immediately following World War II, production of U.S. biological warfare (BW) agents went from "factory-level to laboratory-level".[17] Meanwhile, work on BW delivery systems increased.[17] Live testing in Panama was carried out during the San Jose Project.

The Korean War required chemical soldiers to again man the 4.2 inch chemical mortar for smoke and high explosive munitions delivery.[14] During the war, the U.S. opened the Pine Bluff Arsenal, used for BW production, and expanded the research facilities at Fort Detrick.[17] North Korea, the Soviet Union and China leveled accusations at the United States claiming the U.S. used biological agents during the Korean War; an assertion the U.S. government has denied.[17] From the end of World War II through the Korean War, the U.S. Army, the Chemical Corps and the U.S. Air Force all made great strides in their biological warfare programs, especially concerning delivery systems.[17] Following the end of the Korean War, the Army decided to strip the Chemical Corps of the 4.2 inch mortar system and made that an infantry weapon, given its utility against Chinese mortars.

Vietnam War

Beginning in 1962 a program that would become known as Operation Ranch Hand was operated, in part, by the Chemical Corps. Ranch Hand was a defoliation program which utilized herbicides such as Agent Orange.[18] The chemicals were color-coded based on what compound they contained. The Chemical Corps continued to support the force through the use of incendiary weapons, such as napalm, and riot control measures, among other missions. As the war progressed into the late 1960s public sentiment against the Chemical Corps increased. The sentiment was the result of the Army's continued use of herbicides, criticized in the press as being against the Geneva Protocol, napalm, and riot control agents.[19]

Besides supporting the continued use of flame weapons, and being prepared for any eventuality involving weapons of mass destruction, the Vietnam era Chemical Corps also developed "people sniffers", a type of personnel detector. Major Herb Thornton led Chemical soldiers who became known as tunnel rats and developed techniques for clearing enemy tunnels in Vietnam.[20]

As the 1960s progressed, sentiment against the Chemical Corps continued its rise. The Dugway sheep incident, in March 1968, was one of several key events which increased the growing public furor against the corps. An open air spraying of VX was blamed for killing over 4,000 sheep near Dugway Proving Ground.[19] The Army eventually settled the case and paid the ranchers. Meanwhile, another incident involving Operation CHASE (Cut Holes and Sink 'Em) was also exposed. Operation CHASE sought to dump chemical weapons 250 miles (400 km) off of the Florida coast, spurring concerns over the damage to the ocean environment and risk of chemical munitions washing up on shore.[19] The criticism of the Army culminated with the near-disbanding of the Chemical Corps in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.[19]

Post Vietnam

Beginning during the war in the late 1960s, chemical warfare capabilities of the United States began to decline due to, in part, a decline in public opinion concerning the corps.[19] The corps continued to be plagued with bad press and mishaps. A 1969 incident, in which 23 soldiers and one Japanese civilian were exposed to sarin on the island of Okinawa while cleaning sarin-filled bombs, created international concern while revealing the presence of chemical munitions in Southeast Asia.[21] The same year as this sarin mishap, President Richard Nixon reaffirmed a no first-use policy on chemical weapons as well as renouncing the use of biological agents.[21] When the U.S. BW program ended in 1969, it had developed seven standardized biological weapons in the form of agents that cause anthrax, tularemia, brucellosis, Q-fever, VEE, and botulism.[17] In addition, Staphylococcal Enterotoxin B was produced as an incapacitating agent.[17]

Nixon nominated General Creighton Abrams for the post of Army Chief of Staff during summer 1972 and upon assuming the post the general and others began to address the reformation of the Army in the wake of Vietnam.[19] As soon as Abrams was sworn in he began to investigate the possibility of merging Chemical Corps into other Army branches. An ad hoc committee, designed to study possibilities recommended that the Chemical Corps' smoke and flame mission be integrated into the Engineer Corps and the chemical operations be integrated into the Ordnance Corps. The groups recommendations were accepted in December 1972 and the United States Army Chemical Corps was officially disbanded, but not formally disestablished, by the Army on 11 January 1973.[19]

To formally disestablish the corps, the U.S. Congress had to approve the move, because it had officially established the Chemical Corps in 1946. Congress chose to table action on the fate of the Chemical Corps, leaving it in limbo for several years.[19] Recruitment and career advancement was halted and the Chemical School at Fort McClellan was shut down and moved to Aberdeen Proving Grounds.[22]

Army Chief of Staff Abrams died in office in 1974, following the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states. The results of the war demonstrated the desire of the Soviet Union to continue its pursuit of offensive chemical and biological capabilities.[19] By the mid–1970s the chemical warfare and defense capability of the United States had degraded and by 1978 the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff characterized U.S. ability to conduct operations in a chemical environment as "not prepared."[23]

Secretary of the Army Martin R. Hoffmann rescinded the 1972 recommendations and in 1976 Army Chief of Staff General Bernard W. Rogers ordered the resumption of Chemical Corps officer commissioning. However, the U.S. Army Chemical School at Fort McClellan, Alabama did not reopen until 1980.[19]


Changes in Chemical Corps post-1980[22]
Pre-1980 Post-1980
Doctrine/training Chemical Corps only Army wide
Operations emphasis minimize casualties minimize mission degradation
Risk no risk intelligent risk
Control of NBC assets centralized: Division NBC command decentralized: Flexible
Decon complete decontamination partial decontamination

By 1982 the Chemical Corps was running smoothly once again.[22] In an effort to hasten chemical defense capabilities the corps restructured its doctrine, modernized its equipment, and altered its force structure. This shift led to every unit in the army having chemical specialists in-house by the mid-1980s. Between 1979 and 1989 the Army established 28 active duty chemical defense companies.[22]

Persian Gulf War

For more details on this topic, see Gulf War Syndrome, and Gulf War.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and much of the world responded by amassing military assets in the region, the United States Army faced the very real possibility of experiencing chemical or biological (CB) attack.[24] The possibility of CB attack forced the army to respond with NBC defense crash courses in theater.[24] Troops deployed to the Gulf with protective masks at the ready, protective clothing was made available to those troops whose vicinity to the enemy or mission required it.[25] Large scale drills were conducted in the desert to better acclimatize troops to wearing the bulky protective clothing (called MOPP gear) in hot weather conditions.[25]

Though Saddam Hussein had renounced the use of chemical weapons in 1989, many did not believe he would really honor that during a conflict with the United States and the broader coalition forces.[25] As American troops headed to the desert, analysts speculated about their vulnerability to CB attack. Although the location of Hussein's chemical munitions was unknown, their existence was never doubted.[25]

The Gulf War was fought without the Iraqi Army unleashing chemical or biological munitions,;[25] Eric R. Taylor, of the CATO Institute, maintained that the effective, U.S. threat of nuclear retaliation halted Hussein from employing his chemical weapons.[24] The locations of many of Iraq's chemical stockpiles were never uncovered and there is widespread speculation that U.S. troops were exposed to chemical munitions while destroying weapons caches,[25] particularly near the Khamisiyah storage site.[26] After the war, analysis suggested the chemical defense capabilities of U.S. forces were woefully inadequate during and after the conflict.[24] In addition, some experts, such as Jonathan B. Tucker, suggest that the Iraqis did indeed employ chemical weapons during the war.[27]

Beyond 1990

A 1996 United States General Accounting Office report concluded that U.S. troops remained highly vulnerable to attack from both chemical and biological agents. The report blamed the U.S. Department of Defense for failure to address shortcoming identified five years earlier during combat in the Persian Gulf War. These shortcomings included inadequate training, a lack of decontamination kits and other equipment, and vaccine shortages.[28]

Organization and mission

The United States Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) School is the home of the Army's Chemical Corps, located at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. There are approximately 22,000 members of the Chemical Corps in the U.S. Army, spread among the Active, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard.

The school trains officers and enlisted personnel in CBRN warfare and defense; its stated mission is "To protect the force and allow the Army to fight and win against an CBRN threat. Develop doctrine, equipment and training for CBRN defense which serve as a deterrent to any adversary possessing weapons of mass destruction. Provide the Army with the combat multipliers of smoke, obscurant, and flame capabilities."


Branch insignia

The Chemical Corps, like all branches of the U.S. Army, uses specific insignia to indicate a soldier's affiliation with the corps. The Chemical Corps branch insignia consists of a cobalt blue, enamel benzene ring superimposed over two crossed gold retorts. The branch insignia, which was adopted in 1918 by the fledgling Chemical Service, measures .5 inches in height by 1.81 inches in width. Crossed shells with a dragon head was also commonly used in France for the Chemical service. The Chemical Warfare Service approved the insignia in 1921 and in 1924 the ring adopted the cobalt blue enamel. When the Chemical Warfare Service changed designations to the Chemical Corps in 1946 the symbol was retained.[29]

Regimental insignia

The Chemical Corps regimental insignia was approved on 2 May 1986. The insignia consists of a 1.2 inch shield of gold and blue emblazoned with a dragon and a tree. The shield is enclosed on three sides by a blue ribbon with Elementis Regamus Proelium written around it in gold lettering. The phrase translates to: "Let us (or may we) rule the battle by means of the elements". The regimental insignia incorporates specific symbolism in its design. The colors, gold and blue, are the colors of the Chemical Corps, while the tree's trunk is battle scarred, a reference to the historical beginnings of U.S. chemical warfare, battered tree trunks were often the only reference points that chemical mortar teams had across no man's land during World War I.[30] The tree design was taken from the coat of arms of the First Gas Regiment. The dragon symbolizes the fire and destruction of chemical warfare. Individual Chemical Corps soldiers are often referred to as "Dragon Soldiers."[31]

Awards and notable soldiers

The Chemical Corps Regimental Association operates the Chemical Corps Hall of Fame. The list includes soldiers from many different eras of the Chemical Corps history, including Amos Fries, Earl J. Atkisson, and William L. Sibert.[32] The organization conducts annual inductions, and the honor is considered the highest offered by the corps.[33]

Hall of Fame baseball player, manager, and executive Branch Rickey served in the 1st Gas Regiment during World War I. Rickey spent over four months as a member of the Chemical Warfare Service.[34] Other Hall of Famers also served in the Chemical Warfare Service during World War I, among them Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson.[35] Robert S. Mulliken served in the US Army Chemical Warfare Service making poison gas during World War I, and he later earned the Nobel Prize in 1966 for his work on the electronic structure of molecules.

See also


Further reading

  • Mims, Samuel E. "Survey: Perceptions About the Army Chemical Corps" (Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, accessed 12 October 2008.

External links

  • Archive): "The Professional Bulletin of the Chemical Corps"
  • United States Army Chemical Corps Museum Library, includes several historical Army manuals.
  • Missouri
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