Chemical Weapons Testing Created Controversy at Dugway

Yvette D. Ison
History Blazer, July 1995

During the early months of American involvement in World War II, the U.S. War Department began to intensify research in chemical warfare defense. Cautious about conducting chemical tests in well-populated areas such as the military arsenal in Maryland, the War Department sought a more spacious, unpopulated area in which to conduct research. Western Utah fit the criteria.

In 1942 Major John R. Burns of the U.S. Army selected a spot in Tooele County some 85 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. The region’s dry climate and altitude made it an ideal location for a military base. Bounded to the east by the Onaqui and Dugway mountains, the land stretched for miles westward with only desert sand and sagebrush. The region had once been part of the Pony Express trail and the nation’s first transcontinental highway built in 1919. When Major Burns arrived in 1942, however, it was isolated from any road or town for miles around.

The construction of Dugway Proving Ground began in the spring of 1942. Because of sand dunes and frequent high winds, workers spread two inches of gravel over 130,000 square yards of ground in an attempt to control blowing sand at the construction site. By August wooden barracks and laboratories for chemical and physical experiments had been built. In February 1943 an airport with a 5,200-foot runway was completed. During that same year medical facilities, including a 75-bed ward, nurses’ quarters, and a medical research building were provided for workers in case of accidents.

Almost immediately workers at the Dugway Proving Ground began testing chemical weapons to be used against wartime enemies. Tests with toxic agents, flame throwers, and chemical spray systems were performed at Dugway. One of the most popular World War II weapons, the 4.2-inch chemical mortar, was developed at the base. Animals were the victims of biological warfare research.

In order to test the effectiveness of new chemical warfare agents, whole villages were built in German and Japanese architectural styles. Prisoners from Utah jails were transported to Dugway to build the structures. Six German and 24 Japanese full-scale buildings were created. Refugee architect Eric Mendelsohn designed the huge German apartment building, and the Japanese worker housing was designed by Antonin Raymond, a Frank Lloyd Wright student who had worked in Tokyo for 20 years. These authentic buildings, the most expensive constructed at Dugway during World War II, were constantly repaired as testing took its toll on them. The Army tested incendiary bombs and other weapons on these structures. These experiments increased the effectiveness of bombing attacks on enemy production centers.

With the end of World War II the Army began to deactivate Dugway Proving Ground, but the Korean War led to the resumption of testing at Dugway beginning in the summer of 1950. Area ranchers opposed reopening the facility, but state and local officials supported the planned reopening and expansion. Renovation and new construction continued into the 1960s with the government committed to building as normal a town as possible for Dugway employees and their families. The Cold War climate, as well as the Korean and Vietnam wars, justified the new weapons testing at Dugway.

In 1968, however, an unusual event created a public relations turning point for the military at Dugway. In March 6,400 sheep were found dead after grazing in south Skull Valley, an area just outside Dugway’s boundaries. When examined, the sheep were found to have been poisoned by a deadly nerve agent called VX. The incident, coinciding with the birth of the environmental movement and anti-Vietnam protests, created an uproar in Utah and internationally. Even after paying more than $1 million in compensation to farmers for their losses and to conduct the investigations, Dugway was unable to restore its reputation as a safe military site. Then in May 1969 rare antibodies of a disease called Venezuelan Encephalitis were found in birds, cattle, sheep, and rodents around the base. During the same year Air Force pilots flying over Dugway identified an entire region as highly contaminated. After a hearing in 1969 Dugway was required to give the Utah governor and state director of health regular briefings on all planned testing. Special scientists called “watchdogs” by the media were sent to Dugway to study the impact of chemical testing on animals. Meanwhile, Dugway’s research budget was cut by 60 percent, and the federal government renounced the use of biological weapons and banned open-air testing of all chemical and biological agents. President Nixon’s 1969 and 1970 policy statements limited the U.S. to a defensive stance regarding biological warfare. Subsequent ratification in 1972 of the Geneva Convention on biological warfare seemed to signal the end for Dugway. The mission of the facility continued to evolve, however, with ground and air-launched missile testing and simulated testing of binary chemical weapons. With the signing of the 1987 INF Treaty with the USSR, short and intermediate missiles were eliminated, and in July 1988 Dugway welcomed 10 Soviet inspectors to the Wig Mountain test site. Concern in the 1980s over Soviet chemical and biological weapons research and development and the use of toxic agents in southeast Asia and Afghanistan led political leaders to reverse Dugway’s 10-year decline and begin modernizing the facility.

The changing nature of warfare and society’s concern over local and global environmental issues have changed the way Utahns look at the Dugway facility. For some its presence on the desert reassures them that the U.S. is staying abreast of developments in weapons technology; for others Dugway and its mission remain controversial.

Sources: Leonard J. Arrington and Thomas G. Alexander, “Sentinels on the Desert,” Utah Historical Quarterly 32 (1964); clipping file “Dugway Proving Ground” in Utah State Historical Society Library; Orrin P. Miller et al., History of Tooele County, vol. 2 (Tooele, 1990).