Waking The Slumbering Giants

With 3 million lice-ridden Russian corpses and another 27 million people afflicted by typhus after the First World War, the Soviets could not have missed the potential of entomological warfare. In 1928, the Revolutionary Military Council initiated the weaponization of typhus. A top-secret institute was founded in the town of Suzdal under the control of OGPU, the forerunner of the KGB.1 In light of the risks associated with studying human diseases, the facility was transferred to a more isolated site in 1936.

In a move reminiscent of the Japanese occupation of Pingfan, the residents of Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea were given six hours to evacuate their homes, and the Soviet biological warfare program set up shop. Typhus might have catalyzed the Soviet program, but interest in other pathogens was formalized in a project code named Golden Triangle, an allusion to its three elements: plague, cholera, and anthrax.

While diseases with the potential to be carried by insects were central to the Soviets' efforts in unconventional warfare, the earliest success came as a serendipitous chemical discovery rooted in entomology. In a tale eerily similar to that of nerve gas in Germany, Soviet scientists searching for better insecticides happened upon a poison that was tough on cockroaches and hell on humans.2 Phosgene oxime was appropriately called "nettle gas" in light of the first symptom of exposure—a stinging, searing sensation on the skin. If inhaled, the blistering agent lethally burned the victim's lungs. Chemical munitions may have been the first entomologically based weapons out of the blocks, but live insects were not far behind.

In the early years of the Second World War, both chemical and biological agents were favored weapons of partisans. Supplied by their Soviet allies, Polish guerrillas killed hundreds of Germans using poisons, pathogens, and insect infiltrators. In 1943, Russian saboteurs planted typhus-infected lice among German troops occupying the Karachevo region.3 The results were impressive: 2,808 soldiers were debilitated by disease. But as clever and effective as these covert operations were, the Soviets had much bigger plans for entomological weapons.

History provides a fuzzy picture of most Soviet research on biological warfare. There are whispers of human experimentation at various prisons and detention camps. The strongest evidence was provided by a deserter who recounted a near-disaster in Mongolia.4 Near the city of Ulan Bator, the Soviets set up a primitive laboratory where they performed experiments on political prisoners and Japanese POWs. To evaluate the military potential of insect-borne diseases, the Russians chained their captives in tents that held cages of plague-infected rats infested with fleas. In the summer of 1941, one of the flea-bitten prisoners escaped and triggered an outbreak that spread to nearby villages. Alarmed by the possibility of an epidemic, the commander ordered air strikes on the afflicted settlements. Once the villages were leveled, the Soviets burned the corpses of 3,000 to 5,000 Mongols, both to ensure that the outbreak was terminated and to destroy evidence of the biological blunder.

Various sources reveal that Soviet research pursued other arthropod-borne diseases, but historians lack tangible proof that entomological weapons were used. There is, however, rather compelling circumstantial evidence of human complicity in insect-vectored diseases amid the bloodiest battle of World War II.

Outside of Stalingrad in the summer of 1942, the German army fell prey to a debilitating malady.5 The symptoms began with an ulcerating sore, with the nearby glands soon becoming swollen. As the sickness progressed, the soldiers were wracked with fever and chills, pounding headaches, and malaise. Although not many died—probably less than one in ten—the illness brought the campaign to a halt. The disease then spilled over into the surrounding countryside, with more than 100,000 people eventually falling ill. The culprit was tularemia.

There had never been such a major outbreak of this disease in the region, although one of the most common ways to contract tularemia is from the bite of an infected deer fly, horse fly, or tick. The Soviets had been investigating tularemia in their biological warfare program, and at least one modern expert contends that, "This unprecedented spike in tularemia casualties was not likely to have occurred naturally."6 Not only did the Soviets disavow any knowledge as to the origin of the epidemic, but they also accused the Germans of taking a parting entomological shot at Stalingrad.

The origin of the typhus outbreak that developed as the German army retreated cannot be ascertained with certainty, but human villainy may have been instrumental. The outbreak started within the German forces. The Soviets—claiming to have no idea how typhus had irrupted among the enemy—were positive that the Germans deliberately spread the disease among Russian civilians and troops. Just as flea-ridden bodies had been catapulted over the walls of Kaffa, the Soviet Extraordinary Commission claimed:

The fascists imposed distinctive, epidemiological diversities [diversions?] aimed at injuring our troops: they threw across the front line the lice-ridden victims of spotted fever [typhus] and prior to their back off dissolved the camps of war prisoners and civilian populations infected by spotted fever.7

The Soviet accusations of the Germans during the battle of Stalingrad rang as hollow as their condemnation of the Japanese during the Khabarovsk trial. But the hypocrisy of condemning your enemy's use of insects as weapons while operating your own entomological warfare program was standard fare for the victors. Some critics contend that no country was more disingenuous in its righteous indignation than the United States. By not being a party to the Geneva Protocol, the Americans were able to pursue biological—and entomological—warfare without formal censure.

When confronted with a horrible scenario, a common psychological response is to deny the severity—or even the existence—of the situation. Throughout the 1920s and '30s, denial was the United States' position on biological warfare. The U.S. Chemical Warfare Service, in which any development of biological weapons would have occurred, steadfastly argued that living organisms were not a viable means of waging war. In a 1926 reply to a League of Nations initiative on the subject, the Chemical Warfare Service maintained that "the only method presenting a certain danger would be that of dropping from aeroplanes, glass globes filled with germs."8

This American position was further entrenched by an influential analysis conducted by the chief of the Medical Section for the Chemical Warfare Service in 1932. Major Leon A. Fox was considered to be a gifted physician and a brilliant scientist, so his scathing critique became the U.S. Army's official position:

Bacterial warfare is one of the recent scare-heads that we are being served by the pseudo-scientists who contribute to the flaming pages of the Sunday annexes syndicated over the nation's press. . . . Certainly at the present time practically insurmountable difficulties prevent the use of biologic agents as effective weapons.9

In Fox's estimation, microbes could not survive prolonged exposure in the environment, and they certainly could not withstand being blasted from bomb casings. And if the pathogens were infective, the resulting disease would likely boomerang and afflict one's own troops (unless they had been immunized, in which case the enemy would also have secured this protection). This scientific authority was no military strategist, having failed to consider that civilian populations were important wartime targets. However, the Fox Doctrine became the de facto position of the U.S. military. When Ishii Shiro read Fox's article in the journal Military Surgeon, he found the analysis deeply flawed.10 What good fortune to discover such naivete and vulnerability in one's adversary.

Later in the 1930s, a thin crack emerged in the American policy of denial. Intelligence briefs indicated that Japan and Germany had begun to prepare for biological warfare. Using these hints as a reason to revisit the Fox Doctrine, Lieutenant Colonel James S. Simmons of the U.S. Army Surgeon General's office argued that the country was vulnerable to attack.11 He posited several scenarios, including the enemy's releasing swarms of yellow fever—infected mosquitoes along American shores to weaken the U.S. war effort. Simmons's 1937 report was received with only passing interest, but it put him in a position from which he could subsequently argue for a substantive change in policy.

Two years after Simmons issued his report, the U.S. State Department was notified that a Japanese Army physician (Ishii's minion, Naito Ryoichi) had tried to obtain the yellow fever virus from the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. The strange incident yielded no official response, and it might have passed entirely without notice had Simmons not been primed to react. Linking this event to other intelligence, he wrote the secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson, and strongly suggested that the War Department initiate a research program to develop both a defensive response to biological attack and the capability to respond in kind. The momentum was beginning to shift.

In the early fall of 1939, the Chemical Warfare Service released an important but uninspiringly named document to select personnel. "Technical Study No. 10" marked a major turn in military thinking.12 The report identified nine diseases to which the United States was vulnerable. Six of the illnesses were of par ticular concern because they were carried by insects and did not require "existing skin lesions nor a co-agent [other than a vector] in order to enter the human body." The report warned "that attack by airplane dissemination of infected insects and other bacteriological materials, is a possibility not to be ignored."

By the early 1940s the U.S. military had replaced the Fox Doctrine with the belief that, ready or not, biological warfare was coming—and America was not ready. Secretary Stimson asked the National Academy of Sciences to appoint a civilian panel to assess the status and future of biological weapons. The WBC (either an acronym for War Bureau Consultants or the result of an effort to fool spies by transposing the abbreviation for the Biological Warfare Committee) was diddling around with a search of the scientific literature when the U.S. Army received a report of the Japanese plague attack on Changteh—the release of 100 million infected fleas had triggered an outbreak that initially killed 500 people and eventually led to 7,000 deaths.13 Just days later, the WBC and the rest of the nation learned that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. What had begun as a scholarly study became a deadly serious venture.

Ten weeks after the United States entered the war, the WBC issued its first report. The tome included a staggeringly thorough analysis of biological warfare, covering a range of entomological tactics. So taken was the committee with the potential of insect vectors that they recommended "studies be made to determine whether mosquitoes can be infected with several diseases simultaneously with a view to using these insects as an offensive weapon."14 In its second report, the WBC pulled no punches, concluding that "the best defense for the United States is to be fully prepared to start a wholesale offensive whenever it becomes necessary to retaliate."15

Secretary Stimson was convinced that the United States was facing a ruthless enemy, who had a head start and would use biological weapons if faced with defeat or strategic opportunity. In April 1942, he advised the president to adopt the WBC report. Roosevelt accepted his secretary's recommendation, and Stimson appointed George W. Merck, the president of the giant chemical manufacturer Merck & Co., Inc., as director of a civilian War Research Service.16 The WRS would replace the WBC and oversee biological warfare preparations.

Placing a poorly funded, nonmilitary committee in charge of research virtually guaranteed that substantive work on biological warfare would go nowhere. Four months after its creation, the WRS figured out that nothing much could be learned without an actual weapons development program. When they pled for assistance, the National Academy of Sciences appointed a cleverly code-named group—the ABC Committee—whose mission seemed the same as its predecessor and whose abbreviation remains a mystery.17 Although in no position to harm anyone with biological weapons, America was winning the war of acronyms.

Finally, late in 1942, President Roosevelt authorized an expenditure of $250,000 from his Special Emergency Fund to jump-start substantial research leading to production of biological warfare agents.18 Roosevelt's decision allowed the U.S. Army's Chemical Warfare Service to begin a series of studies, but he remained largely clueless about the nature of what he had funded. A year later, the president was perplexed upon finding a Department of Agriculture request for $405,000 that the Bureau of the Budget could not explain. The War Department had instructed their collaborating agency to keep the project secret, and the frustrated commander in chief asked his special assistant, "Why is it so confidential to destroy insect pests?"19 Two days later his underling found that the scientists were preparing to defend the nation from a biological attack, but it might have been more revealing if he'd asked either the British or Canadians for a briefing on entomological warfare.

Biological warfare had been on the British agenda since the early 1930s when, in the great round-robin game of suspicion, they received intelligence reports that the Germans were pursuing microbial and entomological weapons. England's initial response was to begin stockpiling insecticides. While Colorado potato beetles were seen as the most likely nemesis at home, the British also had concerns for their colonies. Haldane issued an even more dire prediction:

It has been suggested by many students of tropical diseases that if mosquitos carrying yellow fever once got a foothold in India, there would be an epedemic [sic] of yellow fever overrunning the whole country. . . . From what we have seen of the behaviour of certain Powers in recent wars, I do not think it would be beyond them to introduce an epidemic of that kind if they wanted to paralyse the Indian Army.20

Haldane's speculations led the British to stockpile yellow fever vaccine to protect their far-flung troops. Meanwhile, the Germans launched their own campaign of accusations. In the weeks leading up to the outbreak of World War II, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, claimed that the British were attempting to introduce yellow fever into India by collecting infected mosquitoes from West Africa and releasing them from aircraft over cities.21 Why the British would have attacked their own colony wasn't entirely clear, but the Germans were evidently worried about the Allies' capacity to wage entomological warfare.

The British press countered with reports that the Germans had released innocuous bacteria in the London Underground and Paris Metro as "practice attacks" to determine the susceptibility of these cities.22 These incidents were almost surely a hoax, but England was not satisfied with simply waiting for the enemy to attack.

In 1940, the British government built a secret biological warfare laboratory at Porton Down.23 The facility grew rapidly into a scientific behemoth that featured the largest brick building in the nation. Porton Down concentrated on bacteriological weapons, although some work was conducted on using house flies to vector Salmonella—a nasty intestinal pathogen that people who have suffered food poisoning can respect, if not appreciate. As the British government's program was cranking up, the Canadians were getting started in a rather different manner.

Sir Frederick Banting, who shared the 1923 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery of insulin, believed that the coming world conflict would be "a war of scientist against scientist"—politicians, at least in Canada, were proving useless.24 Banting had been stymied in getting his government to grasp the potential of biological weapons. There was some concern that Vancouver, with its questionably effective sanitation and unquestionably large rat population, was vulnerable to plague. But Banting could not convince the Canadian leadership that a war could be fought with living organisms. Undeterred, he struck out on his own. With connections to industry magnates such as the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the chairman of T. Eaton Co. (a major department store chain), and the head of the Seagrams liquor empire, Banting managed to raise more than a million dollars from private sources to underwrite his biological warfare research program.

The Canadian scientists met with their U.S. counterparts late in 1941. The Americans hadn't made much progress on biological weapons, so they were eager to learn about the work of their northern neighbors. The two groups struck a deal—the Canadians shared the results of their research on converting yellow fever mosquitoes into biological weapons, and the Americans opened their classified files on botulism, malaria, plague, psittacosis, tularemia, typhus, and yellow fever. The happy quid pro quo might have blossomed had the British not interrupted with incredible news.

Porton Down had been working on various anti-crop and anti-livestock weapons with an eye to destroying their enemy's food supply.25 In the summer of 1942, British scientists had successfully tested an anthrax bomb against livestock on Gruinard Island in the Scottish highlands. This was only the tip of the iceberg—anthrax, particularly when inhaled, is lethal to humans. The British had hit upon an ideal biological warfare agent, but there was a snag. England lacked the industrial capacity to produce the number of bombs that would be required to turn this pathogen into a full-blown weapon system. The Americans, on the contrary, could manufacture enormous quantities of war materials.

A plan to produce 500,000 anthrax-filled bombs a month put the U.S. military in the big leagues of biological warfare. The Americans might have been the last of the major belligerents to begin substantive work in this field, but the program would grow to employ thousands of civilian and military workers. With $60 million in support, biological warfare would come to rival the Manhattan Project for talent, if not economic resources.26

Roosevelt's initial funding had started the ball rolling at Edgewood Arsenal, but the British push for large-scale production left no doubt that a larger facility was needed. The U.S. operation put down roots in an obscure tract of military land in rural Maryland. Detrick Field—which was soon renamed Camp (and later Fort) Detrick—would be the cornerstone of biological warfare.

The military anticipated a cost of $1.2 million dollars to build Camp Detrick into a premier research and development center.27 They were off by a factor of ten. The facility boasted 245 structures, including laboratories and production plants, housing for 5,000 workers, hospital, fire house, chapel, theater, recreation halls, and—of course—incinerators. Although no humans were killed in experiments, the scientists racked up an incredible tally of animals: 598,702 mice, 32,339 guinea pigs, 16,652 rats, 5,222 rabbits, 4,578 hamsters, 225 frogs, 166 monkeys, 48 canaries, 34 dogs, 30 sheep, 25 ferrets, 11 cats, 5 pigs, and 2 roosters. The production of anthrax was the catalyst for this remarkable venture, but the scientists explored a panoply of biological agents. And among its other units, Camp Detrick housed a flourishing Entomological Warfare Department.

Although some experts saw airborne dissemination as the ultimate means for waging biological warfare, others argued for the use of vectors.28 In that great American way, the entomologists and microbiologists competed to make their systems operational. Techniques for mass-producing fleas, lice, and mosquitoes were developed, while methods to produce clouds of infective microbes were studied in a special bomb chamber. And both groups of scientists soon received a boost in support, thanks to the enemy.

When transoceanic balloons floated over the west coast of the United States, American scientists managed to squeeze more political value out of the aerial attacks than did their Japanese counterparts. Claiming that the raid "scared them stiff," U.S. researchers warned political and military leaders that Japanese B encephalitis—the disease that had catalyzed Ishii's passion for biological warfare—could be the next payload. According to Colonel Murray Sanders, a leading military microbiologist at Camp Detrick,

Mosquitos were the best vectors—and we had plenty of those in the States—and our population had no defenses against B encephalitis. We had no experience of the disease in this country. . . . And four out of five people who contracted it would have died, in my view.29

Sanders's estimate of mortality was rather exaggerated, but not out of line with other efforts to incite the government. Although claiming that a quart of the virus, formulated as a freeze-dried powder, "would have put America at Ishii's mercy," the scientists knew full well that there was no chance that the pathogen in this form could have been picked up by mosquitoes. But they also understood how little their superiors knew about biology—and the researchers used this knowledge gap to enhance their own prestige and funding. With an infusion of support, a most impressive monument to American industry and ingenuity grew, with poetic appropriateness, in the nation's heartland.

In the Second World War, the town of Vigo, Indiana, stepped up to the plate and hosted one of the least desirable wartime enterprises: an ordnance plant. Perhaps the logic was that had there been an accident, the population center of Terre Haute County would be six miles from the explosion. The good folks of Vigo probably thought that life couldn't get much more dangerous than having an ordnance factory in their backyard. They were wrong. The U.S. military converted the plant into the largest bacterial production facility in the world.30 A series of failed safety tests (harmless bacteria used to simulate anthrax kept escaping) prevented the Vigo plant from coming on line. But this glitch in the production side of biological warfare didn't keep researchers from moving ahead—and learning their own lessons about safety.

The American scientists were coming to the same conclusions as the Japanese. While containment of pathogens and vectors in the laboratory required stringent but familiar protocols, field testing demanded geographic isolation to minimize the risk of accidental infections. What the Americans needed was a remote location—like an island.

About seven miles from the coast of Mississippi lies Horn Island, a nondescript spit of land about a mile wide and 10 miles long. In the spring of 1943, this homely hunk of sand was transformed into a biological proving ground, with two little problems.31 The planners had failed to consider that the island was situated in prime fishing grounds and that the winds blew toward the mainland for more than two-thirds of the year.

The biological warfare workers scrambled to find a more remote test site, settling on the Granite Peak Installation, a 250-square-mile tract of wasteland on Utah's Dugway Proving Grounds. Plans were drawn up for a massive complex in the desert, but the facility would not be ready for nearly two years. So the scientists had to squeeze their work into the hours when the boats and breezes were absent in the Gulf of Mexico. With the hazards of releasing clouds of pathogens upwind from Biloxi, the microbiologists were constantly frustrated. Not so the entomologists.

The military could acquire valuable information on the operational potential of vectors without having to release infected insects and endanger unsuspecting fishermen and urbanites. Although Camp Detrick's upper echelon was partial to airborne dissemination of pathogens, the Canadians' progress with rearing and disseminating insect vectors could not be dismissed.32 Entomologists from the two countries collaborated on a series of field experiments ranging from the banal to the bizarre.

Horn Island saw releases of house flies and salt-marsh mosquitoes (presumably Aedes solicitans), and then things got a bit wacky. The Americans were intrigued by the Canadians' work on mass producing fruit flies.33 Although these insects are not natural carriers of any disease, the potential to rear them in enormous quantities and their affinity for overripe fruit opened the possibility that they could be used to contaminate an enemy's food supply. Tests with these insects were followed by experimental releases of screwworm flies (Cochliomyia hominivorax) and "wool maggots" (an assortment of bottle and blow flies in the family Calliphoridae). These were also not normally disease vectors, but at least these flies could inflict injuries to livestock—a more valuable wartime asset than rotting bananas.

These trials had only "limited success," which dampened the entomological enthusiasm. Critics complained that development of biological weapons was being slowed by testing "unconventional modes of dissemination such as the use of insects."34 However, one element of the American war effort reveled in wildly imaginative methods of killing, and this operation saw flies as the ideal conscripts in defeating the Nazis.

Before the outbreak of World War II, American intelligence operations were a fragmented collection of programs conducted by the State Department and the various branches of the armed services. With the totalitarian regimes rising to power, Roosevelt needed a coherent intelligence service and someone to arbitrate the squabbles among the turf-conscious agencies. Some things never change. In 1941, Roosevelt appointed one of his classmates from Columbia University, William J. Donovan, as Coordinator of Information—a post functionally indistinguishable from President George W Bush's Director of National Intelligence.

General William "Wild Bill" Donovan earned his nickname either for the gutsy plays that he made as the star quarterback for his college football team or for the fanatical training that he gave his men before pushing them to their limits in combat. Donovan was one of the few men to rise from the enlisted ranks to become a general, and upon retirement he applied his experience to climbing the ladder of politics. He was appointed U.S. District Attorney in New York but lost his run for governor, being a Republican candidate at the wrong time and place. Undeterred, Donovan launched his meteoric ascent into national prominence by being named Roosevelt's Coordinator of Information. Just five months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the president needed intelligence like never before. So Donovan was in the ideal position to head the new Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which would later evolve into the Central Intelligence Agency.

Donovan hired a Boston chemist and business executive, Stanley P. Lovell, to head up the Research and Development Branch of the OSS. Lovell played the real-life role of Q in the James Bond movies, working with his staff to invent spy gadgets ranging from tiny cameras to explosives disguised as dinner. Nothing was too absurd—not even, as we shall see—six-legged commandos. Lovell was at the center of a plot to undermine the Fuhrer's charisma by injecting his vegetables with estrogen to cause his mustache to fall out and his voice to become soprano. His branch developed a capsule of mustard gas that was to be dropped into a flower arrangement during a high-level meeting of the enemy, as part of a plan to blind the German High Command, upon which the Pope would announce that God had punished the Nazi leaders, thereby causing the Roman Catholic soldiers among the Axis forces to lay down their arms.35 Really. Then came the mission that called for a weapon so bizarre as to make these earlier boondoggles seem downright reasonable.

In February 1942, General Rommel's Afrika Korps pummeled U.S. forces in North Africa, and the Americans became worried that their defeat would encourage fascist Spain to join the Axis alliance. Moreover, the Germans were amassing troops in Morocco, in preparation for cutting off the railroad from Casablanca to Algiers—the sole supply line for Allied forces. A covert operation was needed to debilitate the German troops, break the momentum of the Axis, and save the Allied lifeline. But this required something far beyond feminizing the Führer or blinding German generals—this called for incapacitating thousands of soldiers without being detected. This called for flies.

The plan was to weaken the enemy forces by using flies to spread a witch's brew of pathogens.36 Given the agency's inability to rear an army of flies, Lovell decided to conscript the local vectors. He didn't know it, but North American house flies couldn't have held a candle to their desert kin. Modern biological warfare researchers have considered using a Middle Eastern strain of these insects to disseminate anthrax, in light of the insects' merciless pursuit of moisture from the eyes, noses, and mouths of humans. But today's tactician would face the same logistical problem as confronted the OSS: How do you contaminate a few million flies with a pathogen?

Lovell was a chemist, but he'd been out of the laboratory often enough to know that flies love dung. And with a bit of research, he discovered a key demographic fact: There were more goats than people in Morocco—and goats are prolific producers of poop. Lovell now had the secret formula: microbes + feces + flies = sick Germans. Now all he needed was a few tons of goat droppings as a carrier for laboratory-cultured pathogens.

The OSS collaborated closely with the Canadian entomological warfare experts to launch one of the more preposterous innovations in the history of clandestine weaponry: synthetic goat dung. Of course flies are no fools; they won't be taken in by any old brown lump. So the OSS team added a chemical attractant. The nature of this lure is not clear, but a bit of sleuthing provides some clues.

Allied scientists might have crafted a chemical dinner bell by collecting and concentrating the stinky chemicals that we associate with human feces (indole and the appropriately named skatole). While these extracts would have worked, the more likely attractant was a blend of organic acids, some of which had been known for 150 years. Two of the smelliest of these are caproic and caprylic acids, which, by no coincidence, derive their names from caprinus, meaning "goat." Etymologically as well as entomologically astute, Lovell named the operation Project Capricious. So with a scent to entice the flies, Lovell's team then coated the rubbery pellets in bacteria to complete the lures.

All the Americans had to do was drop loads of pathogenic pseudo-poop over towns and villages where the Germans were garrisoned, and millions of local flies would be drawn to the bait, pick up a dose of microbes, and then dutifully deliver the bacteria to the enemy. Lovell worried about keeping the operation clandestine.37 The Moroccans had to be persuaded that finding goat droppings on their roofs the morning after Allied aircraft flew over was a sheer coincidence. Presumably a good disinformation campaign can dispel almost any suspicion, or, as Lovell intimated, if the plan succeeded there would be very few people in any condition to raise annoying questions about fecal pellets on rooftops.

Lovell's need for secrecy pertained not only to the enemy but also to his own agency. Operation Capricious was not revealed to Donovan, who, being a "soldier's soldier," would likely have nixed the use of biological weapons as being dishonorable. In the end, however, Lovell didn't have to worry about getting caught by either friends or foes, as the secret weapon was never deployed. Just as the OSS was gearing up to launch the sneak attack, the German troops were withdrawn from Spanish Morocco.38 They might well have preferred to take their chances with pathogen-laden flies, given that Hitler was sending them to the bloody siege of Stalingrad.

Such opportune turns of the war, rather than moral principle, kept the Americans and British from using biological and chemical weapons. Churchill was prepared to defend his nation with poison gas had the Germans landed on the British shores. And Truman's willingness to use atomic bombs against Japan, even when the United States was headed to near certain victory (albeit at a horrific cost in terms of American lives), leaves little doubt that he would have authorized biological weapons had the situation been sufficiently dire. Although the Americans were never desperate enough to use insects against their enemies, the U.S. military battled against insects in a series of encounters that changed the course of the war.

Military history shows that the best offense is possible only when hostile insects have been neutralized with a good defense. This is why the world's largest employer of medical entomologists for the past half century has been the U.S. Department of Defense.39 In World War II, the Americans won pivotal entomological battles in both the European and Pacific theaters.

In the summer of 1943, Allied forces fought a bloody, month-long battle to take Sicily, a strategic stepping stone to Italy. By September, the Italians had surrendered, but the occupying German forces were preparing to make the Allies pay a dreadful price for every acre of Italian real estate. When the

Americans landed in the port city of Naples, they figured that the campaign was winnable—if the fight was between them and the Germans. However, the enemy had fortuitously secured the assistance of an unwitting ally. The U.S. troops would never defeat the Nazis unless the American medical units could first conquer the lice.

When the Americans arrived, the Italian people were in desperate straits.40 Many had taken shelter from air raids in filthy, crowded caves. Within the towns and cities, squalid conditions prevailed: sanitation systems had collapsed, medical care had disappeared, and food was scarce. It was a louse's dream come true. With the number of typhus cases growing at an alarming rate, an epidemic seemed inevitable—and the Americans would be walking right into the medical minefield. Ravaged by disease, the U.S. troops wouldn't have a chance in the bitter fight against the waiting Germans. But the lessons of history had not been lost on the Allies.

In anticipation of the role that insect-borne disease could play in the war, the U.S. Typhus Commission had been formed in December 1942. Although an early typhus vaccine was available and used throughout Europe, the medical corps doubted its efficacy. The military understood that the key to winning the battle against typhus was not medicine but insecticide. The villain of the 1960s was the hero of the 1940s—DDT would save untold numbers of civilians and soldiers in southern Italy and spell the difference between victory and defeat in the coming military campaign.

The commission assembled a delousing program of unparalleled proportions, with various units swinging into full operation within two months of the Americans landing in Italy. Some units were charged with finding targets, such as crowded shelters and diseased neighborhoods. Other squads pursued "tactical delousing"—dusting people, bedding, and clothing with insecticide through a program involving 40 stations, staffed by 439 men. Altogether, they had the capacity to handle 100,000 people per day. The process was quick, easy, and effective, as described by one of the officers:

[The procedure] consisted essentially of forcefully blowing powder, by hand dusters or power dusters between the layers of clothing worn by the individual and between the innermost layer of clothing and the skin of the body. This was accomplished by a uniform technique, inserting the nozzle of the duster up the sleeve, down the neck (both front and back), around the waistline and into the crotch area of clothing. Hair and any cap or hat were dusted thoroughly. An infested person properly dusted is no longer a menace to others and will remain so for a period of at least two weeks, at the end of which he should be redusted. Approximately 1 to 1 V oz of powder per person is sufficient to insure [sic] the thorough dusting of all clothing


In just a few months, the U.S. army had dusted 3,265,786 people with 127 tons of DDT powder (see Figure 13.1). The U.S. Typhus Commission had saved the lives of thousands of Italian citizens and—more to the point in military terms—had provided the Allied commanders with a healthy army ready to take on the Nazis. But just as American troops finally broke through into northern Italy, a mysterious malady began to sap their strength.

Q fever was barely known to science when the United States was drawn into the Second World War, so it is not surprising that the American medics struggled to diagnose the illness that wracked the troops.42 The men were suffering a range of nonspecific symptoms: severe headaches, skyrocketing fevers, bone-rattling chills, and pneumonia. Along some parts of the front,

Figure 13.1. A soldier uses a power duster to apply DDT powder in the battle against louse-borne typhus, most likely in Italy during 1943. The Typhus Commission dusted more than 3 million people, saving thousands of civilian lives and ensuring that a healthy Allied force could continue the push into northern Italy. Thanks to DDT spraying in the Pacific theater, the malaria rate among Allied forces dropped by 98 percent from 1943 to 1945. (Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Figure 13.1. A soldier uses a power duster to apply DDT powder in the battle against louse-borne typhus, most likely in Italy during 1943. The Typhus Commission dusted more than 3 million people, saving thousands of civilian lives and ensuring that a healthy Allied force could continue the push into northern Italy. Thanks to DDT spraying in the Pacific theater, the malaria rate among Allied forces dropped by 98 percent from 1943 to 1945. (Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

one-third of the units were put out of commission. The rickettsiae that cause the disease are commonly transmitted to agricultural workers from infected farm animals via milk and airborne particles, but ticks are also vectors. We can surmise that eight-legged arthropods probably carried the disease among the troops, given that the soldiers had little exposure to livestock. With supportive therapies, sheer grit, and dint of will, the American offensive pushed on as the soldiers battled microbial and human enemies. While ticks made life miserable in Europe, their relatives were inflicting thousands of casualties among Allied troops in the Pacific.

Much to the relief of the 41 soldiers and sailors who landed on a spit of land off New Guinea in 1944, South Bat Island was uninhabited. But although there were no Japanese lying in wait, the island's nonhuman inhabitants were most unfriendly.43 An alliance of mites (Trombicula) and microbes nearly repulsed the Allied invasion. Within days of their landing, 26 of the men fell ill with severe headaches, fevers, chills, and swollen lymph nodes. The medics became desperately worried as some of the victims broke out in a rash that developed into crusty black scabs. The island's chiggers44 carried the rickettsia responsible for an exotic disease: tsutsugamushi fever (also called scrub typhus). This tale would be repeated on Guadalcanal and many other islands. One of the worst outbreaks struck a few weeks after troops hit the beaches of New Guinea; the 6th Infantry Division suffered 931 cases and 34 men died. While mites took a toll, another vector was far worse, putting five times more U.S. troops out of commission than did wounds incurred from battle. Chiggers were diabolical, but mosquitoes were hell.

In May 1943, General Douglas MacArthur declared, "This will be a long war, if for every division I have fighting the enemy, I must count on a second division in the hospital with malaria and a third division convalescing from this debilitating disease."45 Malaria killed only about a thousand American troops, but in the cold calculus of battle, sometimes a general prefers a dead soldier to a sick one. The former requires a burial while the latter consumes medical staff, bed space, rations, and fuel. And 2 million cases of malaria cost the U.S. military dearly in terms of manpower and supplies.

MacArthur was frustrated by his officers' failure to enforce "malaria discipline"—basic procedures to minimize the likelihood of contracting the disease. But then it is hard to blame a soldier for thinking that the armed humans on the other side of a marsh were a far more imminent risk than the clouds of mosquitoes (Anopheles) hovering over the swampy ground. As a highranking officer on Guadalcanal succinctly noted, "We are out here to fight

Japs and to hell with mosquitoes."46 But unless someone fought the insects, the officers would not have had enough soldiers to fight the Japanese.

By 1944, the U.S. military had established a formidable medical infrastructure in the Pacific theater, including dozens of malaria-survey units and more than a hundred vector-control programs.47 Between specialized training and the advent of DDT, the anti-mosquito operations were phenomenally successful. In 1943, the malaria rate among Allied forces in the Pacific was a crippling 208 cases per 1,000 troops, but by 1945 the rate had plummeted to just 5 cases per 1,000 troops.

Through the combined efforts of entomologists and engineers, the U.S. military invented the standard weapon against the insects: a five-pound canister that used a propellant to force an oil-based insecticide through a fine nozzle. This device was adapted by the pest-control industry and became the basis for household aerosol cans that filled store shelves for decades. Of course, the military also waged war on the mosquitoes with more impressive delivery systems, including B-25s and C-47s equipped with 625-gallon tanks loaded with insecticide. Indeed, the success of these systems for dispersing DDT—a notoriously stable chemical—convinced the U.S. military to abandon the longheld belief that chemical weapons had to be volatile. While insecticides were spawning new thinking in chemical warfare, mosquito-borne diseases were causing the military to rethink its position on biological warfare.

Early in the war, yellow fever was viewed with increasing concern. Not only had a Japanese agent tried to acquire a particularly virulent strain from the Rockefeller Institute, but the medical community had sounded the alarm concerning the vulnerability of Hawaii to biological attack with, among other agents, infected yellow fever mosquitoes. The War Department ordered the military to guard food and water, undertake rat and mosquito control programs, and—most fatefully—vaccinate the troops. The military had long held that inoculation could neutralize some of the most dangerous biological weapons. A yellow fever vaccination program was implemented throughout the Pacific theater, but a large portion of the vaccine was contaminated with hepatitis B, and some 330,000 U.S. servicemen were exposed to this virus.48 The "easy" solution to a biological warfare threat was not without its own risks. But syringes were not the most worrisome vectors.

Mosquitoes transmitted a menagerie of diseases in addition to malaria and yellow fever. On Samoa, mosquitoes carried filariasis, a horrific disease caused by a tiny worm that damages tissues in the lymphatic system and causes enormous amounts of fluid to accumulate. Without treatment, the legs and groin of the victim can swell to grotesque proportions (the testicles can expand to 6 inches in diameter and a half-gallon of lymph may accumulate in the scrotum) and the skin becomes thick and cracked, yielding the aptly named condition of elephantiasis. Mosquitoes spread dengue fever in Saipan, where nearly one-third of the troops contracted the illness in a three-month period in 1944.49 The symptoms are not as dramatic as those of filariasis, but the writhing elicited by the extreme muscle and joint pains have earned the disease its common name of "breakbone fever." And, finally, Okinawan mosquitoes greeted U.S. troops with Japanese B encephalitis.

Between the Americans' Faustian deal with Ishii and the U.S. military's experience with insect-borne diseases in the European and Pacific theaters, the stage was set for the next act in the diabolic drama of entomological warfare. As the curtain descended on World War II, the Soviets pressed for the death penalty for Nuremberg defendant Hans Fritzsche, on the grounds that he had instigated the Nazis' biological warfare program. The British and Americans insisted upon his acquittal. Hypocrisy has its limits, and the western allies knew full well that they had invested vastly more time and resources into their programs than had the Germans. Moreover, the western nations predicted that biological weapons would surpass nuclear arms as a means of waging war under many scenarios in the near future, a future in which the new enemy was communism. But few strategists could have guessed that this prophesy would be so spectacularly fulfilled within five years. For it was the dropping of insects, not atomic bombs, over Korea that sparked an international firestorm in the early days of the Cold War.


0 0

Post a comment