In the final days of World War II, an 18-year-old Army private from Missouri named Arla Wayne Harrell was sent to Camp Crowder in the southwest corner of the state, where he said he was twice exposed to mustard gas.
He didn’t talk about it for years. When he finally did, he told his family that the Army warned him he’d be thrown in jail if he ever disclosed the experiments. Harrell, known as “Arlie,” has been rejected three times by the Department of Veterans Affairs for claims to help treat a lung disorder and skin cancer that his family believes are connected to that exposure, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Harrell, who turns 89 next month, is in a nursing home in Macon, Mo., 180 miles northwest of St. Louis, unable to walk or talk. But his family hopes his final appeal to the VA will get him the recognition from the government they believe he deserves.
The VA has said he needs more documentation — “new and material evidence,” as a 2006 rejection letter describes it — to prove the claim. Harrell’s family said that’s impossible. He was 18 at the time and had been warned to never talk. At the time, Harrell was new in the military and didn’t know or doesn’t remember the names of other men exposed with him. His children think he purposely blocked out the experience.
But 55 pages of military records in his family’s possession show that right after Arlie Harrell said he was twice tested with mustard gas, in late July 1945, he was hospitalized at Camp Crowder with a high fever and a sore throat. The Army diagnosed it as nasopharyngitis — an inflammation of mucous membranes between the nose and throat — along with tonsillitis and severe gum disease.
He served three years, mostly in postwar Germany. Ever since, his children say, he has suffered persistent breathing problems.
Harrell and his wife, Betty, raised three daughters and two sons in a Kansas City suburb, and later, in the town of Bevier, Mo., a three-hour drive northwest of St. Louis. Harrell was a truck driver and mechanic; his wife worked as a nurse.
“He was always short of breath,” said a son, Ray Harrell, of Sarasota, Fla., who served in the National Guard. “Something was not quite right. I worked side by side with him a lot, and when he’d push it, he’d just have to stop sometimes and catch his breath.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to mustard gas, though not usually fatal, can cause short-term sinus pain, shortness of breath and other respiratory ailments.
Long-term health effects of mustard gas exposure can include “chronic respiratory disease, repeated respiratory infections” and other symptoms, according to the CDC.
“I never knew a healthy dad growing up,” said Trish Ayers, a daughter who lives in Berea, Ky. “Dad worked the whole time, but Dad struggled with his breathing. We girls could not use perfume, we could not use hairspray, anything in the house” because of his ailment.
Daughter Beverly Howe, a nurse trained in chemical, biological and radiological treatment from Thomasville, Ga., said she interviewed her father for a school paper in the early 1970s, and he disclosed the gassing reluctantly to her for the first time. As a nurse, she recognized the symptoms from her training. “He said it was secret and they weren’t supposed to talk about it,” she said. “If they did, they’d be in big trouble.”
Then, while visiting a Veterans Administration hospital in Columbia, Mo., in the late 1980s or early 1990s, a VA X-ray technician who had seen Arlie Harrell’s records asked if he had ever been exposed to mustard gas.
“I was mostly horrified when I saw the look of terror in my dad’s eyes,” said Ayers, who was with her father at that appointment. “The man told him it was OK, you can talk about it now. He said, ‘Yes,’ and that was about it.”
His children say he suffers from frequent pneumonia and bronchitis and from the aftermath of a stroke. Despite his inability to talk, he is still cognizant and understands visitors, including his wife, who visits him almost every day.
The children say their parents are spending down savings on his care and that $500-a-month drug costs for Harrell put a serious drain on their mother’s state pension. VA benefits that would come if he was recognized as a victim of the mustard gas exposure would help.
But what matters most now, the children say, is that in the time their father has left the government acknowledges the secret he kept for so long, and that the VA has for so long denied — that “my father could understand that somebody finally believes him,” Howe said.
In November, National Public Radio reported that it had uncovered about 3,900 World War II veterans who had been exposed to mustard gas in Army experiments, six times the number the VA had recognized.
Harrell may be the only World War II veteran from Missouri on that list who is still alive.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald said his agency would try to square the two lists. “We have to find the veterans who suffered through this,” he told reporters in November.
Arlie Harrell’s children helped file a new claim in November, but they say they feel they are again being stonewalled by the VA.
Now Sen. Claire McCaskill is pressuring the Pentagon and the VA to expedite the investigation of the NPR claims. More importantly for Harrell, McCaskill’s investigators point to a 2012 Army Corps of Engineers document proving mustard gas was present at Camp Crowder.
“All of the soldiers who underwent the experiments with mustard gas in World War II have been treated reprehensibly by the VA and by the Department of Defense,” said McCaskill, D-Mo. “These should have been handled decades ago, and this shouldn’t be a fight to get help.”
A Veterans Administration spokesman said the agency could not talk about Harrell’s claim because of privacy concerns, but that it is working with the family on it.
“VA appreciates the service and sacrifices of World War II veterans who may have been subject to mustard gas testing,” a statement released by the agency said. It said that “we are working with all stakeholders to do right by these veterans to ensure they receive the benefits and services to which they are entitled.”
Arlie Harrell told his family he was exposed during his training as a field medic and cook. The war in Europe was over, but the atomic bombs had not yet fallen on Japan.
He could not remember names of the men whom he said locked him in a gas chamber at Camp Crowder and filled it with mustard gas, nor did he take names of other men he said were herded in with him. He told family members some screamed or beat on the door in panic, or passed out.
The government acknowledged in that 2012 Corps of Engineers document that there was testing of gas masks and chemical weapons suits at Camp Crowder, but the family said Harrell told them he was not wearing a gas mask. Trish Ayers said her father always talked of “breathing it in.”
Nor did Harrell remember the name of the man whom, he says, directly applied mustard gas to his arm. As a medic in training, he was told, he needed to know the symptoms of exposure in case the enemy ever used mustard gas in combat. It had been widely used in World War I.
“I personally think he just blocked it out as much as he could,” Trish Ayers said.
After the war, a get-on-with-it resolve came home with the Greatest Generation.
“He was always proud of the service he had done, but there always was this reluctance to talk about it,” Beverly Howe said.
What weighed on Harrell was the VA denials, his children, now all in their 50s and 60s, said. After each rejection, he’d be depressed and worried, their mother angry, the children said.
After the 2006 rejection, “You could see visibly that it is still very disturbing to him,” said another daughter, Betty Agan, of Salisbury, N.C. “It’s like, ‘Dad, what is going to happen to you?’ Nothing. Nothing.”
McCaskill said: “I think this family is much more interested in this veteran feeling that he is going to be acknowledged for what he did on behalf of his country than any money that would go into his pocket.”
That 2012 U.S. Corps of Engineers report says that soldiers at Camp Crowder were exposed to “chemical warfare training” and tests of “gas mask proficiency” in three rooms it refers to as “gas chambers.” Soldierswere also trained in the “safe identification, handling, and decontamination of chemical agents and industrial chemicals used in chemical warfare,” the corps document says.
The corps report says that in 1986, a man on a bulldozer clearing land for development on the Camp Crowder site suddenly had difficulty breathing and watery eyes after a “white gaseous cloud filled the air” after the bulldozer unearthed “several vials of unidentified liquid and metallic material of military nature.”
Three vials contained mustard gas.
None of that conclusively proves that Arlie Harrell was exposed to mustard gas, but it is evidence the family didn’t know about until informed by a reporter proving that mustard gas was used at Camp Crowder in gas chambers like the one he described to his family.
“This even makes me angrier,” said Howe, the nurse, when told of the corps document. “All of these years, they could have been helping my dad with these medical issues. We could have known what it was definitely, and then we could have had treatment with that knowledge.”