Two decades before James B. Conant dedicated himself to saving Western Civilization from fascism by building an atomic bomb ahead of the Germans, he was recruited by the Chemical Warfare Service in WWI to help defend against the first weapon of mass destruction—poison gas. When the Germans unleashed the shocking new chemical weapons at Ypres in 1915, it marked a turning point in military technology, and effectively removed the rules of war.
The following is from Jennet Conant’s Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist.
After an eight-hour train ride, James B. Conant arrived in Cleveland on July 20. He was met at the station by Frank Dorsey, an energetic Irishman with a jaunty grin, and Colonel William G. Wilcox, who introduced himself as the new superintendent of the wartime plant. Dorsey drove directly to the proposed plant site in Willoughby, about 18 miles east of Cleveland. As Dorsey turned down Ben Hur Avenue, Conant could see at a glance that they had their work cut out for them. The two main structures appeared terribly run-down. There were no water or sewage systems. The electrical wiring was prehistoric. Conant was hard put to see how the plant could be constructed and fully operational by December 1. Hanging in the balance, however, was the knowledge that American boys were being gassed to death in France every day, and unless they made the deadline there would be no way to deliver enough lewisite—an arsenic-based chemical weapon (the deadliest yet) named for Winford Lee Lewis—for the spring drive.
The first month was spent in a whirl of activity the likes of which he had never known before. Two dozen soldiers were immediately transferred to Willoughby and set to work clearing the grounds. Within days, the eleven-acre site was transformed into a military base, cordoned off by barbed wire, which was later electrified, and patrolled around the clock by armed guards. Searchlights swept the perimeter at night. A herd of local contractors, all sworn to secrecy, labored around the clock in order to get the new construction completed as promptly as possible. The first order of business was the laboratory, which was completed on August 11, and by the following day Conant had all the equipment installed and the research under way. Dozens of chemists and engineers convened at Willoughby over the next few weeks. Most were complete strangers. They knew nothing about each other or the work they were about to embark on. All of their nerves were on edge. Of the 22 officers and 542 enlisted men eventually assigned to Willoughby, Conant was one of only three who knew the entire scope of the mission from the outset.
On reaching the gas factory, the chemists found themselves virtual prisoners, locked up together in an industrial stockade, working seven days a week until the war was won. Complete wartime censorship was enforced. No mention could be made of Willoughby in correspondence or conversation under penalty of court martial or severe punishment. A Cleveland post office box, lock drawer 426, was used as a mailing address. Security at the plant was so tight that the soldiers dubbed it the “mousetrap”—as in “What goes in never comes out.” For the first six weeks, the living conditions were worse than most prisons. The officers camped out in tents while the men crowded together in temporary squad rooms. They had to make do with portable toilets and shower trucks, and no mess facilities, which meant forced marches into town three times a day for meals at the Willoughby Inn, which had been commandeered by the government. Although the local residents were not aware of the nature of the secret work being done at the old Ben-Hur plant, the presence of so many soldiers did not go unnoticed. In an effort to explain away all the activity and the foul odors, Conant told town mayor William Carmichael they were making a “new form of rubber.”
A slight, baby-faced, 25-year-old major, Conant had to develop new muscles and learn the qualities necessary for command. He had limited experience outside the laboratory walls, and most of what he knew about organization and management he learned by trial and error. As much as he disliked the strut of army life, he learned to play the part. He rose at dawn, buttoned himself into his uniform, wolfed down breakfast, and arrived at the plant in time to sing “A-a-all up!” into the base’s public address system at six o’clock sharp each morning. He rarely left before ten at night, sometimes working until midnight. When things were at full tilt, he slept in his lab, plugging on to the point of exhaustion and then collapsing on a cot for a few hours.
By all accounts, he excelled in his new role, and played a significant part in welding the three distinct groups of scientists into an effective working unit. There were often heated arguments about the best way to proceed, and Conant proved adept at negotiating compromises, dispelling tensions and petty disagreements with tact and his dry, restrained humor. “Everybody respected him and his opinions,” the Boston Globe reported later. “When he spoke, he was always listened to, because he usually said something worthwhile.” Under his energetic supervision, rapid progress was made in the laboratory research, and a number of “revolutionary changes” were made in some of the processes originally planned for the manufacture of G-34. Still hoping to get to France, he had obtained a promise from Norris that he would be assigned to a combat unit after the completion of the pilot plant. “The fields of France look greener every day,” he would exhort his crew as they toiled over the tricky five-step manufacturing process, working as fast as they could to get the materiel to the front.
The pace of work at the factory was frenetic, and they all suffered from the mental and physical strain of the wartime production schedule. Conant internalized the stress and began suffering the stomach problems that would plague him the rest of his life. He lost weight and had trouble sleeping. He would lie awake at night going over and over his design of the plant, particularly the ventilation of the fumes. He knew firsthand from his “disastrous attempt” after college that if he overlooked one small, crucial detail, it could all go up in flames again. But a senior engineer had warned him that as project leader he could not betray the “slightest indication” of his apprehensions or it would “destroy the confidence of the men,” so he hid his doubts behind an implacable Yankee reserve.
The manufacturing work was hazardous in the extreme. Conant went to great lengths to make sure his crew was well versed in the careful handling of toxic materials, especially arsenic trichloride, which was extremely corrosive and volatile, and could be as lethal for the men handling it as for its intended victims. Gas masks were issued, and in some cases airtight protective suits. Procedures had to be strictly adhered to if they were to avoid the frequent accidents that poisoned factory workers in Britain. Even at the American University research station, many of the men conducting the early testing on lewisite had fallen ill from chemical exposure. Because of the high risks, a 60-bed hospital was erected on-site. Two doctors were on call night and day. Although there were several accidents, and some men suffered painful lewisite burns, there were no deaths on Conant’s watch.
In only four months, working under extreme pressure, he successfully oversaw every stage of development from laboratory to large-scale production. The plant went into operation right on schedule. In November, just as they were about to begin ramping up production, word came that the war was over. The fighting ceased on the entire Western Front at eleven o’clock on Monday morning, November 11, 1918. Exhausted, and outmatched by the better-coordinated and equipped Allies, Germany surrendered. Lewisite had not been needed to force the enemy’s hand after all. In a war of awful weapons, the worst would not be used.
The overwhelming reaction of the men at Willoughby was one of relief. The sound of the peace bells meant they could turn off their stewing cauldrons, retire from the black arts and return to the world.
In the weeks that followed, the American chemists were lauded for helping to silence the German guns. On November 28 Conant’s face graced the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer alongside those of Colonel Wilcox and Captain William Henry McAdams, under the headline “Makers of the Deadliest Gas; How They Did It.” The article went on to praise their “unbelievable accomplishment,” promising that the story, told for the first time since the lifting of wartime censorship, “bests the wildest fiction”:
The most terrible weapon ever forged by man has been placed at the disposal of the United States by American chemists . . . Only the signing of the armistice prevented its wholesale use against the Germans, first users of poison gas in battle. For on the day the armistice was signed a great plant, with 18 acres under one roof, was ready to swing into operation at Willoughby, and the product would have been 20 tons a day. A single day’s product, shot into Cleveland, would depopulate the city.
The Willoughby Republican trumpeted the news of its hometown heroes: “Here Is the Big Story of the Great Work of the Soldiers Who Have Been in Our Midst.” A week later, the Independent chimed in with a similar headline: “Now We Know What Those Ben Hur Boys Are Doing.”
The work at the Willoughby plant did not cease immediately, though the winding down began almost at once. Because of the progressive nature of the manufacturing process, there were batches of lewisite that needed to be cycled through the apparatus before it could be shut down. By early December, most of the work was done, and the soldiers and officers were discharged. A small crew remained behind to begin the laborious task of dismantling and disposing of the equipment. Demolition crews arrived and started taking down the barracks and laboratory buildings. In a matter of weeks, almost every trace of the sprawling wartime factory was gone. Only the formulas—and a few samples—were preserved, carefully locked away in the files of the War Department.
It is not clear how much was ever produced. Conant always maintained they were in “pilot production” when the hostilities ended, and “no appreciable quantity” of gas had been produced. In his memoir, he goes so far as to suggest that in the final days “many doubts” surfaced about lewisite’s effectiveness in battle, and whether the plant would actually have gone into production was “open to question.” However, in the official history of the Chemical Warfare Service published in 1919, Lieutenant Colonel W.D. Bancroft, a chemist in the Research Division, claimed the plant was in “commercial production,” which would seem to suggest things were well under way. On April 20 a lengthy feature published in the New York Times Magazine, entitled “Our Super-Poison Gas,” reported that “ten tons a day” were being produced when the peace treaty was signed and, as the plant was two months ahead of schedule, “almost enough was on hand to destroy the entire people of the United States.” The Times story, along with many other articles that appeared that spring, contained sensational claims regarding lewisite, including the grossly exaggerated statement that it was “72 times deadlier than mustard.” The publicity only added to the growing mythology about its potency, and lewisite became popularly known as the “dew of death.”
For all the planning that went into producing lewisite, very little thought was given to what to do with the left over supply. In the end, the decision was made to take the huge store of liquid lewisite packed in 55-gallon steel drums to the coast by train and dump it at sea. The military routinely interred leaky munitions and chemical waste underwater or underground, the latter technique commonly known as “burn it and bury it.” Soldiers working at the American University Experimental Station (AUES), the center of chemical warfare research for two years, left so much debris in the ground in the leased acres around the Washington, DC, neighborhood of Spring Valley that they took to calling it “Death Valley.”
In May 1919 a vial of lewisite, described as “the deadliest poison ever known,” was shown under guard at an exhibit in Washington that highlighted the wartime activities of the US Department of the Interior, part of the ongoing postwar propaganda campaign. Of all the inventions to come out of this vast military industrial effort—the Browning machine gun, the Liberty airplane motor, the depth bomb, the submarine detector, and the radio telephone—lewisite was “first on the list,” declared Harper’s magazine, “not only because in itself it epitomizes the romance of chemistry, but because its discovery has placed forever in the hands of the United States the most powerful weapon of war ever yielded.”
In the first flush of victory, there were only accolades for the chemists responsible for lewisite’s inception and development. For the last two years of the war, when America was an active participant, poison gas had loomed large in the popular imagination, and stories about its death-dealing properties dominated the newspapers. The general feeling was that Germany had inflicted this heinous weapon on the Allies, and America had risen to the challenge, in the end surpassing the enemy. Lewis, who was credited with inventing the new poison gas, was proud of his work, and became an outspoken advocate for the Chemical Warfare Service: “For quantity, new methods of application and novelty, it epitomized the American war spirit,” he declared. “The spirit of an outraged and ingenious people, resolved to spare nothing to crush a criminal idea.”
Lewis considered poison gas to be a more humane and “merciful” offensive weapon because only a small fraction of the war’s 17 million deaths were caused by chemical weapons—an estimated 90,000 were killed by gas, though a million more were left blind or disabled—as compared to conventional weapons. Instead of the grotesque wounds inflicted by bullets and shells, gas could incapacitate the enemy long enough for the battle to be won, but allow soldiers to recover and live to fight again. He believed gas was the weapon of the future: “One pound of chloropicrin or brombenzyl cyanide [tear gas] will dispel a mob, and they will go home tearfully and unharmed,” he theorized. “Somewhere out in the undiscovered countries of science, there is a chemical weapon that will anesthetize whole armies.”
In the peacetime calm, however, the American people and their servants in Congress did not want to contemplate the future of chemical warfare. As the soldiers returned from the front, and stories about their terrible suffering were widely circulated, everyone from journalists and fiction writers to religious figures and women’s groups held up poison gas as a principal example of the evils of war. When the government moved to drastically reduce defense spending, it was the Chemical Warfare Service’s turn to face extinction. General Amos A. Fries, the head of the CWS, launched a publicity campaign to try to keep it from being disbanded. Sibert and Lewis were among those who lobbied hard for the continued existence of the program, and expressed disgust and dismay that the postwar revulsion against chemical weapons permeating the Paris peace talks was threatening to endanger the “stupendous” organization they had built with so much cost and care.
In his testimony before a joint Senate and House committee hearing on military affairs in November 1919, Dorsey also vigorously defended the Chemical Warfare Service as vital to the national defense, and argued it would be dangerous to believe such a deadly weapon could ever be completely banned:
I think poison gas is here to stay for the same reason that high explosives are here to stay, because it is effective. It is effective in killing men, which is the business of war, and no matter what agreement is reached at the peace conference or any agreement that nations enter into, the fact remains that you can conduct experiments on poison gas without anyone’s knowledge, no matter if you have an investigator coming around every day looking at you.
Conant, who was not at the forefront of the debate, never publicly defended his crucial role in overseeing the wartime production of lewisite. Like his fellow CWS officers, he tended to view the subject of poison gases dispassionately—as basic chemistry and not taboo. Just as tear gas was “a gift” to the forces of law and order, he believed chemical weapons were a valid form of warfare, and did not buy the argument they were somehow more uncivilized. The Marquis of Queensbury rules might be made to apply in the boxing ring but not at the front, and not in a desperate fight to the finish in which all manner of firearms and torpedoes were employed without scruple. “To me, the development of new and more effective gases seemed no more immoral than the manufacture of explosives and guns,” he asserted in his memoir. “I did not see in 1917, and do not see in 1968, why tearing a man’s guts out by high-explosive shell is to be preferred to maiming him by attacking his lungs or skin. All war is immoral. Logically, the 100 percent pacifist has the only impregnable position.”
In the debate that ensued in the postwar period, the prevailing “moral” argument against gas was that it could not be controlled with accuracy, and could blow over towns adjacent to battlefields and result in civilian casualties. A number of prominent members of the defense establishment spoke out against the indiscriminate nature of gas warfare as wantonly “cruel” and “savage,” with no redeemable value. One of the chief opponents of the CWS was Army Chief of Staff Peyton C. March, who condemned the use of suffocating gases that “carried wherever the wind listeth, kills the birds of the air, and may kill women and children in the rear of the firing line.” Conant, clearly impatient with such sentiments, acknowledged only that the same “chain of reasoning” was used to condemn unrestricted submarine warfare because it attacked civilians. He remained steadfastly unapologetic. Dismissing the moral objections as “old-fashioned” by modern standards, he noted with brutal irony that with the advent of aerial bombing in World War II, “civilian casualties became not only a necessary consequence of bombing, but one might almost say an objective of the fleets of bombers directed by the British, the Germans, and the Russians, as well as by the Americans.”
Part III of this Lit Hub Folio appears tomorrow:
Grappling with the awful reality of the nuclear age.
Read part I, “Drinking with Stalin on the Eve of the Cold War.“
From Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist, by Jennet Conant, courtesy Simon & Schuster. Copyright 2017, Jennet Conant.