The First Operation - Conclusions of the Initial Testing

Despite conducting several tests using a CAM, M18A2 kit, and one- and three-color detector paper it was not possible positively to identify the substance in the tank. The CAM had indicated the presence of mustard agent, but the one-color detector paper gave a negative response. Although the three-color detector paper and the M18A2 kit had given a possible indication of mustard agent, the results were not conclusive.

Based on these results, Major Watkinson concluded that the tank probably contained mustard agent. His post-operation report recommended that a discrete guard of the tank should be mounted until the samples which the Kuwaiti Oil Company had apparently taken could be analyzed and the tank and its contents destroyed. It appears that following Major Watkinson’s initial tests and his recommendation that the area should be secured, Colonel Macel called in military police from DRAO and personnel from Task Force Victory to seal off the area.

In his interview, Major Watkinson recently summarized the initial testing as follows:

"As far as I'm concerned, the CAM [chemical agent monitor] test was positive. It was eight bars on H [mustard]. Both the one-color and three-color detector paper changed color, but the colors weren't entirely appropriate with the color that I would have expected. So, that was a positive result, but with question marks. The M18A2 detector kit gave a test which again could've been interpreted as positive, but wasn't as conclusive as one would hope."[62]

The First Operation - Subsequent Activity

Based on the results of Major Watkinson’s initial tests, a meeting was held on August 6, 1991, to determine an appropriate course of action. Those in attendance included Kuwaiti military personnel, British personnel including Major Watkinson, Colonel Macel and the Chief of Staff for Task Force Victory, Lieutenant Colonel Donnie Killgore.[63]

The initial proposal recommended removing the container from the city and destroying it in the desert.[64] This, however, was deemed premature. Major Watkinson was aware that a UN Chemical Weapons Evaluation Team was in Iraq attempting to determine the Iraqi chemical posture and the container could have been useful to the team’s efforts. In particular, if the container did contain chemical warfare agent it would clearly demonstrate Iraqi forward deployment of bulk chemical warfare agent. It was therefore decided that a UN team should be invited to take samples from the tank. Headquarters British Forces Kuwait agreed to make the arrangements.[65] This prompted Lieutenant Colonel Killgore to suggest using Fox nuclear, biological and chemical reconnaissance vehicles assigned to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment to confirm or deny the presence of chemical warfare agent in the container.[66]

While the chemical agent monitor and many other chemical detection kits available to military forces can positively identify only a few chemical warfare agents or groups of agents, such as blister and nerve agents, the Fox reconnaissance vehicle can identify 60 known chemical agents using a computerized mobile mass spectrometer.[67] This device is helpful in identifying the individual component chemical compounds by providing the molecular composition and weight of ions of those compounds. The use of the Fox vehicles was approved, and on August 7, 1991, the 54th Chemical Troop received a tasking memorandum from Headquarters, Task Force Victory, directing them to support 21st EOD Squadron, British Royal Engineers during the second operation to conduct tests on the tank’s contents.[68]

In his report, the Commander of the 54th Chemical Troop, then Captain Michael Johnson, noted that, upon receipt of the tasking, the troop leadership went to the US Embassy in Kuwait and received a complete mission brief by Colonel Macel. Additionally, the troop leadership briefed Colonel Macel on the capabilities of the Fox vehicle and how the troop would conduct the mission.[69] The operation was to be the first live joint detection operation between American and British forces. As such, rehearsals were staged to ensure that differences in tactics, doctrine, and other areas were properly addressed.[70] It was determined that Major Watkinson, who had originally tested the tank, would be the Commanding Officer for the second operation, while Captain Johnson would direct the Fox operations.[71]

According to the commander of the 146th EOD Detachment, a few days after the initial testing of the tank, he obtained information which called into question the suggestion, based on Major Watkinson’s test results, that the tank might contain mustard agent.[72] The commander of the 146th stated that an Egyptian EOD officer identified a picture of the tank as being that of a Soviet rocket fuel container. According to the commander, the Egyptian EOD officer was reportedly Soviet-trained in rocketry prior to EOD training. The Egyptian EOD officer was killed by a mine shortly after making this assessment and no record of this assessment could be located.[73] Major Watkinson stated that he was not aware of this assessment.[74]

During another meeting of the Kuwaiti MOD and EOD agencies at which Major Watkinson was not present, the suggestion that the tank did not contain chemical warfare agent, but rather a highly-reactive industrial chemical was apparently discussed.[75] This was based on the Egyptian officer’s assessment of the container, the ability of the material to penetrate Major Watkinson’s protective clothing, and the nature of the subsequent injury. The commander of the 146th EOD Detachment did not know why this assessment was not passed on to units tasked to test the tank. Likewise, there was no confirmation that anyone received the US EOD incident report that the senior US EOD officer in theater claims was furnished to Colonel Macel at the Embassy.[76] According to the senior US EOD officer in theater, upon reporting the findings to Colonel Macel, he was informed that the matter was deemed classified. Colonel Macel, however, reports he received no EOD incident report or any other assessment that would indicate the tank did not contain chemical warfare agent.[77]In addition, he stated that the reason for classifying the issue was not based on the nature of the incident. According to Colonel Macel:

"Virtually everything we were sending out of the embassy at that point [was] all classified...that was just sort of how things were being reported particularly … sensitive Iraqi issues involved. Nothing to do with this particular incident the way it was unfolding, but rather to ensure we protected sensitive information."[78]

Based on interviews with personnel subsequently involved with the tank, it was determined that knowledge of either the contractors’ or US Army Corps of Engineers’ involvement was limited to Major General Kelly, Colonel Macel, the staff of US Central Command via reporting from Colonel Macel, and the US Country Team at the Embassy in Kuwait. In an interview with Colonel Macel, he pointed out that, given its classified status and the fact that the Corps of Engineers was not charged with handling this type of operation,[79] he did not inform the US EOD officers, Brown & Root, or the US Army Corps of Engineers about any subsequent testing of the tank or the results. The Chief Operations Officer for the DRAO confirmed that, to his knowledge, no one outside of his office was involved in inspecting the tank.[80]

The Second Operation - The Fox Vehicle Testing

On August 9, 1991,[81] US and UK forces converged on the site of the tank. The British forces consisted of the Commanding Officer of the Second Operation, Major Watkinson, and 1 Troop, 21st EOD Squadron: a Captain serving as the Bomb Disposal Officer (BDO), a Sergeant serving as the Bomb Disposal Engineer (BDENGR), and other soldiers who, between them, formed the command post and decontamination team. US forces present included Captain Johnson and two Fox crews, a decontamination unit, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regimental Chemical Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Killgore, and Colonel Macel. An American Sergeant First Class, assigned to the 54th Chemical Troop, directed the Fox vehicle decontamination. He was in full protective equipment along with the BDO, the BDENGR and the two British soldiers who formed the UK decontamination team.[82] (Figure 12) The Fox vehicles, BDO and BDENGR were the only elements beyond the hot line. The hot line separates the area of active operation from the decontamination area. Apart from the soldiers in the decontamination area and those beyond the hot line, all other US and UK forces observed the operation from the safety of the incident command post (ICP), approximately 200 meters N/NE (upwind) and were not in protective suits at the time.[83] (Figure 13)

Figure 13. Major Watkinson’s sketch of UK and US elements during the Fox testing.[84]

The BDO and the BDENGR unplugged the holes sealed by Major Watkinson during the first operation. On breaking the seals, large quantities of vapor emerged from the tank for approximately two minutes before subsiding to a small vapor emission.[85] This suggested that the vapor pressure inside the tank had increased significantly while it had been sealed.

Using a long piece of rubber catheter tubing, the BDO, and the BDENGR took three samples from the tank and placed them in glass vials. Two of the samples were placed into two brown glass bottles which were then placed in a steel ammunition box filled with Fullers Earth.[86] The lid of the ammunition box was closed and left by the tank to be collected later. The third sample was placed in a stainless steel dish for analysis by the Fox vehicles.[87] This sample evaporated rapidly, which meant there was insufficient liquid to be tested by the Fox probe. This raised questions concerning the nature of the substance. According to Major Watkinson:

"One of the problems we were having was that the liquid, when put onto a stainless steel kidney tray, was evaporating quite quickly, and we hadn't anticipated this … mustard gas as I have dealt with it, seen it, and understand it, is fairly viscous, and I wouldn't have expected it to evaporate as quickly as it did. So, in my mind the rapid evaporation of the chemical was another indicator that suggested that this may not be mustard gas."[88]

The BDO and BDENGR therefore extracted a fourth, larger sample of the liquid and placed it into the stainless steel dish.[89] They presented this sample to each of the Fox probes for analysis. (Figure 14) The Fox vehicles, identified as Vehicle C-23 and Vehicle C-26,[90] had communications between them severed so as not to bias the results.[91]The MM-1 mobile mass spectrometer located on Vehicle C-23 alarmed for phosgene, a choking agent.[92] The Fox team took another sample test to validate the previous identification. The second test also alarmed for phosgene. In accordance with standard operating procedure, the C-23 crew ran full spectrum printouts to confirm the detections.[93] The spectrum run by the MM-1 mobile mass spectrometer onboard the first Fox vehicle was printed to a hard copy tape for later, more detailed analysis. From this point forward, the hard copy tapes generated by the Fox vehicles are referred to as the Fox tapes. (TAB H) With radio communications still cut off, Vehicle C-26 executed the same procedures. The second Fox alarmed for higher levels of phosgene, as well as mustard agent. Additionally it alarmed for a mustard agent. The C-26 crew, like the first, ran full spectrum printouts to confirm the exact substance present.[94] Fox tapes were also generated by this vehicle’s mass spectrometer. (TAB H)

Figure 14. Photograph of Fox vehicle testing taken by a US Army Lieutenant, 54th Chemical Troop.[95]

While the Fox vehicle testing was underway, a fifth sample was taken from the tank in case the Fox vehicle crews required further material to test. This fifth sample was not in fact required and was therefore added to the samples within the two bottles contained in the ammunition box.[96]

During the extraction phase, both the BDO and BDENGR received liquid agent contamination on their hands. They both noticed heat penetrating through their gloves and considered this to be a result of an exothermic chemical reaction between the agent and their rubber NBC gloves. Both operators returned to the decontamination area to change their gloves before continuing with the operation.[97]

According to the BDO taking the samples, after the Fox testing was complete, he and the BDENGR sealed the holes using luting (quick drying putty) and plaster of paris strips.[98] After the plaster of paris hardened, they used a mixture of super topical bleach and water to decontaminate the tank and the immediate area.[99]

The Fox vehicles were decontaminated and checked using CAMs before moving out of the hot line. The BDO and BDENGR picked up the steel ammunition box containing the samples and their equipment, and returned to the Emergency Personnel Decontamination Station (EPDS). In accordance with standard procedure, the box containing the samples was decontaminated, sealed inside three large clear plastic bags, taped up, and clearly labeled on the outer plastic bag. The BDO and BDENGR moved through the shuffle pit and were undressed by the EPDS Team. They went through full decontamination in the EPDS, including showers and a change of clothing. According to the BDO’s statement, all clothes and non-durable equipment used during the operation were destroyed at the EPDS hot line.[100] None of the protective suits used in the operation were saved for analysis; they were all destroyed at the scene.

During the decontamination of the BDO and BDENGR, the Lance Corporal in charge of the EPDS felt a burning sensation on his right wrist. He was decontaminated and his NBC suit and clothing were removed. An on site medical team tended to a 3mm blister which had appeared on his wrist and treated him for heat stress. He was then taken to Beteal Camp where a doctor attended him.[101] This event suggests that a small amount of liquid had been transferred from either the BDO or BDENGR and that this had penetrated the inner glove, suit and outer glove of the Mk IV NBC suit he was wearing.

The BDO stated that, after he had processed through the decontamination line, a British Lance Corporal in charge of the EPDS was injured while conducting the decontamination.

"I was watching the EPDS party finishing the task from the CP (Command Post). At the point when only the [ Lance Corporal in charge] IC of the EPDS was left to decontaminate and undress himself he fainted (this I believe was due to the heat and the time spent in [individual protective equipment] IPE). Myself and another went to his assistance pouring vast quantities of water and decontaminant on his bare skin (arm) which was blistering. He was taken to a local … hospital [21st Squadron Medical Center]…."[102]

A report dated January 4, 1994, submitted by Captain Johnson stated that a British team member had come in contact with the liquid. The soldier had an immediate reaction, causing extreme pain and sending him into shock. According to Captain Johnson:

"Within one minute, we observed that the soldier had a small blister forming on his wrist the size of a sticker head. Five minutes later, the blister reached the size of a (US) half-dollar coin."[103]

None of the American forces present (who have been contacted regarding this matter) can recall being advised of the British soldier’s treatment or outcome. Furthermore, the injured British soldier stated that:

"No one came to debrief me about the operation and I was not told about the likely effects of my exposure to the agent in the tank. During my time there [the medical facility] no tests were taken to see if I had been exposed to mustard agent. I was told not to speak to anyone about the incident."[104]

The medical report on the British soldier’s injury reads as follows:

"The burn on his wrist was 0.5 x 1.0 cm in diameter (Figure 15), comprising an area of erythema with a centralized pin head erupted zone. This injury is compatible with a variety of chemical or thermal insults ranging from contact with household disinfectants to perhaps more potent corrosive agents. The lesion did not propagate further, and responded quickly to silver sulphadiazine 1% (flamazine). The patient was fully recovered…the following day and was fit to return to duty."[105]

According to the injured soldier, while he was only at the medical facility for one night, he did not return to duty until the following week. In his report, he indicated that, "The scab on my right wrist took some 2 to 3 weeks to heal, but a red mark remained for 3 to 4 months."[106]

Figure 15. Injury sustained by British soldier during Fox testing[107]

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