[This is the script of an episode of China Watch I did for Newsbud in January 2018.]
You may have
heard of the acclaimed documentary Wormwood directed by Errol Morris. The film has focused attention on the
mysteries surrounding the death of government scientist Frank Olson. Olson fell 13 stories to his death from a New
York hotel window in 1953. He died after—but
possibly not because—he was dosed with LSD by the CIA. Why Frank Olson died—and maybe why he had to
die—leads us to one of the most persistent controversies of Cold War America.
Did the US
use biological weapons during the Korean War?
The US government says No. Frank
Olson apparently thought otherwise.
In Wormwood and Gall, I look at the story: the
facts, the accusations, and the cover-up. And I
point to indications of another terrible crime, one that might provide the key
to the death of Frank Olson.
United States deployed biological weapons during the Korean War, it would be
the second time China had experienced biological attack within ten years. And that probably would have been no coincidence.
War II, Japan’s notorious Unit 731 biological
warfare unit was headquartered near the city of Harbin in Northeast China. Under the command of Colonel Shiro Ishii,
Unit 731 conducted horrific experiments on living Chinese detainees and foreign
POWs. Iishi wanted to determine the
limits of human endurance to extreme temperatures, wounds from conventional
weapons…and most importantly, vulnerability to biological attack.
Japan’s defeat, the United States, instead of prosecuting Colonel Ishi, hired
him. Over a period of three years, Ishi
and his team negotiated an exchange: in return for immunity from prosecution, Unit
731’s files was handed over to the US
historians spin this in a backhanded way as evidence of American
humanitarianism. The US, after all,
could not conduct its own human experiments even though the data might have
contributed to saving American lives. So
the US Army acquired the data from Ishi and Unit 731.
But Unit 731
was not just a ghoulish research and development project. Unit 731 weaponized and operationalized
biological warfare on a massive scale.
University of Indiana entomologist Jeffrey Lockwood characterized Unit
731 as equivalent in scale to the Manhattan Project, the US effort to develop
the atomic bomb.
War II, Unit 731 operations grew to encompass at least 10 field stations
throughout China, employing over 10,000 people.
It focused on identifying, testing, and growing bacterial strains most
lethal to humans. In addition Unit 731
scientists developed strategies for delivery either directly or via insect
vectors, and tactics for most effective exploitation.
large scale attacks were conducted. In
1940, the Japanese army dropped fleas infected with bubonic plague from
aircraft on the east Chinese city of Ningbo.
The Ninbgo operation is well-documented thanks to Western witnesses and
the enormous efforts taken by the Chinese government to contain the
But the most
successful Unit 731 operation involved the use of cholera. This campaign required close coordination
between the biological warfare units and the Japanese army’s conventional
forces. Colonel Ishii realized the most
effective to spread cholera was not via infected insects, or by dumping cholera
bacteria into a city’s water supply.
The key to a
successful cholera attack was breaking down public order and public sanitation. The infected humans had to be forced to flee
the city and spread their payload of disease along the path of their flight.
in 1942, 54 Japanese bombers attacked the city of Baoshan in Yunnan Province
with a mixture of conventional weapons and ceramic shells containing cholera
and houseflies. The bombers returned for
three more raids over the next week. These
raids drove refugees—by now sickened with cholera and incubating the bacteria
in their intestines—to enter, infect, and overwhelm the surrounding
villages. 60,000 people died of cholera
inside Baoshan…and another 120,000 perished in villages within a 125 mile
radius of the shattered town.
With a death
toll of perhaps 200,000 people, Baoshan is the deadliest single WMD attack in
modern history. Together with another
operation in China’s Shandong province in 1943, Colonel Ishi’s cholera
operation killed 400,000 people —more fatalities than the US atomic bombings of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
This was the
kind of data that Colonel Ishii delivered to the US Army in 1948, after 3 years
forward to the Korean War.
In 1951 and
1952, the government of the People’s Republic of China was galvanized by local reports
of biological weapons attacks against its forces in Korea, and against targets
in northeast China…and by published reports that Colonel Ishii had visited
alarm made a lot of sense. After all,
when it came to biological warfare in Asia, Unit 731 knew the neighborhood, the
ecology, and the most effective techniques.
And it had a track record of spectacular success. And Colonel Ishii had signed on to the US
universally accepted that the PRC, at least at first, saw the danger as real.
Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong ordered China’s scarce public health
resources committed to a massive anti-biological warfare effort.
the help of the Soviet Union, the Chinese government organized two
international commissions to investigate and document claims of biological
reports supported the PRC’s position and have generated nothing but controversy. The US government and its supporters have
labored for decades to discredit the reports as propaganda, hoaxes, and
frauds. The US Department of Defense
calls biological warfare allegations “the disinformation that refuses to die.”
are a lot of reasons why it refuses to die.
a documentary prepared by al Jazeera in 2010 that piled up testimony and
circumstantial evidence supporting allegations of biological weapons
operations. Al Jazeera also unearthed home video footage shot by an alumnus of
Unit 731 in which he claimed that he had assisted the US in mounting “an
attack” in Korea.
the professional opinion of experts. Like
It’s not outside the realm of
possibility something was done. During
that time there was a very active offensive program…The Americans had a big
vector program, so they must have tested it somehow or another. What would have stopped them?
The guy who
said this is not some comsymp. He is
Colonel Charles Bailey, executive director of the National Center for
Biodefense and Infectious Diseases at George Mason University. And Colonel Bailey was previously commander
at Fort Detrick.
is ground zero for US bioweapons research.
It has been America’s headquarters for US Army offensive and defensive
biowar work for almost a century. It is
where the US built up its inventory of anthrax and anthrax bombs. It’s where Colonel Ishii’s secrets from his
bioweapons research, development, and operations ended up.
In the Cold
War Fort Detrick geared up for a massive research effort into any biological
agents that might be useful or harmful to the American military and the CIA. Fort Detrick’s nickname was Fort Doom.
Detrick is where our story comes full circle.
Detrick is where Frank Olson, the tragic figure at the center of the Wormwood
as a biological warfare researcher and administrator. And a CIA employee.
was an unhappy biological weapons researcher and administrator and CIA
employee, which was apparently why he was dosed with LSD and maybe why he was thrown
out of a window to his death.
Frank Olson unhappy?
Morris documentary Wormwood discusses his motivation almost as a casual aside.
Olson’s son tells Morris:
It was in 2001, very close friend,
this guy named Norman Kenoyer, who I had remembered from my childhood, but who
I hadn’t seen for decades. He dropped me
a note and he said, “Eric, you got everything right except for one thing…Your
father had become convinced that the United States was using biological weapons
in Korea, and he was pissed.”
statement is fleshed out in another documentary on US biowarfare black ops and
Frank Olson’s death, Code Name: Project Artichoke.
documentary, Eric Olson and Norman Kenoyer have this exchange about US
biological weapons activities in Korea:
Kenoyer says, “I took an oath when I
left the United States Army that I would never divulge that stuff.”
“You divulged it to me.” Says Olson
“You cannot prove it, can you?”
“I can assert it. You told me.”
“So you don't want to say it?”
“No .... I don't want to say it. But,
there were people who had biological weapons and they used them. I won't say
anything more than that. They used them.”
Olson believed the US was doing nasty things in biological weapons in
Korea. Not because he was reading
People’s Daily. Because he was a top
researcher in the US bioweapons program at Fort Detrick.
fact had run the supersecret Special Operations Division at Fort Detrick that worked
with the CIA on development of covert biological assets. And he was himself a CIA employee who had
knew about the Ishii Unit 731 biological warfare data acquired by the US
And if there
had been US biological warfare activity in Korea, from planning to crew
training to implementation to after-action evaluation, Olson would have known
for me, at least is the most important takeaway from Wormwood. The United States was doing some sort of
biological weapons shenanigans in Korea and Northeast China…
attempts to discredit Chinese and North Korean allegations as a groundless
mixture of panic, propaganda, and fraud are bankrupt.
Frank Olson’s knowledge of US biological warfare activity in Korea kill him?
Olson was disturbed and upset by his work.
Frank Olson did not pursue the upward path open to him in America’s
bioweapons bureaucracy. Instead, Olson
had resigned his position as head of the Special Operations Division. He said he had ulcers. The CIA regarded him as a potential security
At the time,
the CIA regarded LSD as a magic mind control and truth serum elixir. When Frank Olson was attending a retreat at a
camp called Deep Creek with his CIA and Fort Detrick colleagues in November
1953, he was secretly dosed with LSD.
Frank Olson responded, it wasn’t good for Frank Olson. He reacted badly. Presumably Olson was regarded as even more of
a liability and security risk after the dosing.
Olson was bundled off to New York for meetings with a CIA-affiliated
doctor and a CIA-affiliated magician hypnotist just before his fatal plunge
from the 13th floor of the New York Statler hotel on November 28,
knowledge of US bioweapons activity in Korea was the key factor in the CIA’s
anxieties over Frank Olson.
with that. The Korean War armistice had
already been concluded in the summer of 1953.
That was months before the encounter at Deep Creek and Frank Olson’s
death. Korean war crimes seem a bit
factor in Olson’s state of mind might have been first hand involvement in
torture and murder.
classified work at the Special Operations Division involved more than
biological weapons of mass destruction.
It apparently included evaluation of biological agents, that is to say,
drugs, for use in interrogation by the CIA.
work trip to Germany, Olson had apparently witnessed deeply disturbing CIA activities
at a US military base. Suspected Soviet
agents were subjected to interrogation involving extreme and inhumane physical
and psychological mistreatment.
drugs. By the end of the process at
least one of the detainees, subjects, victims, whatever you want to call them,
had died. In front of Frank Olson.
Olson was a
softhearted man who took it very hard when a successful bioweapons experiment
led to the death of all the subject monkeys in his lab. Maybe witnessing the torture/murder of a
human being, even an alleged Soviet agent, drove Olson into open and fatal
a third possibility, and it relates to this:
notorious biowarfare confessions made by captured American airmen during the
security establishment was horrified by American POWs corroborating allegations
that the US had conducted biological warfare attacks during the Korean War. It was also appalled by a wider trend. Of 7200 US prisoners of wars, 5000 either signed
a petition calling for the end of the war or confessed to crimes. 21 refused repatriation back to the United
States and stayed in North Korea.
accepting the possibility that some draftees imprisoned under miserable
conditions might have traded their signature on a petition for better
treatment, or some might have had doubts about the US social system, or maybe
*gulp* some were confessing to actual crimes, the US establishment became
convinced that the POWs were victims of brainwashing.
The CIA and
US Army especially feared that returning POWs might be infiltrated by brainwashed
human robots programmed to do the will of their Chinese masters and attack
There is no
evidence the Chinese tried to do this.
But the United States itself fantasized about assassin automatons and
tried to create them…and later projected the idea on China via the book and
film “The Manchurian Candidate”.
first group of US POWs was repatriated in April 1953, 20 were segregated as potential
brainwashed security risks and placed under armed guard. These “tainted” POWs were flown to
Pennsylvania on a prison plane. Then
they were sequestered at a mental ward in a hospital at Valley Forge. They quickly recanted their confessions. Maybe it was freedom, maybe it was
conscience, maybe the openly wielded threat of prosecution. And maybe more.
Maybe the US
effort to get these airmen to quickly recant their confessions involved
administering substances less wholesome than American hamburgers and milkshakes
and even more sinister than the promise of decades in a military stockade.
The CIA had
a longstanding interest in using behavior modification procedures to counter
PRC indoctrination of US POWs. According
to a 2010 article titled Cries From the Past: Torture’s Ugly Echoes, by researchers
Jeffrey Kaye and HP Albarelli, recovered POWs were subjected to various
behavioral modification programs, including the use of experimental drugs.
And some of
these experiments had been conducted by the CIA at Valley Forge Army Hospital,
where the Korean POWs were quarantined in the summer of 1953.
were involved in the remolding of the returned Korean POWs. Drugs that Frank Olson was involved in
testing and evaluating. Drugs like LSD.
In 1953, the
year the POWs returned and Frank Olson died, US official interest in mind
control via LSD was at fever pitch.
Fears of a
“brainwashing” gap between Communism and the United States fueled a US
obsession with LSD as a mind-control superdrug.
The US government explored the possibility of acquiring the world’s
entire supply of LSD to keep it out of Soviet hands. And it gathered enough LSD to perform
extensive experiments on human subjects, some of them uninformed or unwilling,
for almost two decades.
mind control effort, which was variously known as Project Partridge, Project
Artichoke, and MK-Ultra, was run by the CIA’s Sidney Gottlieb. Gottlieb was present at Deep Creek the night
Frank Olson was dosed with LSD.
Gottlieb’s assistant, Richard Lashbrook, was sharing the hotel room at
the Statler the night Olson plunged out the window. And as Olson lay dying on the sidewalk
outside, Lashbrook made his first call…to Sidney Gottlieb.
the dark secret that killed Frank Olson was this:
The US was
using LSD to counter-brainwash returned US POWs to obtain retractions of biological
warfare confessions. And Frank Olson
knew about it.
had seen film. Maybe he saw film that
reminded him of the horrors he had witnessed at the interrogations in Germany.
time the victims of his mind control drugs were American servicemen.
And the drugs
were being used to cover up a crime Olson knew about from his classified work
at Fort Detrick: that the US had indeed conducted bacteriological warfare operations
bothered Frank Olson. And it terrified
Frank Olson felt the LSD take hold at Deep Creek, he realized that the same
thing that had happened to the suspected
Soviet agents and the returned POWs was happening to him.
Olson broke. Or was broken. And ended up dying on the sidewalk in front of
the New York Statler Hotel.
takes the title for his documentary, Wormwood, from Revelations to describe
God’s biological weapon attack on the waters of the earth at the last judgment.
Wormwood and Gall, comes from the Book of Lamentations.
gall are two intensely bitter substances.
gazing upon the ruins of Jerusalem, speaks of
remembering my affliction and my
misery, the wormwood and the gall.
is his intense suffering and grief, the gall his profound regreat and consciousness
of sin…and taken together they yield a
yearning for redemption.
gall might have been a good description of Frank Olson’s thoughts and regrets
as he entered the last days of his life.
Peace, Frank Olson.