The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima 49 years ago - Aug. 6, 1945 - may have saved Japan from U.S. attacks with another weapon of mass destruction: nerve gas.
"Near the close of World War II, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were considering the use of gas in the Pacific," says a once-secret Army document. But "the timely development of the atomic bomb obviated any further consideration of all-out gas warfare."That's according to a 1951 document summarizing activities that year by the U.S. Chemical Corps. It was once classified "top secret" but was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Deseret News.
It outlined the earlier consideration of using gas against Japan, to show the historical context for heavy U.S. buildup of chemical and biological arms during the Korean War - including accelerated testing of them at Utah's Dugway Proving Ground.
At the time, the United States was bound by treaties barring use of such arms unless it was first attacked with them.
But the documents state that:
- Near the end of World War II, "public opinion, segments of the press and some military leaders began to urge that the United States initiate gas warfare in the Pacific, especially after the collapse of Germany."
- "Factors in this change of attitude were the high casualty rates in routing the Japanese from cave-like defenses and, after V-E Day (when Germany surrendered), the desire to bring the war to a swift conclusion."
- The Pentagon should consider such chemical attacks because "the longtime research program of the (Chemical) Corps had begun to produce practicable results."
An effective weapon
During the war in the Pacific, Japanese soldiers often quickly escaped into labyrinths of man-made caves, which conventional bombs and artillery could not penetrate. Heavy casualties resulted from infantry battles needed to push the Japanese from the defenses.
The Chemical Corps had developed other weapons to help infiltrate the caves, including chemical flamethrowers used in Guam, Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima and Okinawa - as well as against fortified German "pill boxes" in Europe.
It also developed incendiary bombs, which in one Okinawa attack alone "used 19,000 gallons of fuel jelly bombs to cover two acres with solid flames. Such use of fire munitions against strong enemy defense position has been an important factor in keeping American casualties to a minimum," a document says.
The Pentagon found reason to believe that nerve gas would be even more effective, and possibly cost fewer U.S. casualties.
One reason, documents say, is that at the end of the war, "the Allies learned the secrets of the new powerful German nerve gases."
They included sarin, also called nerve agent GB, which was much more deadly than anything the United States had developed - although the even deadlier nerve agent VX would be produced during the 1950s.
Sarin can be absorbed through any body surface, not just by breathing it - meaning gas masks alone cannot fully protect against it. And, the median lethal dosage is a small 100 milligrams per minute per cubic meter of air.
That would make it a potent and deadly weapon against soldiers crowded into small caves.
Testing showed practical results
Some of the practical results of chemical arms testing are listed in another once-secret summary of Chemical Corps activities in 1945.
"Both old and new toxic agents, including captured enemy war gases, were studied closely," it said about work in that last year of the war. "Field tests expanded our knowledge of the characteristics of different toxic agents in various types of munitions. Such field experiments included the most extensive airplane spray tests ever conducted by this service."
It said that led to improvements in mustard gas "that increased by 30 percent the payload of munitions containing the agent," led to completion of working chemical-arms-filled rockets and led to improvements in airplane spray tanks.
In case chemical war came, the United States also improved defenses in 1945 with new gas-detecting devices and new gas masks. Documents even noted "the veterinary aspects of gas warfare were not neglected . . . both horse and dog masks (were) perfected."
Would we use them?
The United States was banned from using chemical arms, except in retaliation, as a signer of the 1925 Geneva Protocol on chemical weapons - a treaty that arose from the horrors of chemical warfare in the trenches of World War I.
And President Franklin D. Roosevelt had reiterated that policy with a statement in 1943, "We shall in no circumstances resort to the use of such weapons unless the first use of them is by our enemies."
But reports said Japan already had used chemical and biological arms against China - which Roosevelt had noted in statements. That might have allowed the United States to assert that any use of similar weapons by it was therefore justified.
Many sources said Japan had used mustard gas and also that germ-warfare attacks occurred against at least 11 Chinese cities through 1944.
In one case in Hunan province, planes dropped grains of wheat and rice and pieces of paper and cotton that had been contaminated with bacteria that cause the plague. China estimated 700 people died from the disease in one affected city.
Also, researchers in more recent years have asserted that Japan used U.S., British, Chinese, Korean, Soviet and Australian prisoners of war as human guinea pigs in chemical- and germ-warfare research.
As investigative journalist Charles Piller and microbiologist Keith R. Yamamoto wrote in their 1988 book, "Gene Wars," "The work (on prisoners) included trials of anthrax and gas-gangrene bombs.
"Prisoners were tied to stakes, their buttocks exposed to the shrapnel flying from a bomb detonated by remote control. The disease was meticulously tracked and recorded as the victims died in agony. Other prisoners were infected with organisms causing cholera and plague, only to be dissected - sometimes while still alive - to monitor the progressive degeneration of their internal organs."
Just last month, Prince Mikasa, 78, brother of former Japanese Emperor Hirohito, told a Japanese newspaper that he had seen an army film showing Japanese troops shooting and gassing Chinese prisoners who were tied to stakes.
Mikasa, who spoke out during the war against such atrocities, even said a team from the League of Nations that came to investigate Japan's invasion of China was served fruit laced with cholera germs. But members did not contract the disease.
So had America decided to proceed with gas attacks, evidence likely existed that officials could have used to show that Japan used such weaponry first.
Ready to retaliate
The 1951 Army document also noted that during the World War II deliberations, "The national policy of `retaliation only,' had not been officially changed to one of `initiation,' but the Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that the enemy in any major war would open with CBR (chemical-biological-radiological) weapons."
It added that "the United States had, therefore, to be ready to retaliate immediately." And so it was prepared to use the potent nerve gas it had developed.
That philosophy carried over into the Korean War. Documents say Maj. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe, commander of the Chemical Corps, "convinced general staff officers that the Corps had a most potent weapon in nerve agents. Funds for development and for producing the special munitions and agents were readily made available to the Corps."
It said that included "accelerated developmental and testing activities at Dugway Proving Ground, which would result in authoritative knowledge on the behavior and employment of CBR agents."
It added that "a part of Gen. McAuliffe's success in CBR (chemical-biological-radiological) matters lies in the history of World War II."
So the consideration of gassing Japanese troops may have helped later lead to expanded testing of chemical and biological arms in Utah, which critics have charged may have sickened residents - and included the infamous 1969 accident that killed 6,000 sheep, and possibly hurt residents, in Skull Valley.
Gassed or nuked?
The United States apparently never used chemical arms against Japanese troops. Their use almost certainly would have brought retaliation with similar weapons, which Japan had. But only America had the atomic bomb when it was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki - and it gave Japan little choice but surrender.
Those atomic bombs led to 92,000 people killed or missing in Hiroshima and 40,000 killed or missing in Nagasaki - with thousands more injured and dying later from radiation-related illnesses.
Those bombs, however, likely did at least save Japanese - and probably even American - soldiers from chemical warfare.
Its effects were described by British poet Wilfred Owen, a World War I officer later killed in action, who wrote about one comrade who died in a gas attack "flound'ring like a man in fire or lime" plunging at him for help, "guttering, choking, drowning."
Owen described walking behind a wagon with the corpse watching "the white eyes writhing in his face, his hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin . . . you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud of vile incurable sores on innocent tongues."
Toward the end of the war the Pentagon believed it would sustain fewer casualties if it used nerve gas as part of the land assault on Japan.
Sarin (also known as GB)
Powerful nerve agent developed by the Germans.
FACTS: Can be absorbed through the respiratory system or through any body surface.
LETHAL DOSAGE: Median dosage, 100 milligrams per minute per cubic meter of air.Comment on this story
EFFECTS: Sarin attachks the nervous system, destroying vision, muscle control and interrupting breathing.
The plan for a land invasion of Japan was divided into two stages, Operation Olympic and Operation Coronet.
Scheduled for March 1, 1946
Scheduled for Nov. 1, 1946
Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima - Aug. 6, 1945
Atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki - Aug. 9, 1945
SOURCE: The Fall of Japan, WWII