NEW BOOK DETAILS AUSTRALIA’S CHEMICAL WARFARE HISTORY THROUGH THE EYES OF THE VETERANS EXPOSED TO CHEMICAL WEAPONS
A new book, Chemical Warfare in Australia, tells the story of the men whose job it was during the Second World War to handle and store a million chemical weapons, which were covertly imported into Australia to counter a possible Japanese invasion.
Author Geoff Plunkett said although the weapons were meant for retaliatory use only, and were never employed, Australian servicemen risked their lives handling the deadly munitions.
“In January 1943 a wharf labourer subsequently died from the effects of mustard poisoning while unloading mustard gas drums from a ship,” Mr Plunkett said.
Defence authorities realised a specialist group was needed to handle these weapons and the RAAF created the Chemical Warfare Armourers. The new book, published by the Department of Defence’s Army History Unit and Australian Military History Publications, tells their story.
Without notice and adequate training the armourers were sent to tunnels in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney and told they were going to be handling chemical weapons.
Mr Plunkett said the men learnt on the job. “Officers rarely if ever made an appearance and there was inadequate medical supervision. The men were never allowed to talk about their work, even to their families.”
Protective anti-gas clothing issued to the men had been designed for England and was too hot for use in Australia, so armourers often worked in just shorts and a gas mask.
“They maintained the weapons by dragging them out of the tunnel to ‘vent’ them and due to their lack of protective clothing the men were daily exposed to the gas and sometimes burnt.
The men set up experiments on Queensland’s North Brook Island, where soldiers and animals were exposed to the effects of chemical weapons.
The RAAF armourers were shocked by the effects of the weapons on the so-called human “guinea pigs”. Some tried to talk volunteers out of taking part in the experiments. The armourers were involved in the disposal of weapons and had some near fatal experiences with phosgene, a lethal choking agent.
“The work of these young, humble blokes was still unknown 65 years on. They suffer health consequences and, because they only served in Australia are uncomfortable attending returned services marches. In addition they not elligible for a Gold Card under the overseas service provisions”.
“As they didn't go to war overseas they are regarded as bludgers. Their military records don't record any of their chemical warfare activities and doctors denied they were exposed to it,” Mr Plunkett said.
Mr Plunkett said the details of Australia’s chemical weapons were denied by the government until the late 1980s.