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Worldnet: The secret history of anthrax
By H.P. Albarelli Jr.
8/11/2001 9:03 am Thu
Tuesday, November 6, 2001
The secret history of anthrax
Declassified documents show widespread experimentation in '40s
Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a two-part report on the history of the
deadly bacterium anthrax. Part 2 will detail the usage and production
of anthrax since World War II.
By H.P. Albarelli Jr.
The rash of anthrax attacks in the U.S. following the World Trade
Center tragedy has spurred widespread interest and concern about
what many believe to be a formerly obscure disease. The history of
anthrax as a biological weapon, however, reveals a story quite
opposite of public consensus.
The first allegations of the use of anthrax as a weapon were made
against Germany during World War I. German agents stand accused
of infecting cattle and horses with the disease in Bucharest in 1916
and in France in 1917. According to a top-secret 1943 report written
by George W. Merck, pharmaceutical magnate and biological-warfare
adviser to President Roosevelt, the U.S. possessed "incontrovertible
evidence" that "as early as 1915" German agents in New York City's
harbor "inoculated horses and cattle with disease-producing bacteria."
Dr. W. Seth Carus, an expert on bioterrorism and special adviser to
the Department of Defense, writes in an April 2000 working paper that
in 1915 German agents carrying bottles filled with liquefied anthrax
infiltrated the horse pens in Manhattan's Van Courtland Park with the
objective of injecting the animals there with crude cork-topped
Other declassified U.S. military intelligence documents reveal that in
1916 a covertly placed Prussian medical officer, Dr. Anton Dilger,
cultivated anthrax spores in a surreptitious laboratory in Chevy
Chase, Md., for use against draft animals in Baltimore's port. Also,
that same year in Argentina, German undercover operatives combed
out across several ports, infecting European-bound horses and
cattle with sugar cubes laced with anthrax.
British intelligence documents and cable intercepts from 1916-1918
reveal that the Germans infected nearly 5,000 mules and horses
employed in Mesopotamia and that agents in August 1916 sent
anthrax to Romania to infect sheep being transported to Russia.
British documents also reveal that German agent Baron Otto Karl Von
Rosen was apprehended attempting to infect draft reindeer in Norway
with a vial filled with anthrax.
Dr. Theodor Rosebury, a former U.S. Army microbiologist, claimed in
his 1949 book, "Peace or Pestilence," that German agents operating
out of Switzerland during World War I attempted "with possibly some
level of success" to spread anthrax and cholera among the "human
populations of surrounding countries." Apart from Rosebury's sketchy
and unverifiable account, there is no known evidence that any
country seriously contemplated employing anthrax against human
targets during World War I.
This was most likely because of the devastating effectiveness of the
poison gases that were widely deployed during the war by both sides
and a global mindset that the use of germ warfare against humans
was unthinkable. But that changed decidedly in the mid-1930s.
After noting that the Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibited "the use of
bacteriological methods of warfare," a young Japanese army officer
and bacteriologist, Dr. Shiro Ishii, nonetheless convinced his
superiors in 1935 that he be allowed to research the many
potentialities of germ warfare. By 1937, the ambitious Ishii had
established a vast germ warfare complex in Pingfan, a small village
outside the Manchurian city of Harbin. The complex, innocuously
dubbed Unit 731, was composed of over 150 buildings and nearly
3,500 researchers and employees.
Ishii's scientists concentrated their studies on anthrax, as well as
typhus, plague, cholera, botulism, smallpox, tularemia and
encephalitis. Bacteria were grown in massive amounts in huge
aluminum tanks scattered throughout the site. It is estimated that by
1940, Unit 731 manufactured over five tons of anthrax for placement
into bombshell casings.
Ishii's mammoth complex nearly doubled in size and personnel after
Japanese forces claimed that Russian agents attacked Japanese
soldiers in China with anthrax and cholera, killing nearly 6,000 troops
and 2,000 horses.
Unit 731 began conducting tests around the clock with anthrax.
Several types of steel-walled anthrax bombs were developed and
tested extensively. In 1938, Ishii himself designed a prototype
porcelain anthrax bomb that shattered upon impact, scattering millions
of deadly spores into the air.
To give Japanese agents the ability to target individuals in close-in
and covert contacts, Ishii's scientists developed anthrax-infected
chocolates and chewing gum, as well as fountain pens, hatpins and
umbrellas tipped with the deadly disease.
In addition to anthrax-filled artillery shells, Unit 731 experimented
extensively with hot-air balloons filled with the deadly disease.
Declassified documents from Fort Detrick, a military research facility
in Frederick, Md., (the installation's name was changed from Camp
Detrick after the war) partially portray a frightening scenario that might
have been had World War II gone on much longer.
Beginning in late 1944, areobiologists at Camp Detrick were placed
on high alert after several reports were received from western states
that large balloons, some up to 150 feet around, had been sighted
silently floating over populated areas.
Somewhat skeptical at first, Camp Detrick scientists quickly realized
that something serious was amiss after three balloons fell to earth in
California, Montana and Washington state. All were composed of a
unique lightweight silky material and bore distinctive Japanese
By March 1945, over 250 balloons had been discovered in nine
western states, including Hawaii, and in western Canada. The few
declassified documents released by the Army on the balloons reveal
nothing about their contents but do note that each was armed with an
incendiary device. A top secret Chemical Corps report written in
1947 by Rexmond C. Cochrane states that one balloon that fell in
Montana killed a woman, that another in Oregon "killed six men in a
hunting party," and that in May 1945, "five women and children in
Georgia were killed while tampering with a charge fixed to one of the
A massive research program like Ishii's obviously required numerous
experimental subjects or guinea pigs, and there is overwhelming and
chilling evidence that Ishii's unit much preferred human subjects to
animals. British investigative journalists Peter Williams and David
Wallace recount in their book, "Unit 731," that Ishii deliberately
located his complex "in remote northern Manchuria so he could
experiment on human beings." Ishii's human experiments with anthrax
were especially horrendous.
According to declassified Army documents written after the war, Unit
731 human subjects, many of whom came from the Mukden POW
camp and included women and children, "were tied to stakes and
protected with helmets and body armor" but "their legs and buttocks
were bared and exposed to shrapnel from anthrax bombs exploded
yards away." Wounded thusly, the subjects were untreated but
studied closely so as to ascertain how quickly they would die.
Documents reveal that none lived longer than a week.
Other human subjects were surreptitiously fed food laced with anthrax
and other bacteria and then monitored to measure the arrival of
death. Some subjects were forced to drink liquids contaminated with
anthrax and typhoid germs.
According to congressional hearings held in Washington, D. C., in
September 1986, former American POWs were among Ishii's
Said Montana Congressman Pat Williams at the start of the hearings:
"These men are victims of a terrible secret, born 44 years ago deep
in Manchuria in Japanese POW camps. This perhaps has been the
longest kept secret of World War II, long denied by Japan and long
concealed by the U.S. government."
The hearings produced a litany of horror stories told by former
American POWs. These survivors of Japanese atrocities maintained
that after they were set free at the end of the war they were sent
home under strict orders "not to talk about their experiences."
Following the hearings, an Army spokesman stated that the U.S. had
no "documentary evidence to corroborate the allegations" of the
former POWs, because all records related to Ishii's activities had
been returned to the Japanese government in the late 1950s, and no
copies had been retained.
Amidst the fury of the early months of World War II, the U.S., Britain,
Canada and Russia all secretly initiated sophisticated biological
warfare programs in response to frequently exaggerated intelligence
reports that they were being outpaced in their research by Nazi
scientists. Ironically, Army documents released in the 1980s reveal
that the U.S. intelligence community had gleaned precious little about
the grotesque activities of Ishii's Unit 731 until near the end of the
That Nazi Germany never seriously embarked down the germ warfare
trail has perplexed many historians and journalists. Perhaps one of
the primary reasons for this was that Hitler, who had been the victim
of a near fatal gas attack in World War I, found the subjects of
biological and gas warfare to be abhorrent.
This is not to maintain that the Nazis conducted no biological warfare
studies. They did, and as might be expected, many of these
experiments conducted under the auspices of the esoteric-leaning
Ahnenerbe Institute were performed on concentration camp prisoners.
Most of these crude experiments were conducted at the Dachau and
Ravensbrueck camps and were overseen by Dr. Walter P. Schreiber,
a major general in the Nazi army. Schreiber, according to
declassified Army intelligence documents and Nuremberg Tribunal
testimony, was considered one of Germany's experts on anthrax.
Eminent historian and former investigative reporter Linda Hunt reveals
that Schreiber's litany of horrors included experiments in which camp
prisoners were injected "with phenol to see how long it took them to
In July 1998, London's Daily Telegraph reported that in June 1944
Britain's Special Operations Executive hatched a plot to assassinate
Hitler by sending a lone agent into Germany "to impregnate [Hitler's]
clothing with anthrax." According to the article, the plot was never
carried forward because of concerns that "successful liquidation"
would turn Hitler into an unintended martyr. The article quoted one
British officer who argued against the plot as saying, "It would almost
certainly canonize [Hitler] and give birth to the myth that Germany
would have been saved if he had lived."
British and Canadian researchers were especially aggressive in their
pursuit of anthrax as a weapon of mass destruction. In the summer of
1942, after conducting anthrax experiments at their germ warfare
center at Porton Down, England, the British initiated a series of large
anthrax-bomb tests on Gruinard, an uninhabited island off the coast
of Scotland. The first bomb exploded, infecting and killing about 30
test sheep in less than a week's time. Subsequent tests killed larger
numbers of livestock. Camp Detrick liaison officer to Porton Down,
William Sarles, witnessed the Gruinard Island tests.
As might have been expected, spores eventually made their way to
the Scottish mainland, causing an outbreak of anthrax. As a result of
the Gruinard tests, the island was so badly contaminated that it has
been completely sealed off to visitors. Over the years, there have
been reports that the remaining animals of the island display
prominent manifestations of genetic change.
Declassified Porton Down documents reveal that the British, as early
as 1941, began a battery of anthrax experiments involving spraying
anthrax spores from aircraft. By early 1942, the British had also
launched a series of experiments at Porton Down that involved the
aerial dispersal of anthrax over herds of sheep and cattle. These
same experiments led to the production of what British researchers
called "cattle cakes." These were thick, compressed whey wafers
dipped into anthrax and foot-and-mouth cultures. The Canadians
were only slightly behind the British with their own anthrax tests
conducted on a desolate prairie called Suffield near Calgary and
Medicine Hat. Few details about these tests have ever been publicly
Encouragement for anthrax research in Britain came from the highest
levels. Winston Churchill's closest scientific adviser, Lord Cherwell,
informed the prime minister in early 1944 that because of the
"appalling potentiality" of anthrax, Britain had no choice but to
develop bombs filled with the disease. In response, Churchill ordered
his military leaders to request 500,000 anthrax bombs from the United
Since 1942, the U.S. Army had been conducting an ongoing series
of secret experiments with anthrax, often in cooperation with
biological warfare scientists with the Canadian military. The
Canadians were producing anthrax spores at the rate of about 150
pounds per month at a secluded location on Grosse Ile, a St.
Lawrence seaway island near Quebec. Before its conversion to the
bacteriological cause, the island had served as a quarantine station
for immigrants wishing to enter Canada.
Grosse Isle anthrax production was slow and problematic, provoking
U.S. officials to decide to produce their own anthrax spores at a
multi-million dollar production facility built near Vigo, Ind., south of
Terre Haute. Originally designed in 1942 by the Army as a
conventional munitions plant, the newly equipped plant held 12
20,000-gallon tanks that within less than one-month's time could
produce enough anthrax for 500,000 bombs. In June 1944, following
the British request for a half-million bombs, the U.S. decided to
produce one million anthrax bombs, half of which would be stockpiled
in the U.S. for possible use.
Ed Regis, in his book "The Biology of Doom," says the shell casings
for the Vigo anthrax bombs were to be "manufactured by the
Electromaster Corporation, a commercial bomb maker in Detroit,
Mich." and that "high explosives would be made by the Unexcelled
Manufacturing Company of Cranbury, N.J."
Prior to development of the Vigo plant, the U.S. produced anthrax
spores in large quantities - some say well over two tons - at Camp
Detrick. Weapons research of the disease began in early 1943 after
Dr. Ira Baldwin of the University of Wisconsin was hired to direct
research at the just-opened Frederick installation. Baldwin was less
than enthusiastic about anthrax as a weapon, as were many of his
handpicked scientists. Most notably siding with Baldwin was Dr.
William A. Hagen, a member of the National Research Council's
Biological Warfare Committee, the group that paved the way for the
creation of Camp Detrick. Hagan, affiliated with Cornell's New York
Veterinary College, believed that exploitation of anthrax was too risky
because the disease thrives long after use in the ground and
elsewhere and is highly resistant to environmental changes.
Initially, Baldwin left the vast majority of anthrax research to Lord
Trevor Stamp, a British bacteriologist who was married to an
American. Stamp, who had worked at Porton Down, set up his
laboratory in an area that was nicknamed "Old McDonald's farm" by
a number of his colleagues. Former Camp Detrick researchers who
knew Stamp report that he was often at odds with Baldwin over
anthrax research, but that he "generally won out on most clashes"
because he had friends in high places. Not the least of these friends
was Stanley Lovell, director of the OSS Research and Development
program, Merck, the essential godfather of the U.S. biological warfare
program, and several high-ranking U.S. Army Chemical Corps
officers who deeply resented civilian Baldwin's placement as director
of Camp Detrick.
By early 1944, largely due to Lord Stamp's skillful advocacy and
work, Camp Detrick engaged a full-blown anthrax weapons
development program that rapidly resulted in the cultivation of large
amounts of anthrax spores within the confines of the Maryland facility.
Additionally, the program produced several hundred prototype
anthrax cluster bombs. Expansion of the program into the Vigo
operation was viewed at the time as an essential step in keeping
pace with the military's wartime objectives.
Fort Detrick officials maintain that the Vigo plant was "never used to
produce pathogenic agents" and that it was abandoned at the end of
the war and leased to a large pharmaceutical company for private
use. There has never been an official public accounting for the
millions of anthrax spores and hundreds of anthrax bombs that were
produced by Camp Detrick scientists prior to the re-equipping of the
H.P. Albarelli Jr. is an investigative journalist who lives in Florida. His
articles on the mysterious death of Frank Olson and West Nile virus
also appear on WorldNetDaily.