The Mustard Gas Men

The Royal Australian Air Force realised they would need a specialist unit to handle the chemical weapons. A specialist group of armourers was raised, they were responsible for the unloading, transportation, maintenance and disposal of chemical warfare stocks during and after the war.

A full appreciation of the work and dedication of the RAAF Armourers (and all the other chemical warfare personnel) is best gleaned from the following commendation from Group Captain T. Lightfoot, dated 13 June 1945.

It is desired to record officially the outstanding services rendered by the RAAF during the recent war years, and since the war ended, by all Chemical Warfare personnel. Further it is considered that some of the personnel concerned are deserving of special mention and a list is, therefore, appended for your consider­ation with a view to arranging for some appropriate recognition of their devoted duty.

In general specially trained chemical warfare personnel within the RAAF were, due to their particular duties not afforded the opportunity for overseas service, but were retained on the mainland for;
(a) the intake of chemical warfare stocks from the United Kingdom
(b) the transportation of such stocks to the appropriate storage sites
(c) the maintenance of stocks at the storage sites until disposal action was taken after the war

Set out in cold type, the paragraph above does not, perhaps indicate the magnitude of the work involved, but the officers in charge (from time to time) of the various storage depots know just how much effort was expended by the personnel under them in the execution of their arduous and at all times, dangerous duties.

The intake of chemical warfare stocks from the UK involved much hazardous work in the off-loading from ships of bombs and bulk containers, the destruction or decanting of ‘leakers’ and the decontamination of ships holds.

Later the chemical warfare personnel played an important part in the work of the RAAF Chemical Research Unit at Bowen (Queensland) and at the Australian Field Experimental Station Proserpine (Queensland).

From November 1945 to April 1946, inclusive, chemical warfare personnel have been engaged in the destruction of mustard gas stocks by burning in bulk and also by drowning at sea. Phosgene has been destroyed by release into the atmosphere in selected areas, and also by drowning at sea.

It is fair statement that the disposal of these gas stocks rank with the more difficult and dangerous tasks undertaken by RAAF ground staff personnel.

In the Queensland and Darwin areas, large quantities of weapons containers charged with the various grades of mustard gas were burned under tropical conditions, where scientific trials have proved that mustard gas is more dangerous and persistent than in temperate conditions.

In the same Northern areas, personnel have worked for long periods in respirators, pouring the residue from thousands of bombs charged phosgene, after the initial release. During this type of operation, the men have at times literally paddled in liquid phosgene on the ground, the concentration given off being such that service respirators broke down and the personnel had to be temporarily relieved.

The same personnel have successfully completed the burning in forest country of NSW approximately 20,000 bulk containers filled with mustard gas, the containers varying in capacity up to 80 gallons. This operation, probably the most difficult of the series because of the mountainous, timbered country, resulted in nearly all personnel engaged becoming casualties at some stage and in varying degrees, because such concentrations of mustard gas were encountered that no service protective equipment was adequate to counter them.

The completion of the disposal of chemical warfare stocks in NSW involved the transport of certain heavier type stocks to the waterfront, loading onto lighters, taking these lighters to Rose Bay (Sydney Harbour) and transfer of the Stocks to ship for ultimate sinking off the continental shelf.

The foregoing disposal details have been broadly stated, but a true idea of responsibilities of the personnel engaged in the work can only be fully appreciated by those officers who are actually participated in the disposal operations and were in charge of the personnel.

It was a hazardous occupation as Mel Carney recounts;

My working partner, Ron Stoker, was burnt on the hands very badly going up and down to the burn-off area [in Newnes State Forest]. He was taken immediately to a hospital in Richmond at that stage. And he was still in hospital when I was demobilised, so he would have been later put out as medically unfit. And he had it very bad on his hands, both hands. We used to have to get onto the trucks to unload the gas off up there, getting over, climbing up onto the wheel hubs of the bigger trucks, hanging onto the top of the tyre, and up over the side was the easier way of getting onto the vehicle to unload the gas. The tyres of the truck would pick up residue because when you burnt it, the bungs would blow and the gas residue would go all over the place, into the bush and into the soil and the truck would have to drive through it. We didn’t know at that time, but it must have been picking up residue, I guess. That’s the only way he could have got burnt as he did on the hands. Certainly it wasn’t from just taking the canisters off the top of the trucks. Well, I wouldn’t have thought so. I’ve never seen his report. But I’m assuming, having worked with him, that’s the way it would have happened. Well, from what I believed, his hands were gone almost to just bone—his fingers. I mean, the blisters were so bad—there’s still flesh of course, there, but almost back to the bone, with the blisters the way they were. I’d seen it in training; I’d seen it on other films since then and other publications, the effects of mustard gas of course, over the whole of the body. Because his hands were smaller than what the body and buttocks would be, the effect would have been comparable to what you’d have on your body. But there’s not that much flesh on your fingers. So would have been a horrible end to a chap who worked commercially as a window dresser, at one stage, because he relied on his hands. It must have been
devastating for him.

The burden of secrecy was always there. Frank Burkin;

Well, that was always a very embarrassing sort of thing, because quite often you were in and out of Sydney for some reason and you always went to one of the service hostels there for sleeping. And people would say to you, ‘What do you do? What are you doing in the Air Force?’ And you’d have to think up what you were doing, so the impression that we got was that they considered we were dodging the front—we were keeping a low profile, out of the way. So, it was embarrassing. But you got used to it, I guess. I think it was at the time that we were transferred out of armament school and told that we were going to a highly secret operation and that we were sworn to secrecy…thirty years I think it was. And I later heard from a friend of mine who worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs that we’d been listed on the forty-year list as well, so that they could call me up until I was forty years of age, or forty-five years of age. I knew that I was supposed to ‘keep mum’ for some thirty years, from the time of signing the document, which was easy because nobody wanted to know and nobody nderstood, so it was pointless trying to explain to people. Yes, I did sign a document which, in my belief, was the Australian Security Document or something like that. It meant virtually that you were not allowed to discuss what you’d been doing over that period of service and it was to carry on into civil life. That’s my belief. At that time, it was just another document that you signed, because when you join up you sign this document and that document and something else, so periodically you sign documents and that was the way it was. I didn’t talk about it, even to my parents, for two reasons—one was that we were not supposed to tell them anyway, because it was so secret. The second was that it would have upset both my father and my mother, particularly my mother because she knew what had happened to close friends and so forth in the First World War, and I think she would have been having the screaming heemy jeemies, or something, if she’d found out that I was involved in the same thing again. It’s just a strange twist of fate I suppose, because several of my father’s friends had been affected by it, some of them, terribly. You know, it’s a long time since all that happened and surely now the government should be a bit more open, particularly the present governments, because they’re well away from the scene of the action. That again, is probably another factor because being so long ago, they haven’t any idea. They have no feelings on the matter; it’s just another part of the century, part of the happenings of those times.