Death of a Shipmate
His grave is located in the Grandview Cemetery near Annville, Pennsylvania. The
marker is standard military issue, flat along the ground, not for ascetics, but to allow for easier mowing. The cemetery
is filled with similar markers and like his, their only adornments were a single small flag, located to one end of the marker
itself. He is surrounded by others, who, like him, have served.
I had finally found a shipmate. It had been forty years.
I reported aboard the USS Herbert J. Thomas (DD-833) at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in May,
1965. The ship was a sorry sight. Tied up along side a pier, there was virtually no superstructure and equipment,
hoses, cables, etc. littered the deck. The gun mounts, as I recall, were in place, but sitting forlornly among the litter
of a ship being rebuilt. There were no fire control directors, no radars, not even the masts. The Thomas was
undergoing a complete overhaul; indeed, it was the most unique overhaul any World War II era destroyer had ever undergone.
The Thomas was being transformed to what was, in effect,
an experimental destroyer. This was at the height of the Cold War and there was a very real concern for biological and
chemical warfare and the Department of Defense was exploring means to keep ships and their crews safe from such attacks. The
plan, as related to the Thomas,was the Shipboard Toxicological Operational Protective System, or STOPS. The
Thomas was the single destroyer to be outfitted with such a protective system.
This was part of a larger DOD program referred to as Project 112. Project SHAD,
i.e., Shipboard Hazard and Defense was that part of Project 112 that concerned ships of the Navy, including the Thomas. We
were told that the conversion was a highly secret project and as crewmen, we were not to discuss SHAD and STOPS with anyone
not assigned to the ship. But even the most inexperienced seaman could view the Thomas, evenfrom a distanceand
easily tell something was amiss.
In theory, STOPS
made the Thomas airtight and the crew was supposed to be protected from biological and chemical agents. Lookouts
stood under large Plexiglas “bubbles” on either side of the bridge and access to the interior of the ship was
by revolving doors, fore and aft. These were airlocks that were designed to protect the pressurized air system in the
interior of the ship. Four large air conditioning units were designed to provide fresh and, more importantly for STOPS,
filtered air throughout the interior of the ship. Given the fact the interior was pressurized at a greater pressure than
the atmosphere surrounding the ship, biological and chemical agents would not, in theory, be able to penetrate the interior
of the Thomas and incapacitate the crew. The huge air conditioning system was powered by a large generator that
ran on aviation fuel, complete with an additional stack to serve as the exhaust. When the generator was running, there
was a shrill sound not unlike a jet aircraft engine revving up for takeoff that could be heard from several piers away, much
to the annoyance of crews who tried to sleep with the shrill noise penetrating the open hatches and port holes of their ships,
a noise not as noticeable in the buttoned up Thomas. Then there were the unique “uniforms” we were
issued. The shirts were pullover with a drawstring around the collar and the trousers, made of a different material than
standard issue dungarees, included Velcro around the ankles to allow the trousers to be secured snugly at the top of one’s
shoes. When we arrived at the destroyer base in our homeport in San Diego, the Thomas was the object of considerable
curiosity from the crews of the other tin cans along the piers and even, from crews of foreign ships tied up among the destroyers
of the U.S. Navy. This wasn’t the sort of secret that was easily kept.
The theory was put to test after we left the shipyard and began to operate in the Pacific
Ocean near San Diego. The Thomas would get underway and while at sea, would be sprayed with chemicals while
the crew was kept inside the pressurized portion of the ship. Two such tests, codenamed “Purple Sage” and
“Scarlet Sage” were conducted in early 1966. It is now known that the Thomas was sprayed with Methylacetoacetate,
a sarin simulate and Bacillus subtilis var.niger (Bacillus globigii). We didn’t question the tests or our participation. We,
as sailors have for generations, placed our trust in the Navy and the senior officers aboard the Thomas. We
simply did as we were told and after the ship had been sprayed with chemicals, we blew our noses into glass vials to determine
whether chemicals had penetrated the inner hull of the ship. Of course, we were never told what was being sprayed on
us or even, if the tests were successful. That is not the sort of information shared with junior enlisted men. In retrospect,
this time honored and traditional trust in the Navy and our officers may have been misplaced.
When I reported aboard, the Gunnery Division, usually referred to as the “G”
Division, like the Thomas, was too, being re-assembled. But we quickly developed a cohesiveness and camaraderie
that resulted in the Thomas routinely performing exceptionally well in gunnery drills. We had names like Briley,
Bunia, Ellis, Gears, George and Cast, names that, to paraphrase Admiral Chester Nimitz as he observed the end of fighting
at the conclusion of World War II “…are a cross-section of democracy.” We came from across the United
States and while we had all enlisted for our own reasons, with some rare exceptions, virtually none of us were considering
a career in the Navy. But we became a team. And while we weren’t motivated to make a career in the Navy, and
could even be irreverent toward the Navy itself, we worked hard, some of us played harder, but we all, to a man, took pride
in getting the job done.
But by 1966, we started
going our separate ways and, as our enlistments ended, mine after a two-month involuntary extension, we returned to our homes
and began our lives as civilians. While I can’t compare our time aboard the Thomas with Seaman James J.
Fahey’s wartime service aboard the cruiser, USS Montpelier (CL 57) the principle is the same. He wrote
near the conclusion of his remarkable book, Pacific War Diary, 1942-1945, a book that should be read by everyone
in the Navy even today, “…there were plenty of hand shakes and goodbyes. We would not see the old gang any
more. We would be carrying memories of the many friends we met and the places we visited for the rest of our lives.”
The “old gang” of the “G” Division scattered and it was only after about forty years later that we
began to re-contact one another. We have, indeed, retained the memories of friends and places, just as Fahey had eloquently
written in 1945. The Navy does that to you.
while thought we had left the Navy behind, the Navy has never really left us. We bought our first homes using Veteran’s
Administration loans and extended our education with the G.I. Bill. We still use Navy terminology, marvel at the photographs
of the ships of today’s Navy and look back with increasing nostalgia to the time we spent at sea. We pay attention
to the news when the Navy is mentioned and we still read books and articles about the Navy. The Navy became a part of
our very being, in part, due to the shared experiences aboard the Thomas but also, due our participation in Project
For years, the DOD even denied conducting
tests under Project 112 and after some initial admissions that the tests were conducted, is still resisting full disclosure
of all the relevant information relating to the tests. In early, 2006, I, along with a number of other Thomas shipmates,
received a questionnaire from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. This questionnaire, that asked questions
that required specific details from forty years past, is problematic in itself. But, according to Dr. William F. Page,
the Study Director, the study is independent from both the VA and the DOD, two agencies that, Dr. Page observed in a conversation
this past autumn, veterans associated with Project Shad have little confidence. I agreed. But the report that was
supposed to be issued in September, 2006 was delayed until spring, 2007. There was little optimism among the Thomas
crew that the report, regardless of its findings, will influence the DOD to finally de-classify pertinent details in our lifetimes. And
the pessimism that the crew had about the study itself was too, justified. Simply stated, it’s farcical at best.