Mustard Gas – No thanks


Chemical warfare is nothing new, but it might come as a surprise to know that North Queensland’s very own past is shrouded in a murky haze surrounding top secret chemical weapons testing.

By Karen Heath

It was World War II and mustard gas was being used by the Japanese against China. Surely they would keep using it as they moved further into the South Pacific towards Australia.

Mustard gas had been around for a long time. After all, it had been used in the First World War.

But when the Japanese came knocking on Australia’s front door in 1942, it suddenly became a matter of urgency for the Allies to understand how mustard gas affected soldiers fighting in the tropics.

That very same year, the Chemical Warfare Physiology School in Melbourne moved a research unit to north Queensland where they set up a mustard gas experimental station in Townsville.

Military records show that mustard gas trials were secretly carried out over the next three years. Field units and testing areas were set up in Townsville, Innisfail, Proserpine and on Brooke Island off the coast at Cardwell.

A 20 cubic metre gas chamber was transported to Townsville from Melbourne on the back of a 3 tonne truck in an army convoy.

The Gillis Report tabled in parliament in 1987 by the Department of Defence gives details of the portable gas chamber and states that a 100 cubic metre chamber was built later.

War historian Peter Dunn’s research shows that mustard gas testing was carried out in Townsville in 1943 at either Mango Avenue in Mundingburra, or on a Mango farm in the Giru area near the Haughton River.

“I know there were Chemical Live Firing testing ranges at Heathfield and Cape Cleveland just south of Townsville”, he said.

“The testing range at Cape Cleveland was also known as the Haughton River Mango Farm. There is a bit of confusion about exactly where the gas chamber was located because the army was also using the property at no. 14 Mango Avenue. Some of the volunteers involved in the chemical testing remember the test area as Mango Farm or Mango Avenue.”

In 1944 North Brooke Island in the Hinchinbrook area was used as a bombing testing site.  Tunnels were dug to simulate Japanese trenches and the island was heavily bombed with mustard gas. Volunteers were then dropped onto the island where they were required to carry out specific tasks to measure the effects of the gas.

At the Innisfail testing facility, mustard burned volunteers were required to continue military duties to see how long they could last before needing medical treatment.  A rigorous assault course was set up on the Innisfail Showground to test the endurance of the soldiers who had been exposed to the gas.


The Volunteers

The secret research was carried out on recruits from Australian Troops.

Volunteers were willing.

Taking part in the Gas School helped break the boredom of army camp life and in the 1940s, people were blissfully unaware of the full impacts of carcinogenic chemicals.

But they may not have been so willing if they’d known what would happen after being exposed to mustard gas.

The testing found the effects of the gas were four times worse in the tropics than in cooler climates.

The people exposed to the gas received severe burning of the skin which took a long time to heal. Huge blisters filled with yellow fluid developed wherever the mustard agent touched their bodies. The gas also affected the lungs and respiratory system. Volunteers were given gas masks for protection.

It takes about twenty four hours before the symptoms of mustard gas exposure show themselves making it easy for volunteers to be unknowingly exposed to high doses.

Make no mistake, mustard gas can be deadly. But it doesn’t kill quickly. When more than half of the body has been burned, death can occur in a few days, or even weeks later.


Working with the Americans

The Chemical Warfare School had the added bonus of working closely with the US Army who had a seemingly endless supply of mustard gas stored in and around the Townsville area.

The Americans had large amounts of mustard agent at Kangaroo Ordnance Depot at Kurakan, just north of Townsville. They also had a mustard gas artillery shell replenishing station in Charters Towers where mustard gas munitions were stored.

At the start of 1943, the American Chemical Weapon inventory in Australia showed that the Charters Towers depot had 5,900 mustard gas bombs, 1000 spray tanks and 115 tons of bulk mustard gas. The Kangaroo depot had 5,500 mustard gas bombs and 20,000 gas artillery shells stocked up.

War historian Kevin Parkes confirms that massive amounts of mustard agent and gas weapons were stockpiled at the Charters Towers and Kangaroo Depots.

“At the end of the war, the excess mustard ordnance at Charters Towers was transferred to the Kangaroo Depot. The records show there was 2431 tons of mustard gas on site at Kangaroo after the war. However, I can find no record of its disposal or removal from the Kangaroo depot,” he said.

The Clean Up

What happened to all of the Chemical Warfare mustard agent supplies in north Queensland at the end of the war is a question asked by several military historical experts.

Some of it was dumped into the sea.

A report focusing on Sea Dumping in Australia prepared by Chemical Warfare researcher Geoff Plunkett in 2003 says that 1020 mustard bombs were dumped into the Coral Sea near Townsville at the end of the war.

The same report says that a consignment of leaking mustard drums from the Proserpine field unit were dumped into the sea of the coast at Bowen in 1945.

But it seems not all of it went into the sea.

According to Kevin Parkes, some of the mustard gas supplies remain unaccounted for.

Mr Parkes believes the lack of records concerning the removal and disposal of mustard supplies at the Kangaroo Depot indicates that the stuff never left the site and may be buried there.

He may well be right.

In recent times other former World War II US ammunition depots in Queensland have revealed secret caches of buried chemical weapons.

In 2009, a coal mining company unearthed 140 mustard artillery shells near Chinchilla, 330 kilometres west of Brisbane. Another stockpile of chemical weapons was found at Maxwelton in western Queensland in 1989.

Perhaps Townsville also has chemical weapons that remain hidden away in the mists of time.

The chemical weapon testing carried out during World War II by the Chemical Warfare Physiology School in north Queensland was seen as a necessary part of defending Australia from Japanese invasion.

The history books show the Japanese were turned back before they got a toehold in Australia. Mustard gas was never used against the enemy in the battle for the South Pacific.

But there was plenty of it stockpiled in Australia. And it was ready and waiting.



Mustard Gas bombs at Charters Towers 1943

Mustardrefilling station

Mustard Gas refilling station at the US chemical warfare storage depot in Charters Towers, 1943


Gas Activities at the field station at Proserpine


Gas Chamber similar to the one brought to Townsville

MUSTARD mustrad

Mustard Gas bombs at Charters Towers 1943

Mustard burns

Mustard Burns Image from Wikipedia