Women played major role in mustard gas tests

Name: Sylvia Stoltz
Date: 1943-1945
Unit: Australian Women's Army Service
Location: Queensland

Work carried out by a group of young service women who took part in chemical warfare testing in North Queensland during World War II was kept secret for 30 years after the war had ended.

The program of mustard gas experiments from November 1943 to May 1944 involved sites at Innisfail and the surrounding district, the Brook Island group off Cardwell and Mission Beach. The base camp for the large number of personnel was at Hinchinbrook Island. A second project began at Innisfail in November 1944 and then was transferred in January 1945 to a specially built station at Proserpine, where the work continued until the end of the war.

Sylvia Stoltz, who was one of the first involved in the project, regarded it as an exciting adventure with the added satisfaction of making a valuable contribution to the war effort.

"Because the high secrecy regarding the research unit was maintained until 30 years after the end of the war, the part played by the service women was never made known to the Australian public and information regarding their work is not readily available," Sylvia wrote in a document she called Australian Service Women in Mustard Gas Field Trials, produced in 2000.

The document tells of the risks faced by the personnel working with mustard gas and provides descriptions and anecdotes showing the lighter side of the women's experiences. But the work and the dangers involved in the experiments were deadly serious.

"They [the service women] worked side by side with their male colleagues in situations which involved simulated enemy attacks on terrain and climatic conditions similar to the war-torn islands of the South West Pacific," Sylvia wrote.

"Their work included travelling in American invasion barges to a small tropical island a few miles off the coast of North Queensland which was to be the target of bombs charged with mustard gas dropped by formations of Liberator and Beaufort bombers.

"Immediately after the bombings they landed on the island which was contaminated with tonnes of liquid mustard gas. Hampered by protective clothing and respirators, they carried out chemical sampling, recording meteorological conditions and stenographic duties required to obtain the data from which effectiveness of the operations was assessed," Sylvia added.

"I was a member of the meteorological team which took part in practically every field trial from the Innisfail base during the period from November 1943 to May 1944," Sylvia wrote. "As a member of the AWAS I was posted to the Australian Chemical Warfare Research and Experimental Section when Mr Frank Pasquill, head of the Meteorology Section, requested an assistant who could handle the typing of reports and had passed the Leaving Certificate.

"This requirement apparently was necessary so that I could be trained to carry out elementary meteorological observations and the recording and analysis of data. I was not told where the unit was to be based, other than Queensland, and there was no mention of mustard gas. All I was told was that it was a 'scientific expedition' and that conditions would be 'uncomfortable'. It was not until much later that I learned of the suffering endured by the volunteers who took part in gas chamber experiments."

The three women in the Chemistry Section, Marie Matthews, Maud Murphy and Diana West, worked on the same trials often late into the night analysing the results.

"At the field trials they carried heavy sampling equipment through steamy, often muddy rain forest and, on occasions that we were wearing ordinary dress, I used to see them trudging out of the forest exhausted and dishevelled, their clothing soaked with perspiration," Sylvia said. "For the first four months at Innisfail those three were tested to the limit before three AAMWS were brought in to ease the work load in the Chemistry section."

Conditions were fairly basic for the members of the project with bully beef the staple of most main meals although there was always a plentiful supply of bread, jam and cheese. Prickly heat was a problem for the newly arrived members and the humidity and high rainfall made conditions most unpleasant for much of the time.

Secrecy was something that was drummed into all members of the project team from day one.

"From the moment we arrived at the 'camp' we were lectured regularly on the importance of complete secrecy regarding the unit and our work," Sylvia recalled. "We were instructed that we should not discuss amongst ourselves the work done by the various sections.

"We observed these rules implicitly so that I am able to write only about my own experiences and of the three girls from the Chemistry section who worked close to me. Looking back, many years later, I realise that even after the war those of us who kept in contact did not discuss the work we did and we have little knowledge of what work those in other sections actually did."

Having been trained to carry out elementary observations of wind speed, wind direction and temperatures, Sylvia was shown how to operate an anemometer, a galvanometer and methods of producing small 'smoke' clouds from which wind direction inside the rain forest could be determined by use of a compass.

Meteorological trials were conducted at Innisfail airfield where members of the Met team spent whole days taking observations at times and intervals synchronised with observations being taken in the jungle.

"When working at the airfield only meteorological observations were involved and there was no need to wear protective clothing," Sylvia wrote. "However a tent was necessary for shelter from the strong sun during the intervals between the reading of the anemometer and thermometers."

Sylvia's next experience was a short time spent in the gas chamber.

"We wore respirators and carried out normal tasks including typing and running around," she wrote. "My diary states 'Great Fun' so it is obvious that there was no apprehension of at the prospect of working with mustard gas. For the girls involved this was the beginning of the big adventure and the feeling was of excitement rather than fear."

Most field trials were carried out in rain forest areas with work teams hacking tracks through wild lantana, stinging trees, vines and roots. Equipment was set up around circles prepared well inside the forest and compasses were needed to find their way in and out of the area.

"My first experience of the 'jungle' was an inspection tour of a rain forest site to be prepared for a planned trial," Sylvia recalled. "We travelled by truck along the Innisfail-Mourilyan Road which, at that time, ran along side dense rain forest.

"We left the road and proceeded towards the rain forest. On passing a fallen tree we saw a huge rock python sunning itself on one of the dead branches. Our driver quickly grabbed a rifle, shot the snake and brought it back to the truck."

"In mustard gas trials we were hampered by the wearing of heavy clothing and respirators which restricted vision and made the handling of equipment difficult. Protective clothing consisted of two layers of impregnated clothing; long-legged, long-sleeved, high-neck heavy cotton interlock garments worn under 'jungle greens', with thick cotton knitted gloves, rubber gloves, hoods, boots and gaiters.

"The high humidity made conditions particularly uncomfortable and debilitating. Perspiration built up inside our respirators and we had to shake our heads to force the liquid out through the filter on the face-piece. Our thick cotton undergarments became saturated and provided some insulation from the heat."

Sylvia was required to record figures read from the anemometer and temperatures from the large glass thermometers, as well as noting times which were synchronised with others working at other sites. She also read stopwatches and a compass to note wind direction of smoke trails.

"All these tasks had to be carried out while wearing thick knitted cotton gloves (impregnated) when working on mustard gas trials," Sylvia wrote. "On no occasion did I ever remove my gloves and through the months that I worked on mustard gas trials I did not suffer any ill effects. There were some cases of mustard vapour reaching the eyes of samplers."

While working in the rain forest great care had to be taken not to brush against contaminated foliage or trip over protruding roots and falling on contaminated ground. The limited vision through respirators made such an event a real possibility.

In December 1943 there was a test of aerial bombing into the rain forest with a plane dropping a 'bomb' consisting of a large metal can filled with whitewash as a trial. The next day the real test was carried out using mustard gas.

"On this occasion we wore American impregnated clothing and respirators when we entered the forest after the bomb was dropped," Sylvia wrote. "On the following two days, MS bombs were dropped in the Keepit area and we cut our way into the jungle and set up observations and sampling. MS (methyl salicylate) was dyed red and was not toxic so we did not need to wear protective clothing or respirators."

A major trial took place on North Brook Island in January 1944 with planes dropping 120 bombs containing about four tonnes of mustard gas. Sylvia and her colleagues were waiting on barges off the coast and went ashore to carry out their testing.

"With respirators, rubber gloves, capes and hoods in place we landed and went to our positions," Sylvia wrote. "Luckily there was no liquid contamination near my site. I didn't even see a bomb so was able to discard the rubber gloves."

After completing their sampling all personnel had to walk through a pit of bleach and their clothing was examined for any traces of contamination. Any found was treated with a special cream which had been developed as a de-contamination agent.

Several more trials were completed on North Brook Island before Sylvia's tour of duty ended and she returned to Melbourne where laboratory and secretarial work continued and new equipment was ordered for a new, much larger establishment then under construction at Proserpine. Sylvia then returned to Innisfail for an extended period of research.

After returning to Innisfail and completing trials there, they were transferred to a new project at Proserpine in January 1945. Life there was very different with less humidity but higher temperatures. Sylvia's duties were to act as secretary for a much expanded Met section and she was not required to take part in field trials.

There was no rain forest just vast areas of savannah and their camp was often cut off by flooding during the raining season. Sylvia continued to type up reports of the meteorological section but was not involved in the tests carried out in the gas chamber.

When the war ended all stocks of gas were destroyed by burning and after a period in the hands of caretakers, the buildings were dismantled. Nothing now remains except a small memorial and plaque erected in recent years by the Historical Society of Proserpine. Sylvia returned to her former field of accounting after she was discharged in March 1946.

The material for this article was supplied by Sylvia Stoltz of Victoria
8/01/2002 10:30:24 AM

Work carried out by a group of young service women who took part in chemical warfare testing in North Queensland during World War II was kept secret for 30 years after the war had ended.

The program of mustard gas experiments from November 1943 to May 1944 involved sites at Innisfail and the surrounding district, the Brook Island group off Cardwell and Mission Beach. The base camp for the large number of personnel was at Hinchinbrook Island. A second project began at Innisfail in November 1944 and then was transferred in January 1945 to a specially built station at Proserpine, where the work continued until the end of the war.

Sylvia Stoltz, who was one of the first involved in the project, regarded it as an exciting adventure with the added satisfaction of making a valuable contribution to the war effort.

"Because the high secrecy regarding the research unit was maintained until 30 years after the end of the war, the part played by the service women was never made known to the Australian public and information regarding their work is not readily available," Sylvia wrote in a document she called Australian Service Women in Mustard Gas Field Trials, produced in 2000.

The document tells of the risks faced by the personnel working with mustard gas and provides descriptions and anecdotes showing the lighter side of the women's experiences. But the work and the dangers involved in the experiments were deadly serious.

"They [the service women] worked side by side with their male colleagues in situations which involved simulated enemy attacks on terrain and climatic conditions similar to the war-torn islands of the South West Pacific," Sylvia wrote.

"Their work included travelling in American invasion barges to a small tropical island a few miles off the coast of North Queensland which was to be the target of bombs charged with mustard gas dropped by formations of Liberator and Beaufort bombers.

"Immediately after the bombings they landed on the island which was contaminated with tonnes of liquid mustard gas. Hampered by protective clothing and respirators, they carried out chemical sampling, recording meteorological conditions and stenographic duties required to obtain the data from which effectiveness of the operations was assessed," Sylvia added.

"I was a member of the meteorological team which took part in practically every field trial from the Innisfail base during the period from November 1943 to May 1944," Sylvia wrote. "As a member of the AWAS I was posted to the Australian Chemical Warfare Research and Experimental Section when Mr Frank Pasquill, head of the Meteorology Section, requested an assistant who could handle the typing of reports and had passed the Leaving Certificate.

"This requirement apparently was necessary so that I could be trained to carry out elementary meteorological observations and the recording and analysis of data. I was not told where the unit was to be based, other than Queensland, and there was no mention of mustard gas. All I was told was that it was a 'scientific expedition' and that conditions would be 'uncomfortable'. It was not until much later that I learned of the suffering endured by the volunteers who took part in gas chamber experiments."

The three women in the Chemistry Section, Marie Matthews, Maud Murphy and Diana West, worked on the same trials often late into the night analysing the results.

"At the field trials they carried heavy sampling equipment through steamy, often muddy rain forest and, on occasions that we were wearing ordinary dress, I used to see them trudging out of the forest exhausted and dishevelled, their clothing soaked with perspiration," Sylvia said. "For the first four months at Innisfail those three were tested to the limit before three AAMWS were brought in to ease the work load in the Chemistry section."

Conditions were fairly basic for the members of the project with bully beef the staple of most main meals although there was always a plentiful supply of bread, jam and cheese. Prickly heat was a problem for the newly arrived members and the humidity and high rainfall made conditions most unpleasant for much of the time.

Secrecy was something that was drummed into all members of the project team from day one.

"From the moment we arrived at the 'camp' we were lectured regularly on the importance of complete secrecy regarding the unit and our work," Sylvia recalled. "We were instructed that we should not discuss amongst ourselves the work done by the various sections.

"We observed these rules implicitly so that I am able to write only about my own experiences and of the three girls from the Chemistry section who worked close to me. Looking back, many years later, I realise that even after the war those of us who kept in contact did not discuss the work we did and we have little knowledge of what work those in other sections actually did."

Having been trained to carry out elementary observations of wind speed, wind direction and temperatures, Sylvia was shown how to operate an anemometer, a galvanometer and methods of producing small 'smoke' clouds from which wind direction inside the rain forest could be determined by use of a compass.

Meteorological trials were conducted at Innisfail airfield where members of the Met team spent whole days taking observations at times and intervals synchronised with observations being taken in the jungle.

"When working at the airfield only meteorological observations were involved and there was no need to wear protective clothing," Sylvia wrote. "However a tent was necessary for shelter from the strong sun during the intervals between the reading of the anemometer and thermometers."

Sylvia's next experience was a short time spent in the gas chamber.

"We wore respirators and carried out normal tasks including typing and running around," she wrote. "My diary states 'Great Fun' so it is obvious that there was no apprehension of at the prospect of working with mustard gas. For the girls involved this was the beginning of the big adventure and the feeling was of excitement rather than fear."

Most field trials were carried out in rain forest areas with work teams hacking tracks through wild lantana, stinging trees, vines and roots. Equipment was set up around circles prepared well inside the forest and compasses were needed to find their way in and out of the area.

"My first experience of the 'jungle' was an inspection tour of a rain forest site to be prepared for a planned trial," Sylvia recalled. "We travelled by truck along the Innisfail-Mourilyan Road which, at that time, ran along side dense rain forest.

"We left the road and proceeded towards the rain forest. On passing a fallen tree we saw a huge rock python sunning itself on one of the dead branches. Our driver quickly grabbed a rifle, shot the snake and brought it back to the truck."

"In mustard gas trials we were hampered by the wearing of heavy clothing and respirators which restricted vision and made the handling of equipment difficult. Protective clothing consisted of two layers of impregnated clothing; long-legged, long-sleeved, high-neck heavy cotton interlock garments worn under 'jungle greens', with thick cotton knitted gloves, rubber gloves, hoods, boots and gaiters.

"The high humidity made conditions particularly uncomfortable and debilitating. Perspiration built up inside our respirators and we had to shake our heads to force the liquid out through the filter on the face-piece. Our thick cotton undergarments became saturated and provided some insulation from the heat."

Sylvia was required to record figures read from the anemometer and temperatures from the large glass thermometers, as well as noting times which were synchronised with others working at other sites. She also read stopwatches and a compass to note wind direction of smoke trails.

"All these tasks had to be carried out while wearing thick knitted cotton gloves (impregnated) when working on mustard gas trials," Sylvia wrote. "On no occasion did I ever remove my gloves and through the months that I worked on mustard gas trials I did not suffer any ill effects. There were some cases of mustard vapour reaching the eyes of samplers."

While working in the rain forest great care had to be taken not to brush against contaminated foliage or trip over protruding roots and falling on contaminated ground. The limited vision through respirators made such an event a real possibility.

In December 1943 there was a test of aerial bombing into the rain forest with a plane dropping a 'bomb' consisting of a large metal can filled with whitewash as a trial. The next day the real test was carried out using mustard gas.

"On this occasion we wore American impregnated clothing and respirators when we entered the forest after the bomb was dropped," Sylvia wrote. "On the following two days, MS bombs were dropped in the Keepit area and we cut our way into the jungle and set up observations and sampling. MS (methyl salicylate) was dyed red and was not toxic so we did not need to wear protective clothing or respirators."

A major trial took place on North Brook Island in January 1944 with planes dropping 120 bombs containing about four tonnes of mustard gas. Sylvia and her colleagues were waiting on barges off the coast and went ashore to carry out their testing.

"With respirators, rubber gloves, capes and hoods in place we landed and went to our positions," Sylvia wrote. "Luckily there was no liquid contamination near my site. I didn't even see a bomb so was able to discard the rubber gloves."

After completing their sampling all personnel had to walk through a pit of bleach and their clothing was examined for any traces of contamination. Any found was treated with a special cream which had been developed as a de-contamination agent.

Several more trials were completed on North Brook Island before Sylvia's tour of duty ended and she returned to Melbourne where laboratory and secretarial work continued and new equipment was ordered for a new, much larger establishment then under construction at Proserpine. Sylvia then returned to Innisfail for an extended period of research.

After returning to Innisfail and completing trials there, they were transferred to a new project at Proserpine in January 1945. Life there was very different with less humidity but higher temperatures. Sylvia's duties were to act as secretary for a much expanded Met section and she was not required to take part in field trials.

There was no rain forest just vast areas of savannah and their camp was often cut off by flooding during the raining season. Sylvia continued to type up reports of the meteorological section but was not involved in the tests carried out in the gas chamber.

When the war ended all stocks of gas were destroyed by burning and after a period in the hands of caretakers, the buildings were dismantled. Nothing now remains except a small memorial and plaque erected in recent years by the Historical Society of Proserpine. Sylvia returned to her former field of accounting after she was discharged in March 1946.

The material for this article was supplied by Sylvia Stoltz of Victoria
8/01/2002 10:30:24 AM


Last updated: 3 June 2019

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Women played major role in mustard gas tests, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/women-played-major-role-mustard-gas-tests
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