The road to Mattoon

Today I came across an article in an American publication, Science News Letter, dated 24 April 1943. The headline on page 269 reads 'Gas Attacks Expected'. The opening paragraph reads:

HITLER'S BOMBERS, if they make their expected raids on American cities, can be counted on to drop poison gases in bombs or sprays, Col. A. Gibson of the Chemical Warfare Service declared in Detroit.

This seems strange for two reasons. That German air raids on American cities were 'expected' is hard to credit, given that at this stage of the war in Europe, the tide had turned in the Allies' favour. German and Italian forces were just about to be squeezed out of North Africa; Von Paulus had surrendered his 6th Army at Stalingrad less than two months previously; the British and now the American air offensive against Germany was mounting in weight. Sure, there was clearly a long way to go and it would not have been wise to underestimate German power. (At this point in time, losses to Allied shipping from U-boat attacks were reaching critical levels, for example.) And it's true that several Amerikabomber candidates were then being developed for the Luftwaffe, though how much of this was known to the Allies (and how much to their publics) I'm not sure. But that's all still a long way from certain air raids against American cities.

And it's also strange for the claim that it was equally certain that such an attack would use poison gas against civilians. Why would Germany use gas against the United States in 1943 when it hadn't used it against Britain in 1940? Or anywhere, for that matter (extermination camps aside)? Well, maybe it would have, being more and more desperate; but how does this equate to certainty? Why were credible officials -- Gibson was the 'chief of the inspection section' at the Office of Civilian Defense, and, incidentally, a veteran of both the First World War and the Spanish-American War -- going around saying things like this?

Well, let's see what Gibson's reasoning was. Speaking at a symposium on 'civilian preparedness' at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, he said:

Gas will be used in raids on civilian populations whenever Axis war planners think it will be advantageous to them to do so, the Colonel asserted, and he added that a gas attack on an industrial area is capable of doing us a good deal of mischief because of the necessity to stop work in all places affected until they have been thoroughly decontaminated.

Well, sure, they would use gas if they felt it was 'advantageous', but that's meaningless: so would the Allies. Obviously nobody had thought it advantageous at any point in the war so far, so what needs to be explained is why they would think it advantageous now. There's no sign of such an explanation in Science News Letter, nor is there an explanation of why he thought air raids were a certainty.

There's another source, however, as Gibson's talk was published in the June 1943 issue of the Journal of Chemical Education as 'Chemical aspects of civilian defense' (265-70). Here Gibson argues as follows:

Gas is a surprise weapon. It was used prematurely in World War I, before adequate amounts had been provided and adequate tactics and technique developed. It failed as a decisive tactical weapon by reason of this premature disclosure. If the Germans had withheld its use until fully prepared and in a decisive battle, its use might have changed the course of the war. Tanks were likewise used prematurely and therefore failed in decisive surprise. All the military schools of the world have emphasized the importance of avoiding these errors in the future. The Germans will above all guard against a premature disclosure of a chemical weapon.

We, of course, do not know, but it is a reasonable possibility that gas may be reserved by Hitler for a decisive surprise when the time is most opportune or when other weapons and means have failed and he must take a last desperate chance.

This is a much more qualified statement than reported in Science News Letter. I think Gibson's views may have been mixed up with those of the head of the CWS (and so his superior), Major General William Porter, which he quoted in his own article (267). For example, in a speech given at the Huntsville Arsenal on 1 December 1942, Porter said:

I have been asked many times when the Axis proposes to use war gases. There are increasing evidences that they are preparing to do so and I am certain that they will use them when they believe it is to their military advantage. When that day comes the armed forces of this Nation will be prepared to meet it.

What those 'evidences' were, Porter doesn't say. But on 27 January 1943, he spoke at the Chlorine Institute in New York, explaining why he thought Germany might change its chemical warfare stance:

As for war gases, the possibility of their being employed against our troops becomes more real with the turning of the tide and the Axis growing desperate. We know that Germany, particularly, has accumulated large stocks of gas and has trained her troops in gas warfare. There was no occasion for Germany to employ gas in her early blitzkrieging through Europe. To have done so would have impeded her own troop movements. But when Germany has her back to the wall it may be a different story. Then we must be prepared to give as well as receive.

This is still much more conditional than Science News Letter has it (I think we can thank journalistic hyperbole for that), and it still doesn't quite explain the fear of bombing. However, it does make it clear that it's the very success that the Allies are now enjoying that leads to this fear that the Axis will strike back with poison gas, as a weapon of last resort. (There are other possibilities: one is suggested by the title of another talk at Detroit: 'Gas defense organizations. The chemist's opportunity for community leadership'.) It still seems old-fashioned thinking for 1943, especially when the other poison gas experts quoted by Gibson are the usual suspects from the 1920s and 1930s like Victor Lefebure. But it's at least understandable.

Gibson's article includes this handy 'reference and training chart' of 'chemical warfare agents' (270), drawn up by the Office of Civilian Defense in January 1943:

Journal of Chemical Education, June 1943, 270

Note the second column, which gives the CWS code for each agent and a nickname. As the nicknames have the same initial letters as the codes I would guess they were dreamt up by the CWS as mnemonics. What's interesting is that the nicknames generally aren't innocuous but reflect the threat posed by each agent. So mustard gas, HS, is 'Hot Stuff'; lewisite, M-1, is 'Mean One'; ethyldichlorarsine, ED, is 'Enemy's Delight'. Phosgene, a lung irritant, is 'Choky Gas', tear gases get 'Cry Always' or 'Cry Now', and the incendiary thermite is 'The Heat'. Nicknames like these would help civilians and civil defence workers remember the effects of each gas. The same page of Science News Letter which carried the story about Gibson's talk also had an item about the fear of poison gas being even more dangerous than the stuff itself, according to Professor Chauncey D. Leake of the University of Texas:

People do not know about war gases, and they are afraid of them; but "Tell the people the truth about war gases and they will probably respect them more and fear them less," he said.

And that's probably true. But being forthright had its dangers, too. Choky Stuff and Enemy's Delight are not names calculated to diminish any existing fears civilians might have held about poison gas infiltrating their lungs. Also, as Leake himself hinted:

Some fumes that arise in certain types of fires may be mistaken for poison gases spread by the enemy, Prof. Leake pointed out, and this can give rise to reports of chemical attacks that have not actually taken place.

Anyone taking in the above chart would note that lewisite has the odour of geraniums. Cry Always smells like sour fruit, Puking Stuff, flypaper. Again, these are useful because they are (or were!) fairly common odours which could be compared with whatever one was smelling in the event of a suspected chemical attack. But precisely because they were common meant that they could lead to confusion. Other listed odours might not be so familiar, particularly in urban environments: musty hay, for example. And some are actually mystifying -- what is 'acrid ensilage'? Any unusual or unexpected smell could be interpreted as a phantom gas attack.

Which brings me at last to the Mad Gasser of Mattoon. In August and September 1944, a series of mysterious attacks were reported in Mattoon, Illinois. The attacker was supposedly a masked man (or woman) who went about at night trying to spray some sort of gas into people's faces, sometimes while they slept, for reasons unknown. Whether this Mad Gasser actually existed is highly debatable, since only a few claimed to have seen him (or her). Some of the evidence consisted of smell -- for example, the smell of flowers, initially ignored as normal but later assimilated into the supposed gas attack.

One theory advanced to explain the reported attacks is mass hysteria. Robert E. Bartholomew and Hilary Evans explain this very well in Panic Attacks: Media Manipulation and Mass Delusion (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2004), 136-44. In particular they emphasise the concern about chemical warfare evident in the American press at this time. Again, naively one might think that by 1944 this was self-evidently absurd; but again, the success of the D-Day landings and the Combined Bomber Offensive made gas attacks seem a plausible revenge measure for Germany to take. I must admit to finding this explanation for Mattoon a bit of a stretch when I first came across it; but finding earlier examples of a similar wartime discourse makes it more plausible to me.

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7 thoughts on “The road to Mattoon

  1. Heather

    Ensilage is another term for silage - which is what farmers do to preserve grass or other green foods in an undried condition in an airtight environment to provide fodder through the winter months.

  2. Chris M.

    You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is "Never get involved in a land war in Asia," but only slightly less well known is this: Friedrich Paulus was not a von! He was the son of a schoolteacher, not an aristocrat.

  3. Post author


    Thank you! But still -- what does 'acrid ensilage' actually smell like?


    Ah, thanks for the correction. That is indeed a blunder, I should have known better!

  4. Neil Datson

    The scent of 'acrid ensilage?'

    In current English we would call it 'acrid silage,' as ensilaging is the process and silage the product.

    Perhaps the following tasting note can help you Brett:

    'A sour semillon without a hint of botrytis in its shallow ancestry. The vintage was plainly harvested too early, and as plainly trampled by a warthog with athlete's foot. Altogether ill-made. It appears to have been left to stand for a fortnight after first tasting, and swells with the bouquet of acrid silage . . .'

    Source unrecollected.

    (I would say both rotten and acidic, if that's any help.)

  5. Ian Evans

    "Why were credible officials -- -- going around saying things like this?"

    This may be excessively cynical. Oh no, it's not! (Sorry about that - it's still the pantomime season). At that stage of the war, as you say, gas attacks must have seemed less likely, so were the gas defence departments facing budget cuts? It's a testable hypothesis.

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