Secrets at sea: Cloud of secrecy lifting on Dugway Navy's tests of germ and chemical agents in the Pacific during Vietnam War (reprint)

Published: Friday, Feb. 29 2008 12:00 a.m. MST

Editor's note: This story, originally published on Sunday, Oct. 22, 1995, is being reprinted online as reference to today's story by Lee Davidson regarding exposure to chemical and germ warfare testing.

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While the 1960s movie and TV series "The Wackiest Ship in the Army" poked fun at the idea of the Army sailing ships, the Army's Dugway Proving Ground and Fort Douglas actually had a secret navy to test germ and chemical arms in the Pacific.

Unlike the Hollywood comedies about World War II, Dugway's Vietnam War era work was deadly serious: — Their ships sailed through clouds of germ and chemical agents, and some sailors now blame cancer and other diseases they suffer on it — or on the mix of chemicals used for decontamination.

• While germ and chemical tests usually occurred in remote areas of the Pacific for safety and secrecy, at least one test was conducted in San Francisco Bay.

• Some of the ships had already been contaminated by radiation when used earlier as test ships during ocean nuclear bomb tests — which sailors also say may have sickened them.

• The ships also conducted tests designed to see if migratory birds could be infected far from an enemy's shores to later fly in and spread diseases — or whether examining birds from afar could show if enemies were working with deadly germs.

• One of the sailors says he was even sent into Laos and Cambodia to discharge germ and chemical weapons for tests — which, if true, likely violated treaties.

The story about Dugway's navy emerges from once-secret documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Deseret News and from interviews with sailors involved.

More documents, including some from a request specifically for data about any U.S. chemical and germ arms work in Cambodia and Laos, have not yet been released. The Pentagon has been reviewing them for months to determine if they will be declassified after they were identified by Dugway.


Documents said the Navy was worried about how to protect and decontaminate its ships in the event of chemical or germ attacks. So Army scientists in Utah assembled an ocean-based test project similar to trials conducted on land at Dugway for decades.

The at-sea testing was overseen by the Deseret Test Center — named for the Mormon pioneers' proposed-but-rejected name for the state of Utah — located at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City and later moved to Dugway Proving Ground.

Deseret's insignia showed it was not only an Army program but a joint operation with the Navy, Marines and Air Force.

Because Deseret Test Center oversaw the experiments, documents often call its overall testing program "Project Deseret."

Its small support navy was called "Project Shad." That was both an acronym for "Ship Habitation and Decontamination" studies and the name for small fish similar to herring.

The earliest at-sea testing mentioned in documents obtained occurred in 1956, and tests appear to have continued through the late 1960s.

For the experiments, Deseret Test Center obtained the use of two "liberty" ships, the mass-produced Merchant Marine cargo ships made during World War II. Tests also included five tug boats and the occasional use of submarines, jets, barges and assorted smaller vessels.

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