Covering 157,479 acres and spanning four counties, including Pasco, most in the Bay area are familiar with the vast tract of land now known as the Withlacoochee State Forest.
Acquired from private landowners between 1936 and 1939 under the U.S. Land Resettlement Administration, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Withlacoochee State Forest is currently the third largest forest in Florida.
And, with its extensive trail systems for hiking, biking, horseback riding, canoeing, and camping, in recent years the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) even declared the forest as one of the “10 Coolest Places You’ve Ever Been in North America.”
But, did you know that parts of the Withlacoochee State Forest were actively used for top secret chemical weapons testing during WWII?
This full blown testing program started in mid-1943, when job advertisements, placed by the U.S. Army Chemical Warfare Service (CWS), began appearing on the bulletin boards of several colleges.
The CWS ads sought graduate students in the fields of chemistry and biology for work in Bushnell, Florida.
According to Army Corps of Engineers records, on October 26, 1943, through a special use permit from the U.S.D.A., the United States War Department acquired 18,240 acres of public land for use as an Army Air Force air-to-ground gunnery range, known as the Lacoochee Bombing Range.
Within a month of the acquisition a new army air field, known as the Bushnell Air Field, began appearing on military maps and the top secret operations were soon underway.
The first known tests conducted at the Lacoochee Bombing Range began on November 15, 1943, about the same time construction of the Bushnell Army Air Field was completed.
The CWS Mobile Unit, a satellite unit of the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, conducted 23 separate tests using non-persistent agents or short lived gases like chlorine, hydrogen cyanide, and phosgene.
However, subsequent testing began in January 1944, when armed forces conducted their field experiments, both aerial and ground level, with persistent and miscellaneous agents such as nitrogen based mustard gases (HN1, HN3) and CNS, which is a tear gas mace consisting of chloropicrin-chloroform mixture.
These toxic chemical agents were dispersed in a variety of ways including with bombs, mortars, rockets, cluster bombs, spray tanks, and “Comings Candles.”
The subsequent tests consisted of 358 experiments, but one major problem was losing bombs because of the dense forest and swampy lands, according to the Army Corps.
While it remains unclear when testing of persistent agents ceased, by October 1, 1945, tests had moved from chemical means to biological.
Reports show the final test at the Lacoochee Bombing Range took place between October 1, 1945 and December 1, 1945, and included the spraying of the biological agent DDT in unspecified forested areas.
So, you’re probably wondering if chemical and biological weapons were tested, there had to be some type of test subjects from which the effects of the weapons were studied.
In 1995, Bob Widner, an avid WWII and warbirds researcher, received correspondents from Mr. Robert Beville, who was born in Bushnell, Florida recalling his first visit to the air field after the war ended.
Beville said, “There were wire coops about ten feet, by ten feet, by three feet lined up along the runway [Bushnell]. In them were dead and dying animals; chickens, hawks, pigs, goats, etc. Some cages contained the rotting carcasses of farm animals.”
What Beville witnessed were those test subjects from the military’s top secret chemical weapons testing.
In a letter to Tampa Tribune reporter Leland Hawes, Beville added that his aunt also operated a dairy in the area, the Eaddy Dairy. He remembers Army officers approaching her for any “lame, weak, or dead cows.”
At the nearby Webster Livestock Market, Army officers were regularly observed buying hogs.
On December 18, 1945, the Locoochee Bombing Range was determined surplus to the needs of the Army Air Force, and, on October 7, 1946, the U.S. War Department determined that the site was excess and relinquished their special use permit on December 6, 1946.
According to the Army Corps of Engineers, range clearance and disposal operations began on February 20, 1950 and were completed on May 31, 1950.
Stock piled and recovered chemical munitions were burned and decontaminated with bleach powder and DANC, a decontaminating agent.
A detailed clean-up map of the test area, prepared in 1949 by the Army Corps, outlined 24 different sites where 262 unexploded munitions were recovered and destroyed.
Of these 262 unexploded munitions, the map indicates the recovery locations of 197, M-4 bombs containing mustard gas, one chemical mortar containing mustard gas, and 15, M-89 Target ID bombs also filled with mustard gas.
The map also shows approximately two-square miles of dense swamp that contained at least 202 unexploded munitions.
The reports further states, the smell of mustard agents even existed in the area through the 1950s, years after testing ceased.
But, what remains unclear is whether or not all the unexploded munitions were recovered from the forest during the clean-up and decontamination process.
In 1984, Wayne Wertz was drilling a well at the former Bushnell Air Field when he suffered severe chemical burns after being splashed with water from the new well.
During a Tampa Tribune interview Wertz said, “At 82 or 83 feet there was a mild burning. It felt like ant in my pants.”
He added, “I rubbed my legs and kept drilling.” After two hours of discomfort, Wertz pulled his pants down and discovered two large blisters—one on the inside of both knees—plus 50 to 60 smaller ones on his legs.
Wertz went onto say, “In about 20 years of well drilling, I never smelled anything like it—the liquid spraying out of the water hole.”
Neither the Army nor Florida officials would say that Wertz had been burned by remnants of wartime experiments, but did say the man’s legs were blistered by chemicals.
A Sumterville doctor diagnosed Wertz as having “chemical dermatitis” and the incident even drew attention from the Pentagon.
In the 1950 Certificate of Clearance for the bombing range, several sections of land came with the recommendation for restrictions to “surface use only.”
The most recent investigations into the use of chemical weapons within the Withlacoochee State Forest came in 1993 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted surveys using geophysical and visual reconnaissance.
More specifically they concentrated on several of the areas that had been previously restricted to surface use
The survey report noted that of these areas, some now contain hiking trails, hunting areas, primitive campsites, and, in one case, a site used by a nearby boys rehabilitation center.
Some researchers have recently grown concerned about the affects of WWII chemical testing on our drinking water since parts of the Green Swamp were within the Lacoochee Bombing Range.
During a 1984 interview with the Tampa Tribune, Sumter County environmental health supervisor Warren Maddox said, “There wasn’t spraying in the Green Swamp, but they dropped bombs (of mustard gas) and artillery shells on pigs and goats to test the effects.”
According to the Swiftmud, Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve website, “Because the Green Swamp region is elevated above outlying areas and the underground aquifer rises very close to the land surface…Protecting the Green Swamp is vital to protecting the quality and quantity of Florida’s water supply.”
The Lacoochee Bombing Range wasn't Pasco County's only WWII bombing range site.
Sections of the county's coastline from Anclote to Aripeka were also actively used for gunnery and bombing practice, although not used for chemical testing.
Writers note: A special thank you to St. Petersburg resident Bob Widner for his extensive research into the Bushnell Air Field and Lacoochee Bombing Range.