[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.
If the 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.
During World 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.
After 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 Army.
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.
During World 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.
Dozens of 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 epidemic.
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.
Therefore, 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 of negotiation.
Now fast 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 Korea.
Chinese 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 side.
It is 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.
Then, with the help of the Soviet Union, the Chinese government organized two international commissions to investigate and document claims of biological warfare operations.
These 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.”
Well, there are a lot of reasons why it refuses to die.
Reasons like 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.
There’s also the professional opinion of experts. Like this:
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.
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.
And Fort Detrick is where our story comes full circle.
Because Fort Detrick is where Frank Olson, the tragic figure at the center of the Wormwood documentary, worked.
Olson worked as a biological warfare researcher and administrator. And a CIA employee.
Frank Olson 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.
What made Frank Olson unhappy?
The Errol Morris documentary Wormwood discusses his motivation almost as a casual aside.
Frank 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.”
This statement is fleshed out in another documentary on US biowarfare black ops and Frank Olson’s death, Code Name: Project Artichoke.
In the 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.”
So Frank 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.
Olson, in 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 security clearances.
Olson presumably knew about the Ishii Unit 731 biological warfare data acquired by the US Army.
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 about it.
And that, 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…
…and US attempts to discredit Chinese and North Korean allegations as a groundless mixture of panic, propaganda, and fraud are bankrupt.
So, did Frank Olson’s knowledge of US biological warfare activity in Korea kill him?
We know 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 risk.
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.
However 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, 1953.
Perhaps guilty knowledge of US bioweapons activity in Korea was the key factor in the CIA’s anxieties over Frank Olson.
One problem 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 bygones.
Another factor in Olson’s state of mind might have been first hand involvement in torture and murder.
Olson’s 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.
During a 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.
And 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 defiance.
But there’s a third possibility, and it relates to this:
The notorious biowarfare confessions made by captured American airmen during the Korean War.
The US 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.
Instead of 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 America.
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”.
When the 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.
Maybe drugs 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.
America’s LSD 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.
I speculate 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.
Maybe Olson had seen film. Maybe he saw film that reminded him of the horrors he had witnessed at the interrogations in Germany.
Only this 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 in Korea.
And this bothered Frank Olson. And it terrified him.
Because when 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.
And Frank Olson broke. Or was broken. And ended up dying on the sidewalk in front of the New York Statler Hotel.
Errol Morris 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.
Then the third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star burning like a torch fell from heaven and landed on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of thestar is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter like wormwood oil, and manypeople died from the bitter waters.
My title Wormwood and Gall, comes from the Book of Lamentations.
Wormwood and gall are two intensely bitter substances.
Jeremiah, gazing upon the ruins of Jerusalem, speaks of
remembering my affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall.
The wormwood is his intense suffering and grief, the gall his profound regret and consciousness of sin…and taken together they yield a yearning for redemption.
Wormwood and gall might have been a good description of Frank Olson’s thoughts and regrets as he entered the last days of his life.
Rest in Peace, Frank Olson.