- A Bridge Not Attacked: Chemical Warfare Civilian Research During World War II
A Bridge Not Attacked is a book one cannot help but like. Harold Johnston, a distinguished scientist, states his aim in the Preface to his book: "In this book, I tell novel true stories concerning highly talented civilian scientists in some unusual places during World War II, carrying out research on defense against poison gases" (p. vii). The result is a mixture: part memoir, part scientific record, part series of biographies of scientists the author worked with, part anecdotal accounts of the trials and tribulations they underwent.
Although one could wish for a tighter organization, the book is engaging and well written. Johnston does not neutralize his personality while describing his scientific achievements. He introduces the reader to a number of memorable individuals who are deftly sketched. Although the book is not a comprehensive history of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), it has the virtue of conveying the flavor of the experience of scientists who worked in Divisions 9 and 10 of the NDRC. While a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Johnston joined a wartime chemical warfare project. His first assignment was to a laboratory where he handled extremely dangerous chemical agents, like phosgene. Later he was assigned to field testing. Johnston became a meteorologist who carried out measurements of the movement of gas clouds in various locations around the U.S.: the Mojave Desert, Mt. Shasta, and Stinson Beach, California; the Withlacoochee swamp area near Bushnell, Florida. The author also describes the chemical warfare tests carried out by Division 10 on San José Island, Panama. Due to health considerations, Johnston did not participate in these tests, which were designed to measure the effectiveness of chemical warfare agents in jungle conditions. The agents tested both by exploding ground bombs and by aerial drops were phosgene, hydrogen cyanide, cyanogen chloride, and mustard gas.
Johnston tells a harrowing story: the tragic death of Samuel Ruben, a promising scientist who was poisoned when phosgene accidentally escaped in a laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley. He also narrates a near miss which took place on Mt. Shasta. The Army wanted to use phosgene in its test area, arguing that the town of Shasta was a safe four miles down hill. The scientists foiled this project by mixing a chemical solution that gave off a distinct skunk odor. They then poured it over roads and trails leading from the test site to the town. The result: "The residents of the town below probably thought the skunk situation was the worst it had ever been" (p. 86). The Army canceled the project. Makes one think!