SUMMERVILLE — In 1944, Army draftee Rollins Edwards was ready to fight the Nazis. Instead, without his consent, he was made part of a secret and cruel Department of Defense medical experiment where he and other minority soldiers were intentionally exposed to mustard gas and other battlefield toxins.
While the federal government acknowledged what happened, Edwards, still sharp at 93, says there is time to do more. This is his story.
The bivouac was set up deep in the piney backwoods of Louisiana, not close to much of anything.
Edwards and about 20 other black soldiers — all strangers culled from different units — were told to line up. As each man moved through the process, they were pricked by a needle that carried a dose of mustard gas, a globally banned, deadly agent that debilitated so many during the slaughter of World War I.
“Set me on fire,” Edwards said of the pain that shot through his body.
From then on, Edwards would call the bubbling blister — and his lifetime scar — his “tattoo.” Every man who took the needle that day would get one just like it as their skin developed the same white marking in the very same place: on the inside of their left arm, just between the wrist and elbow. “That’s how they knew who went through the testing,” he said.
It was also just the start.
The men were next directed to a sealed chamber and told not to put on their gas masks until told. Edwards, however, disobeyed the order. He put his mask on immediately — just before the strange-looking canisters he’d seen on his way into the hut began to emit a recipe of mustard and Lewisite gases that attacked any exposed sweaty pore on the men’s bodies.
“If you could imagine a million fire ants on you and stinging at the same,” Edwards said. “I put my gas mask on right away,” he said. “That was the only thing that saved my face.”
It wasn’t the only test. For the next 30 days, Edwards was made to sit, lie and crawl unprotected across open fields while gaseous clouds floated down on him and the other men with little to no medical attention. When the trial ended, Edwards was told never to speak of what had happened to him or he’d face 40 years in prison. He readily agreed, knowing that his claustrophobia would make life in a cell unbearable.
Edwards had no idea what happened to the other men in the study group. He rejoined his unit and was sent overseas with the Army’s 1329th Engineers, seeing duty in Europe and in the Pacific. The decay of his skin, however, had just begun.
Decades later, Edwards’ involvement would finally be acknowledged in 1993, when declassified government documents were released proving that military leaders had deliberately used their own soldiers to test the effects of exposure to mustard gas and other agents. As many as 60,000 enlisted men were subjected to similar such experiments, later investigations showed, though it’s widely accepted they primarily targeted black GIs, along with Puerto Rican and Japanese-American minorities as well.
Edwards, though, is one of the few in the test who survive.
Edwards has told his story before and it is graphic. His life after his chemical exposure became a series of poor medical care and never-ending bouts of sickness. He received megadoses — totalling 60 shots — of penicillin that left him unable to have children and whatever-worked-to-soothe-the-burn treatments for the lesions that erupted on his body. Bloody sores would open up all over and his skin began to crack and flake off, leaving behind pinkish blotches.
To illustrate the extent of the damage, Edwards recently pointed to a clear 10-ounce jar that today sits on the kitchen table of his Summerville home. It is filled with some of the flakes of skin that have fallen from his body. The droppings resemble the shavings off a wooden pencil taken from an old-time sharpener.
One doctor told him his flare-ups continued because the red corpuscles of the skin “remember what happened.”
During World War I, mustard gas was one of the most feared weapons on the Western front, causing more than 1 million casualties. It was fired by shells with the intent of driving out troops from their position or outright debilitating them. It is usually classified as a “blistering agent” because the wounds caused by exposure resemble burns and blisters, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
“However, since mustard agents also cause severe damage to the eyes, respiratory system and internal organs, they should preferably be described as “blistering and tissue-injuring agents,” the group said.
The injuries from the Great War were so shocking that the Geneva Protocol of 1925 was signed to outlaw their use. But no one saw it as a global guarantee against the likes of an Adolf Hitler, including the U.S. War Department, which 20 years later used some of its most dispensable soldiers, minority GIs, as test subjects.
After World War II ended, Edwards returned to the States. He became a musician, traveled, got married and eventually opened a dry-cleaning business in Summerville. He became involved in boosting the black community. In 1988, he became the town’s first black councilman.
But in interviews he gave to local reporters, Edwards never talked about the mustard gas experiments that had scarred and pained him. Instead, he told stories about his unique status of serving under America’s top generals, George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, in two different theaters and helping to rescue Austria’s famous Lippizaner show horses.
Mostly, though, for the next 40 years he suffered in silence.
In 1993, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said it was searching for as many as 4,000 World War II veterans who may been exposed to mustard gas during classified tests at five sites nationwide during the 1940s. It was the offshoot of a call for the government to come clean following reports that Americans were also subjected to secret radiation testing and exposure. “Because the tests were ordered under an oath of secrecy, many veterans remained silent,” the VA’s alert said of the mustard gas tests, and invited vets who’d been subjected to file a disability claim.
Freed of his sworn secrecy, Edwards’ second wife, Juanita, was among those who encouraged him to come forward. She related the story of having to vacuum their bed in the morning as his skin peeled away. Fans in the house couldn’t be used because the breeze would blow his skin around, she said.
South Carolina’s political leaders took up his case and put on a full-court press for what would become a tougher-than-expected approval process. Sens. Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings, Gov. Mark Sanford, and the American Legion got involved. Eventually, a judge from the VA’s Board of Veterans’ Appeals approved his claim, acknowledging Army records about the chemical warfare tests around Camp Claiborne, La.
Today, his monthly disability check is around $3,000, he said. Prior to the Pentagon’s admission in the 1990s, he received nothing.
Edwards lives a mostly quiet life in Summerville. He advertises worms for sale out of his 1st North Street house. But he still doesn’t feel he was made whole by the federal government.
In recent times, Edwards has hired a lawyer to pursue benefits dating from the time of his 1946 discharge, to when he was granted his disability in the late 1990s.
James Island attorney Robert Turkewitz said Edwards is a unique case in the military. For starters, he was told he could never discuss the experiments or he would face prison, something that forced him to stay quiet and fearful for decades. And because benefits are usually timed to the day a claim was filed, Turkewitz said, that meant Edwards hasn’t been compensated for the more than 50 years he suffered in silence.
“The VA made Mr. Edwards run through every hoop to prove that the mustard gas testing was conducted at the secret remote location in Louisiana; that he was selected to participate in the testing; that his horrible skin affliction was not a pre-existing condition; and that his skin affliction was caused by the chemical gas warfare agents to which he was exposed,” Turkewitz said of the case.
Turkewitz wrote letters last month to members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation asking them to get behind legislation that would make VA disability benefits for veterans exposed to chemical gas warfare agents retroactive to their discharge or when the symptoms appeared, whichever came later.
“Getting his benefits made retroactive, in all fairness, is something that should be done here,” said Turkewitz, who, for a comparison, cited as precedence Vietnam veterans getting compensated for their Agent Orange exposure for the years before the VA recognized it as a disabling agent.
Sanford, now the 1st District congressman, said he remembers Edwards’ case and is open to helping out legislatively but “there’s no guarantee in the world of legislation.”
A VA spokesman said, short of congressional action, there is not much the agency can do now. Woody Middleton, assistant director of the South Carolina regional VA office in Columbia, said the agency has no authority to award retroactive benefits, even for mustard gas testing.
In the meantime, Edwards, who turns 94 in March, said he’s willing to be patient, even as World War II vets are dying out at around 500 a day.
“I hope I have that much time,” he said.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551.