The Chemical Warfare Service Prepares for World War II

by Dr. Burton Wright III

The Army's chemical branch built its strength as the possibility of U.S. entry into the war grew.

An inspector with the Chemical Warfare Service's New York Procurement District writes a birthday greeting to Adolf Hitler on a cluster of M50 incendiary bombs at the Unexcelled Manufacturing Company.
An inspector with the Chemical Warfare Service's New York Procurement District writes a birthday greeting to Adolf Hitler on a cluster of M50 incendiary bombs at the Unexcelled Manufacturing Company.

Many historians have concluded that the U.S. Army on the eve of World War II was an organization unprepared for the titanic combat ahead. While this might have been true in a broad sense, parts of the Army had begun to get ready for war well before Pearl Harbor plunged the Nation into the conflict. That was the case with the Chemical Warfare Service (CWS), and its prewar preparations proved invaluable in enabling it to meet the challenges of world war.

The Army was not blind to the war clouds building over Europe in the 1930's. But until 1938, it did not have the money to begin any type of preparation. When Congress, seeing the coming danger, appropriated the funds needed to prepare for war, the Army got right to work.

Efforts had been made during the years between the world wars to maintain the Army's capability for chemical and biological combat. The CWS had survived the Army Chief of Staff's attempt to disband it at the end of World War I in 1919. While the CWS did not thrive in a postwar environment characterized by efforts to ban chemical weapons, it attempted, like the rest of the Army, to use what it had to keep in fighting trim. These efforts were based on the experiences of the CWS during World War I; the Army's chemical personnel did not forget the lessons of that terrible conflict.

Interwar Plans and Problems

The National Defense Act of 1920 made the Assistant Secretary of War responsible for peacetime industrial mobilization. Mobilization for World War I had taught the Army that, in order to create a force of the size and scale needed for such a war, it needed to maintain a close relationship with industry. The Army also learned that development of a base of supply was essential—a base of supply that could sustain the Army in the opening weeks of a conflict so there would be time to mobilize industry for war work.

To create the necessary base of supply, the Army set up a Procurement Division in the fall of 1921. It was divided into two branches: procurement and planning. The division supervised the procurement, storage, and distribution of war materiel, including chemical and biological items. On 9 December 1921, the Assistant Secretary of War approved a "shopping list" for the CWS that included toxic agents, smoke and cloud gas materials, and chemical engineering equipment.

The materiel initially used to provide the base of supply consisted of leftovers from World War I. Funds would be spent to add to, but not replace, this materiel. For planning purposes, the procurement program was based on an Army strength of 100,000 men. However, during the interwar years from 1921 to 1938, the Army's stockpiles were not increased but actually went down. By 1938, the Army estimated that it needed $507,000,000 to make up shortfalls in critical items, including CWS materiel, needed for mobilization.

Two workers at the Acushnet Process Company in New Bedford, Massachusetts, remove 18-inch M3 hose tubes from a mold. Two workers at the Acushnet Process Company in New Bedford, Massachusetts, remove 18-inch M3 hose tubes from a mold.

What supplies there were had to be used in the event of mobilization to provide for the Regular Army, the organized reserves, and, if necessary, the Navy. The supplies then on hand would not have gone far. So in the mid-1930's, when Europe and other parts of the world began to show distinct signs of approaching war, it was obvious that some action had to be taken.

Preparing as War Approaches

By 1937, mobilization was no longer based on the concept of a 100,000-man army. According to the new Protective Mobilization Plan (PMP), the initial mobilization target was 400,000 soldiers, which would rise to 1,000,000 in only 4 months and then peak at 4,000,000. (This was close to the level mobilized during World War I, but it would prove to be far fewer than the 10,000,000 actually mobilized in World War II.) As a result of the PMP, the CWS had to estimate what it would take to supply a force of that size, both with chemicals for possible offensive use and with equipment for chemical defense (particularly protective masks, which were not in plentiful supply).

During World War I, the CWS had relied on both Government factories and private industry for the manufacture of chemical equipment. But during the period 1920 to 1939, the chemical industry, upon which the CWS depended for much of its toxic materials, shied away from producing lethal chemicals.

M3 hose tubes are inspected on hose-tube air testing machines at the Acushnet Process Company. M3 hose tubes are inspected on hose-tube air testing machines at the Acushnet Process Company.

During the mid-1930's, the CWS sought to develop a chemical stockpile and was funded by the Army to do so. However, while the CWS estimated that it would need at least $15,000,000 for the period 1939 through 1942 to develop a stockpile (and that figure was based on the assumption that there would be no war), it was allocated only $6,000,000. The amount of money was increased only after the fall of Poland to Germany in October 1939. That military development naturally made Congress and the Army very nervous.

The problem throughout this prewar planning period was that those entrusted with the planning made some incorrect assumptions. They assumed that mobilization would be slow and orderly, apparently forgetting the chaotic mobilization of World War I. And they completely failed to understand the global nature of World War II. The United States had never fought a war of such magnitude. Of course, most of the rest of the world did not appreciate the emerging scale of the war, either.

Building the Chemical Infrastructure

As the possibility of war approached, the Army and the CWS increased their efforts to prepare. First on the agenda was the increased development and manufacture of protective masks. This meant re-opening plants used to make masks during World War I and building new facilities. Contracts had to be awarded for the acquisition of materials to make the masks and for their transportation to the factories being opened.

The second item on the CWS agenda was developing a chemical munitions program, as directed by the Army in June 1940. For fiscal year 1941, the CWS budget rose to a whopping $2,091,237. But under the growing realization that U.S. entry into the war was a definite possibility, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought a supplemental appropriation that would vastly increase the budget of the Army, including the CWS. On 16 May 1940, Roosevelt signed the supplemental Military Appropriations Act, and the CWS received $60,000,000 in new funding—enough to finally begin serious preparation for mobilization. Those in the CWS who had survived the "lean" years after World War I must have thought they had died and gone to heaven.

The early beneficiaries of this huge funding increase were existing facilities. For example, Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, the principal CWS facility in World War I and thereafter, was given a $34,000,000 facelift that included a new research and development facility, a new Chemical School building, and massive new depot facilities.

In a second supplemental appropriation to the fiscal year 1941 appropriations act, passed on 9 September 1940, the CWS received funds to erect plants for private industry to run. This was done simply to expedite production. Time was of the essence. Funds were allocated to develop and build charcoal and Welerite [used for decontamination] plants, which were constructed at Niagara Falls, New York; Fostoria, Ohio; Midland, Michigan; and East St. Louis, Illinois. The CWS and the DuPont Company joined forces to build chemical plants that incorporated new and innovative systems in their designs. This was, in many ways, the forerunner of today's close and positive cooperation between industry and the military.

However, some plants were operated solely by the Government. Impregnated clothing plants were built at New Cumberland, Pennsylvania; Columbus, Ohio; Kansas City, Missouri; and Ogden, Utah. These plants were deliberately spread across the country rather than placed in one geographical area. This was done to distribute employment among local work forces without exhausting any one area's local talent pool or available local raw materials. The CWS would need a sound, robust industrial infrastructure because more responsibilities were on the way.

Producing Incendiary Weapons

In the summer of 1941, the Chief of Staff of the Army, General George C. Marshall, placed the entire program for developing and procuring incendiary bombs under the CWS. The Army and much of the rest of the world had little experience with this type of weapon. So the CWS began to learn.

A pilot plant was constructed at Edgewood in the fall of 1941, and a completely new facility, based on the design of the pilot plant, was built at Pine Bluff, Arkansas. (Pine Bluff is still a chemical facility today.) The combined cost of the plant at Pine Bluff and the pilot plant at Edgewood was $151,156,748.

Managing Procurement and Production

In World War I, one of the shortcuts used to speed procurement was decentralized management of manufacturing through the use of what were called procurement districts. This system was used again in World War II, and it worked well. In 1941, these procurement districts began letting contracts to private industry for 4.2-inch mortar shells, gas mask components, and smoke devices. Contracts were awarded to the lowest bidder.

The continued massive increases in procurement forced the Office of the Chief Chemical Officer to change the organizational structure of the CWS. In early 1940, a separate Procurement and Supply Division was added, followed by an Industrial Service Division in 1941. The latter organization quickly set up district offices to handle the expected large requirements for chemical and biological materials. However, a small problem intervened: the age-old factor of supply and demand.

Any mobilization consumes a great deal of available raw materials, which have to be diverted from civilian use. As in World War I, the Government established allocation agencies that handled the disbursement of precious raw materials. The CWS had a relatively low priority for those materials and consequently had to battle hard for its share.

The CWS also had to compete for raw materials with the British and, until their surrender to the Germans in June 1940, the French. The British and the French had placed large orders for raw materials, as well as finished goods, when the war began in September 1939. Moreover, the United States began to acquire other allies, such as the Soviet Union (after it was attacked by Germany in June 1941) and European governments in exile.

All of these factors caused inevitable delays for the CWS in building plants and starting production. Delays were particularly acute in the critical area of machine tools. The critical materials for which various agencies, the Allies, and the CWS were competing included, but were not limited to, aluminum, nickel, manganese, chlorine, rubber, copper, steel, cotton duck, and webbing.

The CWS took action to overcome these delays and shortages by doing what the Germans had done during World War I, when the British blockade deprived them of similar raw materials. The Germans began to look for possible substitutes. So did the CWS in 1941.

Ensuring Quality

Another nagging problem for the CWS was the lack of trained inspectors. Since the Civil War, the military had insisted that private industry and Government plants alike meet military specifications for the products they supplied the Army. To ensure that the quality of these products was up to military specifications, inspectors were needed on site. Because of the small industrial base of the CWS during the years between the wars, it did not have enough trained inspectors to handle the vastly increased procurement and production of chemical materials needed for World War II. So the CWS used what experienced inspectors it already had to teach new inspectors the tricks of the trade.

Inspection of finished items became so important that a new office, called the Statistical, Inspection, and Specifications Section, was created in 1940. By July 1941, a separate Inspection Division was created within the CWS.

Storing Chemical Items

The final area of preparation was storing chemical items resulting from the increased production so they could be efficiently distributed. The CWS had to build a huge number of storage facilities. These facilities were already planned for under the Victory Program of 1941. The CWS estimated that it needed up to $12,000,000 to create new facilities to handle the chemical materiel then coming off the production lines.

At Edgewood Arsenal alone, 6 new warehouses, 13 magazines, 6 igloos, 2 sheds, 1 toxic gas yard, and 1 office were created. Those new facilities totaled 360,000 square feet of storage. Additional storage was built at the new arsenals at Pine Bluff and Huntsville, Alabama. (The latter formed the basis for the current space facilities and Army Aviation and Missile Command headquarters in Huntsville.)

Women made a valuable contribution to the manufacture of chemical materiel. Women made a valuable contribution to the manufacture of chemical materiel.

Because the CWS initiated procurement and distribution policies in the 2 years before the United States entered World War II, it was able to meet the increased needs of that war, but barely. It is nearly impossible to overcome 2 decades of neglect overnight, and that is one of the lessons we should learn from this period. If you reduce the industrial infrastructure that supports a larger military force, it takes time to rebuild it for a massive war effort. Other things may come and go, but it seems that this problem will always remain for the Army: managing the seemingly inevitable boom and bust cycle in available resources. ALOG

Dr. Burton Wright III is the command historian at the Army Chemical School at Fort McClellan, Alabama. He is a retired Army lieutenant colonel who graduated from the Infantry Officer Basic and Advanced Courses, the Armor Officer Advanced Course, the Army Command and General Staff College, and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. He has a Ph.D. in history from Florida State University.