Operation Peppermint – The Allied Fear of Radiological Warfare in WW2

The hazards posed to nuclear veterans – whether personnel (including down wind civilians) were present at Trinity, Hiroshima and Nagasaki (included the targeted civilians) or at nuclear test areas thereafter – were well known prior to the formation of Manhattan Project. Indeed, radiation sickness had been fully described by medical authorities in Europe and the US in the 1930s. The radium dial painters – their illnesses and suffering – were tracked by US authorities from the 1920s until the last worker died in the 1990s. (Being the first human radiation experiment conducted without victim permission.) Many such workers suffered decades of ill health, many died in the 20s and 30s.

So it was that in 1942, knowing of the German nuclear and iosotope reseach being conducted at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, the US worried about the German ability to produce highly radioactive isotopes in military significant quantities. These radioactive isotopes, the US feared, might be used in German shells. The powdered form of these isotopes might use to contaminate territory such the beaches used by the Allied Forces. And so it was that a program of radiological defence – including of course, radiological detection – was formed. It was called Operation Peppermint. The operation is little talked about.

It is true to say that the early nuclear researchers resident at the University of California’s Crocker radiation lab – working under Lawrence as they had done since the 1930s – being familiar with the production of Iodine 131, Phosphorous 32 and Strontium 89 (a particularly violently radioactive substance which produces pure beta radiation of much higher energies than most other Beta emitters), had been seen as being of primary importance to the Allied war effort by President Roosevelt since the formation of the Uranium Committee by the President in 1939. The possible use of Radio Strontium as a radiological weapon had been put to the Committee by Ernest Lawrence in 1941. After a discussion with Uranium Committee (Later called the S1 Committee) head V. Bush, Ernest Lawrence was made a member of the Committee and funds for research were forthcoming from that time.

Obviously, the scientists working under Ernest Lawrence – Drs Pecher, Hamilton, Erf, Libby, John Lawrence, Scott, Stone, and others – and who had done so since the 1930s, possessed information of great military importance. Not the least was the human LD50 data which stemmed from the radio-chemicals which the lab had produced since the 1930s, and with which cancer patients had been treated from the 1930s on. The US advantage over the Nazi effort in this regard consisted of the human (consenting patient) experimental medicine human dose response to the internalised (injected) radioactive substances and the Lawrence cyclotrons – the smaller civilian cyclotrons progressively built by Lawrence was replaced by the large 60 inch cyclotron (using silver on loan from Fort Knox) in its giant coils by the time the US entered the war.

As a result the US could produce these dangerous radioactive substances in some quantity by 1942.

The Nazis did not possess a large cyclotron, the Juliott-Curie cyclotron in France and the associated lab with its stock of refined uranium was a priority for the Nazis, who quickly took possession of it on their invasion of France.

Though the Germans had a number of small experimental nuclear reactors scattered throughout Germany (Irving, “The Virus House”), there is no evidence that these troublesome devices were anything but fire prone experimental devices incapable of producing highly radioactive products of the type the US had produced from the 1930s and in particular since 1939 (Sr89, Pecher).

Indeed the US superiority was demonstrated by Seaborg’s et al’s isolation of plutonium. “Plutonium (specifically, plutonium-238) was first produced and isolated on December 14, 1940, and chemically identified on February 23, 1941, by Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, Edwin M. McMillan, J. W. Kennedy, and A. C. Wahl by deuteron bombardment of uranium in the 60-inch (150 cm) cyclotron at the University of California, Berkeley.[51][52] In the 1940 experiment, neptunium-238 was created directly by the bombardment but decayed by beta emission two days later, which indicated the formation of element 94.” (Wikipedia, citing Emsley, John (2001). “Plutonium”. Nature’s Building Blocks: An A–Z Guide to the Elements. Oxford (UK): Oxford University Press. pp. 324–329. ISBN 0-19-850340-7.)

At that time, the Lawrence Berkeley Lab at which Seaborg et al worked, including all staff, including the Belgian Pecher, was placed under the highest level of security by the US President. Note. This occurred months before the full implementation of war time censorship under the Manhattan Project in relation to uranium related research (Smyth). By this time Lawrence was well entrenched within the uranium committee. He advised the Committee that plutonium could be mass produced in a reactor of the Fermi – Szilard design (University of Chicago). The reaction, Lawrence stated that the reactor could run pure natural uranium blend fuel without the need of uranium enrichment to produce these materials. A second route to the bomb had been opened, and a route to a radiological likewise had been formed. In 1942 Hamilton again proposed the use of radio strontium shells to contaminate enemy food and water.

It was known by 1941 that radio strontium 89, of a short half life and of very high radioactivity was a fission product. Pecher had been producing it by cyclone since 1939 using the method described by Stewart, Lawson and Cork. The production efficiency of the substance of the substance by reactor being much greater than by cyclotron. Had the bomb not worked, the US Academy of Sciences reported to the Uranium Committee in 1941, then the strontium bomb would become the first available radiological weapon.

Although the Nazis were aware of the theoretical existence of Plutonium, by war’s end they had failed to isolate it. This is not to say that the idea of using radioactive substances to contaminate invasion prone areas of Europe had not occurred to them. It probably had. The idea of using radioactive substances in shells and bombs had in all probability also occurred to the Germans.

On the formation by the S1 Committee of the Manhattan Project (the military arm of the project, overseen by the S1 Committee (civilian oversight of US Military, headed by the Commander in Chief via the Committee, with Compton playing a leading role in the oversight of Groves) in 1942, one of the first contracts awarded by the MED (Manhattan Engineer District) was to Hamilton. He was charged with the identification of the “radiations effective the enemy” and also with producing methods of protection of US forces and the US population should the Nazis produce either an atomic bomb or radiological weapons and use them either against US troops or US civilians. Hence the strict imposition of secrecy, initially imposed on Lawrence’s staff from 1941 and strengthened by Groves in 1942.

If radioactive substances were seen as being safe, the idea of a radiological weapon would have no merit. From 1941 however, based on advice from the US Academy of Sciences, the Uranium Committee had given the strontium bomb a higher priority than the atomic bomb. (Source: ACHRE Final Report, 1994.)

Lawrence’s staff from Feb 1941 had definitely become national military assets, and were subject to strict military security, even though their own individuals were seen as being medical in regard to Sr89, I131 and P32. To weaponise the medicinal data, all one had to do was administer amounts above the medically tolerable dose in order to produce enemy casualties which would be near immediate (after the latent period of about a fortnight.) It is pointless to use long lived substances as radiological weapons – land remains unavailable for occupation. Strontium 89 with its short half life of about 51 days, together with its high rate of radioactivity, was seen to be ideal by Hamilaton, who had seemingly stepped into Pecher’s shoes after Pecher suicided in August 1941. The loss was great and tragic. Pecher had been a major asset to the US war effort. Whether he knew it or not. His strontium medical data was subsequently used by the US in secret throughout the rest of the war and throughout the period of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. It is important for nuclear veterans and nuclear victims to be aware of. The authorities certainly knew specific important specific Sr89 related health data which was kept secret.

And so to Operation Peppermint. I quote from http://national-radiation-instrument-catalog.com/new_page_114.htm

“There were two key factors leading up to WW II that required the development of ruggedized portable radiation instruments. The first was the concern that the Germans would lace the beaches of Normandy with radioactive materials to deter U.S. and Allied landing teams and was code named Operation Peppermint. The second was intelligence that Germans would mark their anti-tank mines with radioactive materials so they could easily identify where they were buried and was code named Project Mamie.

In 1942, the U.S. was concerned that the Germans were making progress on either an atomic bomb or production of radioactive materials. The U.S. initiated a program of high priority in late 1942 to develop portable radiation instruments for field use. The two primary contributors were the Metallurgical Lab (Met Lab) in Chicago and the Victoreen Instrument Company. By 1943, several instruments were developed for field use and evaluation. Victoreen provided 48 instruments. The instrument ranges were 0-10 R/day (24 units) and 0-200 R/h (24 units). The units were positioned at several locations around the U.S. with instructions for use. The remaining instruments were left at the Met Lab for use by scientists in the event of a radioactive attack. The scientists would assist in measurements and interpretation of the data. The programs primary concern, however, was in the event of an atomic bomb attack on a U.S. city. One indication of a large scale attack would be the blackening of x-ray films. Operation Peppermint was the U.S. military response to the potential of radioactive materials being used against US forces invading Europe at Normandy beaches. The thought was that the beaches would be laced with radioactive materials to deter or slow the beach invasion. Fortunately radioactive materials were not used during the invasion.

The U.S. decided to brief the British of the possible use of radioactive materials by the Germans and instructed on how to identify it. They were also given a few radiation detection instruments. European Commands were instructed to report any fogging of x-ray film. The small team trained with the instruments would respond and investigate any unusual fogging incidents.

General Groves decided to info the General Eisenhower, Commanding General, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force of the possible use of radioactive materials by the Germans during the invasion. Major Peterson was dispatched to the United Kingdom to brief General Eisenhower. He was briefing in Apr 1944. In order to prepare U.S. troops, a plan code named Peppermint was developed. Three aspects were included:

1. Centralization of all detection equipment.

2. Establishment of a method for the initial detection.

3. Effective channels for reporting to Headquarters.

Participating Commands were instructed to report unusual film fogging, certain clinical symptoms and medical cases. The British soon followed suit. The British agreed to employ the Cavendish Laboratories at Cambridge University to assist in identifying the type of radioactive material.

The equipment deployed to Britain included 1500 film packets, 11 survey meters, and 1 Geiger counter. Additional equipment consisting of 1500 film packets, 25 survey meters and 5 Geiger counter were kept in reserve in the U.S. Commercial companies were also completing the development of an additional 200 survey meters and 25 Geiger counters.

Dry runs were conducted prior to the Normandy invasion to test the equipment and provide field experience for the deploying personnel. Bombed areas along the coast of England were surveyed for radioactive materials but none found.

however, in order to ready the U.S. military to detect radiation, they turned to the Victoreen Corporation which was producing a commercial unit known as the Model 247. The portable Model 247 ionization chamber was the basis for developing a rugged design for the military. The Model 247 was a gamma survey meter with a 56 cubic inch air ionization chamber commercially available in 1945, but dates back to mid-1943. The original Model 247 was rectangular box shape 12” long x 9” wide x 10” high and weighed 14 lbs.

building upon the Model 247, the U.S. military requested that Victoreen develop a ruggedize, waterproof version which became the Model 247A and 247A Special. These units were the military versions of the Model 247 and each had four decade ranges from 2.5-2,500 mR/h and 25-25,000 mR/h, respectively, for x-ray and gamma radiation. The case is watertight and hermetically sealed. The wall of the chamber is typically made of a material that has the same absorption characteristics as air, namely carbon. A unique eccentric range switch is color coded to give visual indications of the range that the meter is set. The unit came in a baked grey enamel finish.

Due to the secrecy at the time of the development of the military versions of the Model 247, Victoreen never received as much credit as he should have in supporting the war effort.

The second program WW II which utilized portable radiation detectors was code named Project Mamie. The National Research Defense Committee of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, through intelligence gathering thought that the Germans might mark their underground anti-tank mines with a radioactive material, i.e. Co-60. The U.S. needed a tool to locate the remaining mines after WW II. The U.S. military embarked on a program to procure or develop sensitive radiation detectors. They turned to the Texas Company’s Geophysical Laboratory in Houston, Texas. The unit developed was the AN/PRS-2 Mamie. Mamie is the code name for marking friendly mines with radioactive materials. Project Dinah was the code name for the whole non-metallic mine detector program, of which radiation detection was part. In principle, small buttons of radioactive material are planted on top of or adjacent to the buried mine. The marking scheme was developed independently by the U.S. and Germans. The Germans were marking their Topf anti-tank mines. The AN/PRS-2 consisted of three parts – a head which contained the Geiger counter, a amplifier and power supply box, and a set of earphones. The company did not want to disclose the type of detector because it had been developed under a previous contract. The detector was cylindrical in shape and measured 2″ diameter by 4″ long. The signal was audible via a tone where the intensity indicated increasing source strength. It was sensitive to 2 micrograms equivalents of radium buried 2 to 3 inches in the ground.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology produced the markers. The markers were a Co-60 chloride solution in small glass ampoules each containing 2.5 microcuries (1 microcurie of Co-60 is equal to 2 micrograms of “radium x-ray equivalents”). In addition, markers were made in the form of artificial rocks containing activated cobalt. The rocks were “spheres of porous ceramic material saturated with aqueous solution of cobalt nitrate”.

The technique of bombarding the ground with neutrons and detecting the emitted radiation as well as bombarding the ground with x-rays and measuring the emitted radiation were also studied requiring a portable detector.

See also


Pecher knew too much to be allowed to enter the European Theatre and so become a possible capture risk. In Nazi hands, much secret US information related to uranium enrichment, the production and effects of Strontium 89 would potentially be in Nazi hands. The Belgian government in exile demanded Pecher’s military service. The US forbade it. Pecher was in a cleft stick. He was a man who knew too much, and under intense personal pressure. Hence his tragic death.

Nuclear veterans and nuclear victims need to be aware of the fear with which the US held radioactive fallout by way of either bomb or radiological shell in the early 1940s.

It gives the lie to the government statement that they did not know and that it was safe for people to be in the way of the fallout.

The people of Japan today need to be aware that the fission fallout list from Fukushima is incomplete. And it is my view that the Japanese population need to mount their own Operation Peppermint. ie Buy a decent detector.

Strontium 89 is one of the disappearing “magic bullets” of both the atomic test era and modern nuclear industry. It is capable of producing beta skin burns, and radiation sickness and death within a short period of internalisation. Within 3 years of nuclear bomb blast, it is undetectable, the bulk of it having decayed to stability. As Fukushima continues to undergo spasmodic criticality in its molten cores today, Strontium 89 is still being emitted by that reactor complex.

Hamilton’s solution to the threat posed by a Nazi radiological weapon or atomic bomb – his defence against radio strontium – was to boost the calcium content of the American diet. The method is now known as “displacement”. Hamilton based his recommendation upon the 1939 -1941 of Charles Pecher without giving credit. It was war time and the usual global peer review was not applied.

Compton of the MED Met Lab was pleased with the outcome of the contract. A human plutonium injection project contract was subsequently awarded to Hamilton, who became known as “Dr. Death”.

Throughout the nuclear test era, the world’s food supply became increasingly contaminated with radiostrontium, including dairy milk, Hamilton’s primary strontium defence. In WW2, this was not the case. The idea that milk could protect against human absorption of radio strontium was increasingly eroded as milk supplies became increasingly laden with radio strontium. However, there are complications. Calcium has to be obtained by the body. If it is deprived of calcium, the body will increasingly use strontium in its place. Cultures which do not have dairy milk in their diets are more vulnerable to strontium uptake than cultures that do. The reasons for this relate to the enhanced calcium uptake over strontium afforded by lactose in cow’s milk. (Comar).

While people close in to nuclear test sites and failing reactors are most vulnerable to Strontium 89, it is only one of more than 250 fission products.

Throughout the period 1954 to 1974, authorities talked about Strontium 90, ignoring Strontium 89. In effect, keeping its presence in fallout a secret.

No-one knows the casualties produced on a global scale by Sr89 at the time of the bomb tests. No doubt Sr90 is a long term, accreting hazard. No doubt also that Sr89 is an immediate hazard that has been forgotten and ignored.

It is now 2011. Authorities remain deceptive on the contents of nuclear fallout. The imperative to keep secrets was a major driver behind the stresses felt by Pecher in August 1941. Had he been free to obey the Belgian demands, events would have been different. However, the fact remains, the US forbade his leaving the USA.

I suppose one should forgive Belgian authorities of the time. They had no idea of the existence of the Uranium Committee or of the actual work being performed by Pecher et al. Neither did the US Congress itself. The secret funding of the Uranium Committee turned into the world’s biggest black budget to that time. It turned into the Manhattan Project. Run, not by Groves, but by civilians scientists of the Committee. The committee had several name changes.

The principle of the Military Industrial Complex, about which President Eisenhower warned Americans in the 1950s, was born out of the discovery of nuclear fission in 1939. America was immediately onto it. Veterans and nuclear victims continue to suffer due to the secrecy imposed at that time and ever since. It is time for authorities to own up. It isn’t actually a secret anymore. Everyone knows. All that is happening at the lack of justice is loss of trust in government.

It is for broadly the same reason that many people in Japan maintain a rage at government and industry for the ongoing Fukushima deception. Three cores are molten, and authorities claim “cold shutdown” of the afflicted reactors. In reality the reactor vessels are relatively cool only because the molten has descended beneath the reactor vessels, melting through the GE designed base mounted control rod entry seals. Every thinking person knows it. All that is happening as a result of the lies is a loss trust in government and nuclear industry.

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