H. An Nasiriyah Biological Sampling Mission

A task force from the 513th Military Intelligence Brigade reported on this biological sampling mission as follows:

  1. Significant activities for 7 March 1991:
    1. Nuclear, Biological, Chemical: On 6 Mar the [513th Military Intelligence] Brigade chemical officer, the CENTCOM Medical Intelligence officer, and a sampling team from the 9th Chemical Company acted upon a request from CENTCOM J2 to sample a suspected biological warfare storage bunker, vicinity of An Nasiriyah, IZ [Iraq]. The team flew to the bunker complex which appears to have been destroyed by "special munitions" [Precision Guided Munitions]. The team took soil samples, a solidified substance exuding from a projectile, and some liquid present in one of the bunkers. The samples have been sent to a CONUS laboratory for analysis.[51]

We located and interviewed all four UH-60/Black Hawk crew members who transported the sampling mission team to the An Nasiriyah SW ASP.[52] Due to the similar geographic locations and bunker types, two of the Black Hawk’s crew members believed they might have flown to Khamisiyah.[53] Their apparent confusion is not unusual; in 1991, even the intelligence community confused the An Nasiriyah SW ASP and the Khamisiyah ASP.[54]

The Black Hawk sampling team departed from Kuwait International Airport on March 6, 1991, and flew to Tallil and the An Nasiriyah ASP. The mission was on the ground at the ASP for approximately two hours.[55]

The Black Hawk co-pilot remembers the decision to support this mission was made on short notice.[56] The sampling team members did not wear any insignia or identifying patches.[57] The sampling location was a bunker located several miles east of Tallil Air Base. The ASP coordinates were programmed into Black Hawk’s Doppler radar navigation system. However, when they flew to the programmed location, the gusty wind and poor visibility made it difficult to find the site. They then flew to Tallil, reoriented, and flew back to the correct site. The ASP bunker complex had been hit by numerous bombs, which scattered munitions about the area. The co-pilot also noticed shells in the area with an unknown residue on them. The sampling team donned MOPP 4 and departed the landing site to test and sample. While they were waiting, some of the aircrew discovered one of the bunkers was wired for demolition, with explosives and detonation cord fixed to boxes of 155mm artillery shells (Figures 8A and 8B). After they went back to the helicopter, a Humvee with two people came up-neither in MOPP gear. The Humvee’s occupants talked with the sampling team members while the team burned their MOPP gear. When the sampling team finished, they boarded the Black Hawk and departed.[58]

This sampling mission was the subject of a July 23, 1995, Belleville, Illinois News-Democrat article, "Gulf War Veteran Details his Illness." In it, the Black Hawk’s crew chief discussed at length his observations and concern that this mission has caused current health problems. We interviewed him and he expressed the same concern.[59] This investigation’s interview with the door gunner revealed similar concerns.[60]

Figure 8A. Black Hawk crew members in front of a bunker at An Nasiriyah SW ASP

Figure 8B. Inside a bunker at An Nasiriyah SW ASP


Figure 8C. Biological warfare agent sample team members discarding MOPP gear


Figure 8D. Burning MOPP gear of biological warfare agent sample team at An Nasiriyah SW ASP[61]

The 513th Military Intelligence Brigade chemical officer who was in charge of the chemical and biological warfare agent sampling team remembers taking another officer and two enlisted technicians on this mission. The mission was to look for evidence of biological warfare agent production and take samples at a suspected biological weapons bunker, which, according to the chemical officer, a direct hit from a precision-guided bomb had destroyed ("it was a hole in the ground"). They took several samples for laboratory testing. While in the ASP, the team ran into several other explosive ordnance disposal personnel and engineers, including an officer, rigging the bunkers for demolition. According to the 513th Military Intelligence Brigade chemical officer, before departing, the team burned their MOPP gear as a precaution against contaminating the Black Hawk (Figures 8C and 8D) at the helicopter crew’s request. No one briefed the 513th Military Intelligence Brigade chemical officer about the results of the laboratory tests conducted back in the United States.[62]

The second officer on the team, a medical intelligence officer assigned to the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center, remembered that, due to poor visibility, damage from aerial bombing, and the munitions scattered throughout the area, the team had a difficult time locating the right area and a good spot to land. The 513th Military Intelligence Brigade chemical officer took random samples in the area; the medical intelligence officer did not personally do so. As a former artillery officer, the medical intelligence officer was familiar with chemical artillery round characteristics and did not observe any chemical weapons in the area. As he walked through the area inspecting debris, destroyed munitions, and damaged bunkers, he saw melted high explosive powder canisters and "artillery caps" on the ground. No one briefed this medical intelligence officer on the laboratory testing results from this or any of his other missions.[63]

One of the senior enlisted members of the 9th Chemical Detachment’s biological warfare agent sampling team indicated the teams went anywhere that intelligence indicated the presence of possible chemical or biological warfare agents. He went through several buildings and bunkers in various locations during Desert Storm and the cease-fire period; none of the tests he conducted yielded positive results. A sergeant accompanied him on the March 6, 1991, Tallil/An Nasiriyah SW ASP sampling mission. They took only their M256 chemical warfare agent testing kits, not their XM2 or PM-10 biological warfare agent testing equipment. The major who sent them on the ASP mission decided what to test. After they arrived, they tested the selected bunker. The M256 readings registered negative and the senior enlisted member did not observe any artillery shells with an unusual appearance-which, as a qualified technical expert, he would have noticed. He also said he learned the bunker was associated with biological weapons only after the mission.[64]

Several of those interviewed mentioned an engineer greeted them at the landing site and warned them these remaining ASP bunkers were being wired for demolition and the sampling team should exercise caution.[65] We interviewed the operations officer for the 307th Engineer Battalion.[66] Battalion personnel had conducted demolition operations in the ASP since March 1, 1991, without wearing MOPP gear.[67] The Battalion had no advance notice that the sampling team was coming. After the team landed, the operations officer walked over to the helicopter and a chemical corps major came out of the helicopter in MOPP 4. The chemical officer related that the sampling team had received some reports about leaking shells in the ASP. The operations officer answered he had not seen anything of the sort and the depot was being rigged for demolition. The helicopter then left.[68]

The 9th Chemical Detachment and its biological warfare agent sampling mission were attached to the Foreign Materiel Intelligence Battalion (FMIB). A part of the 513th Military Intelligence Brigade, the FMIB was used to form the Joint Captured Material Exploitation Center (JCMEC).[69] The JCMEC operations officer and 9th Chemical Detachment commander developed a list of potential biological warfare agent sampling locations, which the 513th Military Intelligence Brigade operations and chemical officers then reviewed. According to the JCMEC commander, all the collected samples tested negative.[70]

We interviewed the JCMEC operations officer about biological warfare agent sampling and the mission to the An Nasiriyah SW ASP. He said he normally determined the biological weapons sampling criteria, procedures, and tasking from US unit location data passed from joint operations. Based on the proximity to US forces, he (the operations officer) divided the 9th Chemical Detachment into teams for each region. The detachment had experimental biological warfare air samplers positioned at Riyadh, Dhahran, and King Khalid Military City, locations selected because of weather patterns and US forces’ location and density. The detachment also collected soil samples. According to the JCMEC operations officer, the teams sent these samples to Fort Detrick, Maryland, for laboratory testing. The detachment teams took samples from approximately 30 to 60 locations in-theater.[71]

The US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick tested five samples collected at the An Nasiriyah SW ASP for biological warfare agents: one liquid from an artillery shell, one liquid from a different artillery shell, and three soil samples from two different bunker sites in the ASP. All five samples tested negative for substances associated with biological weapons.[72] USAMRIID’s chief of the Special Pathogens Branch, who tested biological samples during the war, told us they never found biological warfare agents in any samples they analyzed.[73]

I. Oozing Munitions

A review of the 60th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Detachment Incident Journal indicates a major demolition occurred on March 5, 1991—less than 24 hours before the Black Hawk and biological warfare agent sampling mission arrived on March 6, 1991. The March 5 demolition was much larger than any that preceded it in this ASP, and included destruction of a large number of rockets, including 1,000 132mm Soviet-built high-explosive anti-tank and 1,100 122mm Soviet high-explosive artillery rockets.[74] These specific rocket types are significant because this demolition, only four days after the ASP was occupied, matches the 82nd Airborne Division chemical officer’s comments about 122mm rockets "cooking off" and landing near his command post.[75,76]

While at least one of the Black Hawk crew members thought the oozing munition(s) he observed in the ASP was unusual,[77] it is not unheard of for artillery munitions to leak, exude, or be at least partially covered with a brownish substance.[78] At least one 307th Engineer member mentioned seeing this phenomenon when rigging bunkers at Tallil and the An Nasiriyah SW ASP. He described some of the 155mm artillery rounds stored inside these bunkers as "oozing a brownish sap."[79]

To understand this information and answer related questions about munitions cooking off, oozing a brownish substance, and fizzing, the Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technical Center, Indian Head, Maryland, provided a technical review. The Center’s assessment covered several situations in which it might be normal for artillery ammunition to leak or ooze when subjected to hot or high-pressure environments like those found in an ASP demolition.[80] Of particular interest was the 60th EOD Detachment Incident Journal indicating the March 5, 1991, demolition included more than 26,000 155mm high explosive projectiles.[81] According to the Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technical Center assessment:

Undamaged artillery projectiles and rockets that are stored correctly should not leak or present any unusual problems. However, damaged ammunition involved in an explosion and/or subjected to intense heat could experience some leaking or exudation of the munition filler through the fuze cavity or cracks in the munition case that developed during the explosion. Undamaged munitions that are subjected to intense heat, i.e., involved in a fire, could build sufficient internal pressure to cause some of the munition filler to exude through the fuze cavity.[82]

The Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technical Center also indicated a visible residue and possibly a sputtering or fizzing noise may also be present when non-explosive fillers vent:

If the munition is filled with a smoke agent, such as White Phosphorus (WP), exposure to air will cause the WP to react, resulting in the burning of the WP with a sputtering (fizzing?) sound and formation of white smoke. Leaking WP will eventually form a crust at the leak point that will cut off the air supply, stopping the reaction. Color of the crust can vary from a light orange to a rusty-brown color.[83]

A brownish residue also may have resulted from how the munitions were packed, transported, and stored.[84] The 60th EOD Detachment Incident Journal indicates the March 5 demolition included more than 16,000 Soviet 152mm artillery projectiles.[85] According to the Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technical Center assessment:

Some artillery ammunition manufactured by countries of the Former Soviet Union [Russia] and the Far East are shipped and stored with plastic fuze well plugs that are colored light blue, black, brown, or reddish-brown. Plug materials may be plastic, bakelite, [sic] or phenolic. If the munition was exposed to sufficient heat, the plastic plug could melt and resolidify, giving the impression of something oozing out of the munition.

Some projectiles and cartridge cases, ranging from 57mm and larger, have a thin layer of brown preservative grease applied to the projectile body and cartridge case.... Projectile fuze wells have been known to contain a thick layer of brown grease to protect the fuze-well threads, and the heating of this grease may cause it to run and possibly give the impression of a leaking munition.[86]

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