History Friday — The WMD Back-Up Plans for the Atomic Bomb

It has become something of a tradition for Leftists to commemorate the August 6th and 9th 1945 US A-bomb attacks on Imperial Japan, and to try and make the case that even if the first bomb was needed — which it was not — that the second bomb was what amounted to a war crime because the American government and military knew the Japanese were trying to surrender, but wanted to intimidate the Soviet Union with the A-Bomb.

I have dealt with this annual leftist commemoration ritual with myth destroying commemorations of my own explaining why Leftists are wrong on this. See the following posts:

2013 — History Friday: US Military Preparations The Day Nagasaki Was Nuked
2012 – Nagasaki Plus 67 Years
2011 – Happy V-J Day!
2010 – Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Saving Hirohito’s Phony Baloney Joband
Hiroshima — The A-bomb plus 65 years

Today’s column addressing those myths is about the weapons of mass destruction back-up plans for the Atomic bomb. They were in many ways worse than the A-bomb and there was more than one — two coming from the Sphinx Project, one from General Douglas MacArthur — and they all involved the use of poison gas, American, Australian, and amazingly enough captured German nerve gas!

German 250-kg Chemical Bombs capable of carrying Phosgene, Mustard or Nerve gases, formerly in the Chemical Corps Museum’s collection (U.S. Army Chemical Corps Museum, C. 1950)

Historical Background
The Sphinx Project was a post-German VE-Day surrender, pre-Japanese VJ-Day surrender US Army crash project to take every potential weapon and tactic the US Army had to create a uniform combat doctrine template to apply to Japanese “cave warfare tactics” seen in Biak, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. There were several separate Sphinx Project exercises by different parts of the Army. The best known of those exercises were the Army exercises at then Camp (Now Fort) Hood, Texas in June-July 1945 hosted by the Tank Destroyer Command, and the Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) and Army Air Force exercises with live lethal chemical agents and conventional weapons respectively at the CWS Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah. These were only the tip of the iceberg. Sphinx Project work also occurred for Army Ground Forces at Ft. Bragg, NC (Artillery), Ft. Benning, GA (Infantry), Fort Bliss, TX (Antiaircraft Artillery), Ft. Sill, OK (Artillery), and Ft. Knox KY (Tanks and Artillery), Additional Sphinx work was also under way by the Army Service Forces at Ft Belvoir, VA (Engineers), Edgewood Arsenal MD (CWS), and Aberdeen Proving Ground MD (Ordnance).

The standard narrative of gas warfare and the Sphinx Project comes from academic John Ellis van Courtland Moon’s 1989 article “Project SPHINX: The Question of the Use of Gas in the Planned Invasion of Japan,” in the JOURNAL OF STRATEGIC STUDIES and his 1996 article “United States Chemical Warfare Policy in world War II: A Captive of Coalition Policy?,” in THE JOURNAL OF MILITARY HISTORY. The short summary of both articles is that the USA was neither logistically nor politically ready to use lethal gas. Moon’s work is strongly influenced by “top level” documents in the national archives and specifically this document:

“United States Chemical Warfare Committee Periodic Report on Readiness for Chemical Warfare as of 1 July 1945”, Operations Planning Division (OPD) 385, Chemical Warfare Plan, FW 126, Record Group 165.

My research and that of Ryan Crierie in the National Archives shows something very different than Moon’s works.

The trail of these alternate chemical warfare plans starts with a series of “consultants” around Secretary of War Stimson in Records Group 107. These man — Edward Bowles, David T Griggs, Thomas Murrel, Edwin G. Schneider and Dr. W.B. Shockley — acted for Stimson as a combination of today’s Office of Net Assessment and Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. They were heavily involved in the Sphinx Project. (It should be noted that it took the Defense Department decades to create institutions that replicated the capabilities that Secretary of War Stimson had in WW2, as the Office of Net Assessment was founded by Pres. Richard Nixon in 1973!)

In Shockley’s RG107 files Ryan found a 3 July 1945 memo from the General in charge of the US Army’s New Development Division to Chief of Staff of the Army George Marshall with the subject “Attack of Japanese Positions” that included the following passage:

“Gas is effective when projected into the mouths of caves by direct fire but apparently rather ideal conditions are required to obtain results in caves from area coverage from rockets or high angle fire weapons firing gas filled projectiles.”

It turns out that this was taken as a very proscriptive order by the US Army’s Chemical Warfare Service, who in the following 21 July 1945 memo outlined plans proceeding to convert 200 white phosphorous 75mm recoilless rifle shells into lethal chemical agent shells for immediate testing.

Filling of 75mm rifle, M311, Smoke Shell, E7a-2 Sphinx Project, 21 July 1945
Request For Filling of 75mm Rifle, M311 Smoke Shell, with Gas, E7a-2 Sphinx Project, 21 July 1945

To understand the implications of that development require two bits of information. First, there were plans for producing tens of thousands of M311 75mm recoilless rifle (RR) smoke shells for the invasion of Japan, thus making a lot of empty white phosphorous shells available for conversion to lethal gas.

Second, during the battle of Okinawa Japanese Kamikaze aircraft destroyed two ammunition freighters very early in the campaign carrying the mortar supplies for the invasion. This required the airlift of thousands of 60mm, 81mm and 4.2 inch (107mm) mortar shells on a “Just-in-time” basis from Hawaii and the USA to support the 83-day ground campaign.

75mm RR Production Plans July 1945
War Department production plans called for 30,000 M311 75mm Smoke Shells to be produced by August 1945. All these shells were capable of being filled with lethal gas and were light enough to be shipped by air in the tens of thousands per month.

The implications for the air lift of 75mm RR lethal gas shells for the invasion of Japan are obvious.

The second plan also comes from the CWS, which confirms Moon’s take of the 1 July 1945 Pacific and continental USA lethal chemical weapon supply situation. However, the CWS was not limited to simply US Army chemical munitions. The surrender of Germany meant the US had access to captured German chemical weapons to include nerve gas!

The Winter 2004 Chemical and Biological Defense Information Center (CBIAC) Newsletter had the following article by Reid Kirby titled “History Notes: The CWS Effort to Obtain German Chemical Weapons for Retaliation Against Japan” which states the following —

Germany had a significant chemical arsenal of Mustard Gas and Phosgene in 250-kg bombs. The AAF requested that some of these bombs be returned to the United States for immediate evaluation for carriage on U.S. aircraft and to establish munition requirements to achieve tactical objective similar to those described in TC 20 (26 April 1945). 4
BG Alden Waitt, then Assistant Chief CWS for field operations, requested with the highest priority that 100 bombs each of Mustard Gas, Phosgene, and LE-100 be returned to the United States for evaluation. By the end of June 1945, it was determined that the bombs were entirely suitable for American aircraft and the agents effective. Noting unstable boundaries and the rapid redeployment of AAF and CWS personnel qualified to handle these weapons to the Pacific Theater, it was recommended that as much chemical munitions as could be located in the American army zone of occupation and those that may be recovered from British and Russians zones be obtained.5
LE-100, also known as Agent GA or Tabun, was one of the new Nerve Agents discovered with the fall of Germany. Some 23,000 tons of 250-kg bombs and 6,000 tons of 10.5-cm shells filled with LE-100 were discovered. CWS Chief MG William Porter requested 3,000 250-kg bomb and 5,000 10.5-cm shells filled with LE-100 be obtained with the highest priority so that the agent could be utilized for charging 4.2-inch chemical mortar shells for immediate testing.6

The idea with bringing German chemical bombs to the Pacific was to provide enough weapons for a “Knock out” blow to Japan similar to the atomic bomb per the CWS’s just (March 1945) published Training Circular 20 (TC20). And even if it didn’t work, it still provided weapons for artillery as well as aircraft, see:

In July 1945 the Ordnance Department noted, without endorsement, that German 10.5-cm projectiles could be used in U.S. 105-mm howitzers so long as the rotating bands were turned down, or the howitzers had worn tubes. German 10.5-cm shells were 0.3-inches wider than U.S. 105-mm shells. 8

After the massive artillery preparations in the Okinawa campaign, there were plenty of well-worn American 105mm barrels capable of firing German 10.5-CM nerve gas shells.

Trying to nail down General Douglas MacArthur on anything he said, planned or did is always problematic, often like trying to nail gelatin to a wall, and the following speculative evaluation is more than most. With that caveat being said, I will lay out to you why I think General MacArthur was arranging the ability to rapidly and personally command the use of lethal gas in the invasion of Japan in much the same way he used force on the Veterans’ Bonus March of 1932.

I have had several columns on the US Navy’s controlling ways with radio communications in the Pacific. See the following, link, this link, this link, and this link. . Where I made this observation on Army-Navy radio communications cooperation:

The US Navy’s fighting style, in the Pacific from Pearl Harbor through Okinawa, was characterized by naval centric “joint” warfare where the Navy was always first among equals and most staff work was done under Adm. Nimitz’s eyes. Where that “First among equals” theater fighting style rubbed the US Army wrong most heavily was with the Navy’s centralized style with radio communications. .
Effectively in and around the period of the two major battleship engagements off Guadalcanal in late 1942, the US Navy shut down the majority of its Noumea headquarters’ radio communications, including all of its US Army supply and administrative traffic supporting the troops and aircraft on Guadalcanal!

So when I ran across statements by General MacArthur that he was going to use an Australian cruiser as a command ship during the invasion of Japan I saw it as an extension of those interservice communications problems. After the bad blood between Australia and the US Navy over the Canberra Pact**, MacArthur could use his US Army Signal Corps troops to outfit an Australian cruiser with the latest in US Army communications gear and have independence from the US Navy communications system in his commands.

Then I ran into George Plunkett’s book “Chemical Warfare in Australia: Australia’s Involvement in Chemical Warfare 1914-1945” that listed the inventory of US and Australian chemical weapons in the South West Pacific Theater. See this link

It turns out that His Majesty’s Australian Naval warships were equipped with a small arsenal of chemical weapons. There were 6-inch (152mm) and 4.7-inch (120mm) gas shells available to Australian ships. By way of contrast, the US Navy at the time had no gas fillings for its naval shells and did not carry any gas filled Army 4.2-inch mortar shells on its gunboats.

This was no accident.

Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs was a fierce opponent of gas and had disarmed the US Navy of chemical weapons prior to WW2. This in the face of Italian use of gas weapons in its invasion of Ethiopia.

The US Navy reequipped with chemical weapons in WW2, but made certain no one in its theater was ready to use gas in any quick and immediate fashion. See the Photo below —

Deployment of Naval Chemical Warfare Ammunition as of 1 July 1945
Deployment of Naval Chemical Warfare Ammunition as of 1 July 1945. The vast majority of Naval Chemical munitions were in the USA.

General MacArthur felt differently, but was also constrained by issues of logistics (including tropical climate destroying his chemical weapons stocks) and politics prior to the Invasion of Japan as Professor Moon laid out.

The arrival of mass Kamikaze attacks and the surrender of Germany changed those calculations. General MacArthur still had the diplomatic agreement with Australia that made the South West Pacific Area to draw upon as military authority to request immediate chemical retaliation from any Australian vessel he was on for any unauthorized Japanese use of gas. Such attacks had happened with the Japanese in every theater, mostly in China where American documents John Ellis van Courtland Moon unearthed showed over 1000 such attacks occurred, as well as on Guadalcanal, in Burma, New Guinea, and finally on Feb 12, 1945 in Manila with a unit of the 1st Cavalry Division being the last American victims.

Point in fact when Marine General H.M. “Howling Mad” Smith was denied the use of poison gas as pre-attack preparation to invade Iwo Jima, he was denied authority to Retaliate not “Initiate” the use of Chemical Weapons.

In the event that the atomic bomb failed, and the invasion of Japan proceeded, General MacArthur had the means, the motive and the opportunity to reply to an “unauthorized” Japanese gas attack with an immediate gas retaliation.

And once MacArthur had used gas — as opposed to requesting retaliation from aircraft on Okinawa, Guam or the Philippines, thus allowing time for the US Navy to get orders from President Truman to countermand MacArthur as Roosevelt had done to USMC General Smith — Truman would have been in much the same political situation as President Hoover was during the 1932 Bonus March.

Truman would have looked politically weak ordering the use of gas to be stopped, or paid an even larger political price for firing MacArthur for following a policy that would have been popular with the American public, but which the FDR Administration had de facto privately disavowed.

And the precedent of MacArthur’s actions with chemical weapons then would have echoed across the decades of the Cold War that would have followed. There are worse things than the atomic peace that Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought. And we only very narrowly avoided them.

Now you know why I again, this year, “Thank God for the Atomic bomb.”

** The Canberra Pact was a 1944 joint Australian-New Zealand government statement essentially saying that the US Navy had to give back all the territories it had seized from the Japanese to the UN. The US Navy and the FDR Administration took great offense at this political assault on its Mahanian imperialism.

Notes and Source:

Gen Wm. A. Borden Director, New Developments Division to General Marshall, SUBJECT: Attack of Japanese Positions, WDSND 400 (3 Jul 45) NARA Records Group 107, Dr. W.B. Shockley’s File 1942-46, (Records Of William B Shockley Relating To The Use Of Radar In Very Heavy Bombardment) Boxes 131-135

Reid Kirby, “History Notes: The CWS Effort to Obtain German Chemical Weapons for Retaliation Against Japan,” Chemical and Biological Defense Information Center (CBIAC) Newsletter, Winter 2004, Vol5 No. 1 https://web.archive.org/web/20130217183107/https://www.cbrniac.apgea.army.mil/Documents/vol5_num1.pdf

John Ellis van Courtland Moon “Project SPHINX: The Question of the Use of Gas in the Planned
Invasion of Japan,” THE JOURNAL OF STRATEGIC STUDIES, (September 1989): Pg. 303 – 323

John Ellis van Courtland Moon, “United States Chemical Warfare Policy in world War II: A Captive of Coalition Policy?,” The Journal of Military History 60 (July 1996) 495-512

Geoff Plunkett, “Chemical Warfare in Australia: Australia’s Involvement in Chemical Warfare 1914-1945″ Leech Cup Books; 2 edition (January 1, 2013) ISBN-13: 978-0987427908 http://www.amazon.com/Chemical-Warfare-Australia-Australias-Involvement/dp/0987427903/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1357774856&sr=8-5&keywords=geoff+plunkett

Geoff Plunkett, Chemical Weapon Stocks 1943-1945

7 thoughts on “History Friday — The WMD Back-Up Plans for the Atomic Bomb”

  1. Stimson is often dismissed as a placeholder, with FDR and Marshall working around him. What is your assessment of Stimson?

  2. Stimson was far from a place holder.

    He surrounded himself with some really quality people well versed in technology, manpower and warfare.

  3. (i) I can see the attractions of gas for “cave warfare tactics”, and suppose that it wouldn’t be difficult to equip specialist parties of US troops with respirators. Is there any evidence of the latter? Or did all infantrymen and tank crews have access to respirators anyway? I can also see a justification along the lines of “they used it first”.

    (ii) But for the invasion, I’m not clear on what was proposed. “German 10.5-cm projectiles could be used in U.S. 105-mm howitzers” doesn’t sound to be an anti-cave proposal: was the idea to shell Japanese areas, however close civilians might be? Similarly, what would be attacked with 250-kg bombs: trenches? Tanks?

    This all adds support to the “Thank God the atomic bombs ended the war” school of thought.

  4. Dearime,

    1. The invasion of Japan would be the first in the Pacific where the assault waves would come ashore in full NBC “slime suit” uniforms. Tanks were to be equipped with a NBC central pressurized filter with hose/mask attachments for the crews. I have complete photos of the latter from the Pacific Warfare Board files.

    2. The M7 Priest self propelled howitzer was used in the direct fire assault gun role by both US Army and Marine infantry regiments in their respective cannon company and heavy weapons companies in the Pacific. They were used extensively in the cave-busting role after Japanese anti-tank guns were suppressed.

    3. As to how German 10.5CM artillery shells would have been used…the CWS had some really poor first impressions of Tabun nerve gas because their gas bursting charges were only 1/3 the size necessary to really aeosolize it for full effect. They wanted the stuff placed in their 4.2-in mortar ammo in America, but that was a lot of work and shipping the shells direct to the Pacific was in the cards.

  5. >>These man; Edward Bowles, David T Griggs, Thomas Murrel, Edwin G. Schneider and Dr. W.B. Shockley, acted for Stimson as a combination of today’s Office of Net Assessment and Defense Advanced Research Project Agency.

    I had to look it up, but – yes – that is the same William Shockley who went on to invent the transistor and lay the foundations for Palo Alto – Silicon Valley.

  6. >>…that is the same William Shockley who went on to invent the transistor
    >>and lay the foundations for Palo Alto – Silicon Valley.

    Michael H,

    That is a small piece of why I refer to the time between the end of WW2 and and the establishment of the Defense Department as the “Great Forgetting.”

    It was both necessary and needful for the likes of Shockley to be demobilized.

    The issue was that his _institutional function_ for the Defense Department did not get added back until 1973.

  7. There is a real WWI tie to Truman’s decision to use the A Bomb. My Grandfather was in the same Field Artillery unit as Truman in the Meuse-Argonne. They were in the battle only a few days before being withdrawn due to poor leadership in mid-level officers (particularly in use of artillery in close support). Truman has written he was extremely proud that he brought his battery through the chaos without a man lost. This was September 29th 1918 just a few weeks before the armistice. He encountered stiff German Resistance. I’m sure when acting as Commander in Chief he was not fooled by arguments that Japanese surrender was right around the corner. He knew how many americans would die up to the last minute if he did not act.

    By the way if anyone is ever in Kansas City the National World War I museum at the Liberty memorial is fantastic.

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