Chemical Weapons at the Villages
Updated: Oct 30, 2020
This interview with James N. Pitts, Jr. was originally published in The Spectrum (Volume 20 Issue 1, 2007).
Sometimes one encounters an article important enough to warrant extra space. When Mike Woods' interview with Jim Pitts landed in my inbox, I decided that it was significant enough to literally clear the decks. We are devoting the entire issue of The Spectrum to Jim's wonderful story. It seems a fitting way to begin the 20th year anniversary of The Spectrum as well.
Pitts' career mirrors that of many young scientists of the early World War II generation. rather than being drafted into the armed forces, he was sent to work in a defense department laboratory. Pitts was just twenty-one when commandeered. In his case, Jim worked in the chemical warfare service under the immediate direction of Francis Blacet and the ultimate direction of W. Albert Noyes, Jr. Noyes was identified by Harvard President (and organic chemist) James Bryan Conant to lead this multitasked service. The outcome of the effort and the names of the 400 plus participants were recorded in a book edited by Noyes, Jr., entitled Chemistry: A History of the Chemistry Components of the National Defense Research Committee, 1940-1946.
Many of our readers around the world may know of other individuals in their late 80s/early 90s who served similarly in England, France, Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan and other countries. Out of this work came the atomic bomb and its terrible successors. Out of this work also came some of the most heinous chemicals known to man - the nerve gasses, SARIN, SOMAN and TOBUN. Not a month goes by that one of the nations of the world doesn't let on that (1) they have huge stores of these weapons, (2) the stores are so massive that destroying them will not be done any time soon, and (3) the canisters in which they are contained are rusting, decaying and in other ways making continued storage unsafe. In the United States, we know that tons of these various compounds were made and stored between 1946 and 1952. Our big oil companies made them presumably with a sizeable profit margin. Less is known about synthesis and storage and in the other combatant nations of World War II. The issue is pertinent still today in that destruction of stores, and the potential for capture or purchase of stocks by terrorists, is always with us.
In another part of my life, I work with the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, New York, to preserve the legacy of a Supreme Court Justice who was also the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuernberg military tribunal following World War II. The Jackson Center has made a strong effort to capture oral histories of the recollections of those still living who knew Jackson and worked with him.
Jim Pitts' story leads me to make an appeal to The Spectrum audience. I'm asking readers to let me know about scientists, or those who worked with scientists, who might still be living from World War II. I propose to gather the information as oral histories so that a record can be maintained for future scholars and students.
Dr. Doug Neckers
The full interview printed in The Spectrum can be found here.
Photo credit: UCI