March 17, 1968 Skull Valley Sheep Kill

“From 1951 through 1969, hundreds, perhaps thousands of open-air tests using bacteria and viruses that cause disease in human, animals, and plants were conducted at Dugway … It is unknown how many people in the surrounding vicinity were also exposed to potentially harmful agents used in open-air tests at Dugway”. – GAO report, 1994

The father-daughter pair had just finished a meal at the Zizzi restaurant in the cathedral city of Salisbury, ninety miles southwest of London. The two took ill two hours before sunset.  A passing doctor and nurse found the couple on a park bench.

Sergei Skripal, age 66, and his daughter Yulia (33) were slipping in and out of consciousness, foaming at the mouth with eyes wide open, but entirely white.  Sergei and Yulia Skripal were weeks in intensive care before regaining consciousness. In a May 23 interview with CBS News, Yulia said “I don’t want to describe the details, but the clinical treatment was invasive, painful and depressing.”

Skripal
Sergei and Yulia Skripal

Though Vladimir Putin’s Russia vehemently denies the charge, the incident has been classified as an attempted assassination carried out against the former spy and his daughter, using the military grade nerve agent, Novichok.

The terrifying history of “Nerve “Agents” began in 1936, when the German biochemist Dr. Gerhard Schrader was working on pesticides.  Schrader first experienced problems with his eyesight, and soon had difficulty breathing. Symptoms included involuntary muscular spasms, the scientist’s arm was fully paralyzed, days later.

Dr. Schrader had discovered a class of chemical compounds known as organo-phosphates.

Nerve agent final

Organo-phosphates are a class of organic chemical which block nerve signals to bodily organs. Nerve agents are generally clear to a golden amber in color, tasteless liquids which may be evaporated, into a gas. The Sarin gas used in the 1995 Aum Shinrikio attack on the Tokyo subway was odorless as was the VX used to assassinate the brother of Kim Jong-un. in 2017.

Symptoms of nerve agent poisoning begin with constriction of pupils and convulsions, leading to involuntary urination and defecation. Death by asphyxiation or cardiac arrest follows within minutes.

British chemist Dr. Ranajit Ghosh discovered the “V”series of organophosphate compounds in the 1950s, sold as a pesticide in 1954 under the trade name Amiton. The stuff was soon taken off the market, as it was too dangerous for safe use. British Armed Forces took control of the compound at Porton Downs and traded it to the United States  in 1958, for information on thermo-nuclear weapons.

The American military went into full-scale production of VX gas as a chemical weapon of war in 1961. The Russian military developed an analog of VX called VR in 1963, later developed into the Novichok group, including the most toxic molecules ever developed.

800px-Dugway_Proving_Ground
Dugway Proving Ground

The Dugway Proving Ground near Salt lake City Utah was established in 1941 and used for hundreds if not thousands of open-air tests of nuclear, biological and chemical compounds.

A 1994 GAO (US General Accounting Office) reports:

“From 1951 through 1969, hundreds, perhaps thousands of open-air tests using bacteria and viruses that cause disease in human, animals, and plants were conducted at Dugway … It is unknown how many people in the surrounding vicinity were also exposed to potentially harmful agents used in open-air tests at Dugway”.

On this day in 1968, the manager of a Skull Valley livestock company phoned the department of ecology and epidemiology at Dugway to report the unexplained death of 3,000 sheep.  The animals had been grazing in the Skull Valley area, some 27 miles from the proving ground.

The Dugway safety office compiled a count of 3,843 dead animals. Exact cause of death was at first difficult to determine, since “no other animals of any type, including cows, horses, dogs, rabbits, or birds, appeared to have suffered any ill effects, a circumstance that was hard to explain if VX had in fact caused the sheep deaths.”

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View of two farmers checking the corpses of dead sheep on a farm ranch near the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. (Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images) H/T Smithsonian.com

Necropsies revealed the presence of VX nerve agent, as did grass and snow samples taken, some three weeks after the incident.  Total sheep deaths were counted at 6,000-6,400 including those humanely euthanized.  With even the suspicion of VX nerve agent, the animals had no market value whatever, either for their meat, or for wool.

Military Accidentally Ships Anthrax To Labs In Nine StatesA report which remained classified for thirty years, blamed a faulty nozzle left open, as the test aircraft gained altitude.

Public backlash was vehement against the US Army Chemical Corps, and nearly lead to its disbanding.  President Richard Nixon ordered a halt to open air testing of “NBC” agents, in 1969.

Today, few nations possess stockpiles of  nerve agents, a hellish weapon of war which may, with a mere puff of wind, turn on those who would use it.  The use of such an agent would almost certainly lead to nuclear retaliation, should any nation so attacked, posses the capability.  So it is the nations of the world hold the proverbial wolf by the ears, desperately afraid to hang on, and unable to let go.

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Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I began writing "Today in History" nearly six years ago, as sort of a self-guided history course.  I told myself I’d write 365, the leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I believe there are over 600. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong as the next guy. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Rick Long

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