Barge piled high with mustard gas

A barge is loaded with mustard gas canisters that later were thrown somewhere into the Atlantic in 1964. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)

That chemical weapons were dumped at sea by Allied forces after World War II is widely known - but not the extent or that it was done off so many countries.

In the most publicized of all chemical weapons dumps, British and U.S. forces loaded dozens of German ships with captured nerve and mustard gas from 1945 to 1947 and sank them in the Skagerrak Strait. The wrecks are off Sweden, Norway and Denmark, as well as near the Danish island of Bornholm in the relatively shallow Baltic Sea.

It was called Operation Davy Jones Locker. An estimated 170,000 tons of German chemical weapons went to the bottom. Most, but not all, went into deep water.

Russia also dumped some of its chemical weapons stockpile in the ocean. So did Australia, not far from the Great Barrier Reef. England dumped much of its stockpile in the North Sea. Some has washed ashore.

The United States' ocean dumping of chemical weapons stockpiles, at home and overseas, made logistical sense at the end of World War II - and no one in those days really had much environmental awareness.

At the time, U.S. ordnance depots nationwide were packed with war supplies, including a stockpile of 60 million gas masks, National Archive records show.

Room had to be made for chemical weapons still in production but not delivered, and there was little space to put overseas stockpiles if they were brought back to the States.

By early 1945, a blizzard of memos out of the War Department - now the Defense Department - demanded that ordnance depots reduce unnecessary stock by emptying and burying drums of chemical warfare agents, as well as selling nonhazardous material to the public as war surplus, National Archives records show.

War surplus sales were so frenzied that in October 1945, a colonel in the Chemical Weapon Service issued a memo warning that bomb packing crates must be better inspected before being sold.

Buyers, it turned out, had found some crates that still had bombs inside.

Besides there being no room to put them, chemical weapons were dangerous to transport by ship and jeopardized sailors, the Army learned. Several shipments back to the United States resulted in leaks.

Leak detection was unsophisticated at the time: If nerve gas was shipped, for example, crates of rabbits were put on deck. If the rabbits died, the crew knew there was a serious problem.

Edward Aho of Astoria, Ore., was on the S.S. Isaac Wise as it was loaded in the spring of 1946 with captured German mustard and phosgene gas bombs.

During the trip from Antwerp, Belgium, to the former San Jacinto Ordnance Depot in Houston, 16 of the bombs leaked, and at least five people were burned, declassified Army records show.

Aho said the only precaution taken before the ship sailed was to build wooden bulkheads against the steel skin of the ship, in the hopes that the wood would cushion the blow if the ship's movement dislodged the bombs.

Aho, 78, said he was sent into the ship's hold once to look for a leak, protected only by a gas mask and armed only with a primitive gas-detection device that looked like a "battery with a gauge on it."

"I'll never know if what (nervous system) problems I have is related. I'll never know." he said in a telephone interview, declining to specify his health problems.

Those leaking bombs were destroyed in Texas. The rest of the bombs were taken by railcar to Pine Bluff Arsenal, Ark. During the trip, more of them leaked.

What happened to them after that is unclear from the sketchy Army records that still exist.