A US miltary history low-point: Over six days in 1950 they sprayed clouds of Serratia bacteria from giant hoses aboard a Navy minesweeper along two miles of the San Francisco coastline

One of the most incredible stories involving the U.S. government testing biological warfare on its own citizens involved the death of an Irish immigrant killed by the U.S. Navy.

Ed Nevin was a native of County Kilkenny where he immigrated in 1903 to San Francisco. He settled in the Mission District where he and his wife raised seven children.  Nevin worked as a pipe fitter before his retirement.

He was intensely proud of his new country and the military it was deeply ironic that he ended up dying by their hand.

In the autumn of 1950 Nevin was admitted to hospital suffering from a routine prostate problem.  He returned home to recuperate but relapsed and died, His cause of death, a bacterial infection baffled the hospital staff at Stanford University Hospital.

Years later a secret U.S. government document revealed what had happened.

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The confidential government report written in 1951 - “Special Report No. 142: Biological Warfare Trials at San Francisco, California, 20-27 September 1950” - revealed the top-secret germ warfare experiment carried out by Navy ships offshore bombarding the city with bacterial agents during the period Nevin was hospitalized.

As Rebecca Kreston wrote in Discover Magazine, “Over a period of six days in September 1950, members of the U.S. Navy sprayed clouds of Serratia bacteria from giant hoses aboard a Navy minesweeper drifting two miles along the San Francisco coastline, a bacterial fog quickly enveloped and disguised by the region’s own mist.  By monitoring the air at 43 scattered sites throughout the region, the Navy found Serratia bacteria blown throughout San Francisco and extending to the adjacent communities of Albany, Berkeley, Daly City, Colma, Oakland, San Leandro, and Sausalito.”

Technicians test a bacteria at Fort Detrick (c. 1940s)

Technicians test a bacteria at Fort Detrick (c. 1940s)

For Ed Nevin from Ireland, the bacteria in his weakened state was fatal and he was among the first victims of germ warfare by his own government.  Doctors at Stanford were baffled when at least 11 other cases were reported, but Nevin was the only person who died.

According to Leonard J. Cole, author of the biological warfare book Clouds of Secrecy, San Francisco got blasted.

“Nearly all of San Francisco received 500 particle minutes per liter. In other words, nearly every one of the 800,000 people in San Francisco exposed to the cloud at normal breathing rate (10 liters per minute) inhaled 5,000 or more particles per minute during the several hours that they remained airborne. San Francisco residents were inhaling millions of the bacteria and particles every day during the week of the testing.”

The government was quick to shut down any investigation.

A whitewash exercise was carried out by General William Creasy, whose commission made the startling finding. “On the basis of our study, we conclude that Serratia marcescens is so rarely a cause of illness, and the illness resulting is predominantly so trivial, that its use as a simulant should be continued, even over populated areas,” said Creasy.

For 25 years the biological warfare loosed against its own citizens remained secret until a dogged Newsweek reporter broke the story.

When it broke, Ed Nevin III, grandson of Ed Nevin and a San Francisco lawyer, filed a Freedom of Information request and the truth came tumbling out.  It even made it to 60 Minutes where Dan Rather investigated the strange death of a much-loved family man and Irish immigrant.

The San Francisco germ warfare experiment must surely rank as one of the low points in U.S.miliitary  history. It was not the last time either. In June 1966 an anthrax substitute was sprayed in the New York subway. Sometimes you are in far more danger from your own government than terrorists.

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Ed Nevin