Our War: Korea ... Army veteran became one of the military's 'guinea pigs'

News-DemocratDecember 5, 2010 

Drafted into the Army on his 20th birthday in March 1953, Henry Weilmuenster was a week and a half from being shipped to the Korean peninsula as an infantryman.

But the cease-fire that came in June of that year changed his mission. Instead of sending Weilmuenster to war, the Army sent the Mascoutah native, who now lives in Belleville, off to become a footnote to history.

"When they told us we weren't going to have to fight we had quite a celebration," Weilmuenster said. "The boys drank a lot of beer and a lot of whiskey, and they broke a lot of windows in the process. We weren't sure what we were going to do after the war came to an end."

The revelry didn't last long. With no battle to fight, the men were shipped off to the Army's Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah about 85 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, where they tested weapons and equipment -- including biological and chemical agents, according to the Army's website -- to be used to fight future wars.

Created in early 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's order, the proving ground was a highly secretive site.

"We were always doing things that didn't make any sense to us," Weilmuenster said. "But the colonel told us we were helping provide the Army with very valuable information."

Missions included driving Army trucks around nonstop in the desert heat to see how much abuse they could take. On another occasion, the men went up into the mountains and dug a system of bunkers into the rock. Sleeping in pup tents at the foot of the mountain, the men were awakened one night to the sounds of jets that dropped bombs, fired missiles and machine gunned their handiwork.

"When we got up in the morning, we found all the greenery around us was completely dead," Weilmuenster said. "We found out later that was what they called Agent Orange. It killed all the vegetation and made the landscape look like a whole different place. It turns out that they had us build the bunkers so they could test how much damage the weapons they used would do."

The men tried out lots of other things too, including a 40-barrel rocket launcher that blew its targets to smithereens.

"We tested smoke generators that made it so you couldn't see your fingers if you held your hand out in front of your face," Weilmuenster said. "They were fed by 55-gallon drums, and when you got low, they'd bring you another one. They could keep the smoke going for two weeks if they wanted to."

Weilmuenster narrowly missed being part of a much bigger -- and much more dangerous test.

"They were doing nuclear testing over in Nevada, and the sergeant told me if they needed just one more guy, my name was next on the list to go," Weilmuenster said. "They would have the guys lay in a ditch when the blast went off. Then they would march toward ground zero to see what the effect was."

On a trip to the doctor for a problem tooth while he was on the base, Weilmuenster was asked which group he was in on the base. When he replied, the doctor said, "Oh, so you're one of the guinea pigs."

Weilmuenster asked the doctor whether guinea pigs had tails. When the doctor said no, he said, "Well, I don't have one either."

Signs posted all around the base warned soldiers not to hunt and eat the jackrabbits that roamed the area. The Army said the rabbits were diseased, but soldiers gossiped that they were exposed to radiation. One soldier couldn't resist. He drove 50 miles away from the base where he thought it would be safe. There he caught and killed a jackrabbit and cooked it over a fire cowboy style. He ate it and a couple of days later he started to feel really sick.

"They took him away, and his clothes stayed where they were at his bunk for three or four weeks," Weilmuenster said. "Then they sent a detail to take them away and we never heard anything else about him. I never heard if he lived or died, but I'd say there was a nine of ten chance that he died."

Dugway is still in use today, and it now covers nearly 800,000 acres. According to the Army, it is used for testing of defenses to chemical and biological weapons.

Although he never knew the technical details of the experiments in which he played a part, Weilmuenster said he believed to this day that his secret duties at Dugway continued to benefit him later in life.

He got out of the military when his two-year hitch ended in 1955. But he soon found a job at Scott Air Force Base, where he operated a boiler for 36 years.

Weilmuenster said other employees came and went, but he was told by the brass that he was considered to be a "hot potato" or someone who shouldn't be messed with. He believes the military wanted to keep him happy because of the things he saw and did at the testing grounds.

While he appreciated the support of his commanding officer when he was in the Army, it has always bothered Weilmuenster that he isn't officially considered to be a Korean War veteran.

"I was ready to fight," Weilmuenster said. "I trained to fight and I was ready to go, but the war ended. I served my country in the way I was asked.

"I don't want to take anything away from the veterans because they deserve all the praise that they get," Weilmuenster said. "But I did my duty, too. The plan for me just turned out a little bit different."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or 239-2626.

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