Hellfire Boys: The Untold History of Soldiers, Scientists, and America's First Race for Weapons of Mass Destruction

Hellfire Boys: The Untold History of Soldiers, Scientists, and America's First Race for Weapons of Mass Destruction

An explosive look into the dawn of chemical warfare during World War IPowerful and gripping, Hellfire Boys tells the story of the young men who started a Manhattan Project-type program at American University in 1917. These soldiers and chemists worked on offensive and defensive gas measures: testing hastily-made gas masks; observing the effects of mustard gas on goats, dog...

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Title:Hellfire Boys: The Untold History of Soldiers, Scientists, and America's First Race for Weapons of Mass Destruction
Author:Theo Emery
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Hellfire Boys: The Untold History of Soldiers, Scientists, and America's First Race for Weapons of Mass Destruction Reviews

  • Nissa

    A fascinating historical-nonfiction that we never really got to learn about in history class, but should have. The subject matter of Hellfire Boys is both fascinating and educational. When Hellfire Boys first came to my attention through Goodreads, I knew I wanted to learn more. I think it’s a real eye-opener and an essential piece of American history. Emery does an amazing job researching and creating a cohesive narrative. I look forward to seeing what he writes next.

    Many thanks to the publish

    A fascinating historical-nonfiction that we never really got to learn about in history class, but should have. The subject matter of Hellfire Boys is both fascinating and educational. When Hellfire Boys first came to my attention through Goodreads, I knew I wanted to learn more. I think it’s a real eye-opener and an essential piece of American history. Emery does an amazing job researching and creating a cohesive narrative. I look forward to seeing what he writes next.

    Many thanks to the publisher for providing me with a hard copy of this book that I won in a Goodreads giveaway.

  • Kathy Heare Watts

    An amazing and well-documented account of chemical warfare during WWI. For any war or history enthusiast, this book will take them into the bowels of hell of chemical warfare. The book includes some photographs.

    Note: Our son has been with the Army since 2001, enlisting before 911 took place. He was part of 82nd Airborne, 307th Engineers and has deployed seven times. I know that he will better grasp the story and history and understand this book better than I can and now I am passing it on to him

    An amazing and well-documented account of chemical warfare during WWI. For any war or history enthusiast, this book will take them into the bowels of hell of chemical warfare. The book includes some photographs.

    Note: Our son has been with the Army since 2001, enlisting before 911 took place. He was part of 82nd Airborne, 307th Engineers and has deployed seven times. I know that he will better grasp the story and history and understand this book better than I can and now I am passing it on to him.

    I won a copy of this book during a Goodreads giveaway. I am under no obligation to leave a review or rating and do so voluntarily. I am paying it forward by passing this book along to a family member who I think will enjoy it too.

  • Ryan

    **I received this book as part of Goodreads' FirstReads giveaway.**

    This was excellent account of the United States role in chemical warfare during World War I. While the book primarily focuses on the history and politics of the formation and progression of Chemical Warfare Service (aka the 1st Gas Regiment aka the "Hellfire Boys"), the author also covers various important moments of World War I. The initial chapters discussing the United States' entry into the war as well as the issues of espion

    **I received this book as part of Goodreads' FirstReads giveaway.**

    This was excellent account of the United States role in chemical warfare during World War I. While the book primarily focuses on the history and politics of the formation and progression of Chemical Warfare Service (aka the 1st Gas Regiment aka the "Hellfire Boys"), the author also covers various important moments of World War I. The initial chapters discussing the United States' entry into the war as well as the issues of espionage and sabotage in U.S. were incredibly descriptive and played out like a spy novel rather than non-fiction. Despite the extensive details, the narrative moved fluidly between the various locations and provided compelling reading.

    I was enthralled by the accounts of the research in chemical weapons and how the scientists and soldiers actually completed tests, both in labs and in the field, on truly horrifying compounds. The stories of the men on the front-lines and their experiences were harrowing and gave me a deep appreciation for the bravery of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). I even found myself caught up in the politics and infighting that occurred between the military and civilian science/research elements at American University and throughout the country as the war progressed. The author did a phenomenal job compiling so much material into approximately 340 pages with another 90 pages of notes and sources.

    I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in World War I, chemical warfare, and military history! It is well researched and an excellent read.

  • Kelly Knapp

    This is a book that every politician should be required to read in this volatile climate of terrorism. As presented by the author, Emery, the history of chemical warfare is both lengthy and dangerous, leaving many soldiers dead, disabled, or with memories that should have been passed down to the subsequent generations, but were lost as of the material has been considered too frightening for children to see.

    America quickly removed the pictures of the twin towers falling, and one can only guess a

    This is a book that every politician should be required to read in this volatile climate of terrorism. As presented by the author, Emery, the history of chemical warfare is both lengthy and dangerous, leaving many soldiers dead, disabled, or with memories that should have been passed down to the subsequent generations, but were lost as of the material has been considered too frightening for children to see.

    America quickly removed the pictures of the twin towers falling, and one can only guess at what it would do if these photos and stories were to suddenly be seen on every channel or station, and yet, this is part of what should happen. It is part of our history. Every classroom should know some of the details and upper classes should be reading this material because it is becoming a product used in terrorism.

    Chemical warfare attacked both the lungs and the skin creating long term damage if not immediate death. Emery did extensive research and manage to write the history without becoming angry or supporting the things that happened. I was struck by his eloquent prose in the face of utter destruction and the speed with which the allies reciprocated with devastating results. It brought a new understanding as to why WWI was believed to be the War to End All Wars.

  • Victoria

    I'm fascinated by war history but have very little formal education on the subject. Most of my learning has been on my own time, and Hellfire Boys explores an aspect I previously knew very little about-- chemical warfare.

    I bought Hellfire Boys for my mom, who was a history major and former resident of DC. She's a tough customer when it comes to books, and a few days after Christmas, she sent me a text saying she couldn't put this one down.

    She let me read her copy when she finished, and I share

    I'm fascinated by war history but have very little formal education on the subject. Most of my learning has been on my own time, and Hellfire Boys explores an aspect I previously knew very little about-- chemical warfare.

    I bought Hellfire Boys for my mom, who was a history major and former resident of DC. She's a tough customer when it comes to books, and a few days after Christmas, she sent me a text saying she couldn't put this one down.

    She let me read her copy when she finished, and I share her sentiments. Learning the history of the US's chemical warfare service is alternately necessary, terrifying, and riveting. Extensive research, excellent writing, and a fascinating subject come together to make Hellfire Boys a must-read for anyone, especially in our chaotic, unstable modern times.

  • Paul

    This ARC was provided complements of NetGalley. My thanks. Gratitude sent to Little, Brown and Company a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. for making this pre-release available.

    The author exposed me to the silent killer of World War 1 - poison gas. A dreadful piece of history. It was America's first introduction to a weapon of mass destruction. Many within the country protested its development - its use. Certainly, there had to be a more humane way to disable or kill. Theo Emery devoured mou

    This ARC was provided complements of NetGalley. My thanks. Gratitude sent to Little, Brown and Company a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. for making this pre-release available.

    The author exposed me to the silent killer of World War 1 - poison gas. A dreadful piece of history. It was America's first introduction to a weapon of mass destruction. Many within the country protested its development - its use. Certainly, there had to be a more humane way to disable or kill. Theo Emery devoured mountains of research that enabled me to come to grips with all aspects of its intended use. Horrid. It was a painstakingly, interesting journey, yet, appalling at the same time. We had hit a new low. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers had paid the ultimate price in Europe. Land of the walking dead. Look no further for the Bible of poison gas in times of warfare. This is it.

    International treaties banning life threatening gases were signed in 1899 and 1907. With the advent of World War 1, they did little good. Not worth the paper they were written on. Germany took the lead in its deployment. France and Britain were not prepared to respond in kind. They rallied to establish their own poison gas programs. Not quick enough. This unfortunate delay cost them thousands of their countrymen's lives. The race was on.

    Germany was behind the first gas attack of World War 1. It occurred on April 22, 1915 in the quiet town of Ypres, Belgium. Quiet no longer. Chlorine gas had made its deadly debut. That historic attack spirited the birth of chemical warfare. The allies were desperately, clamoring to establish their own chemical weapons programs. No choice. America remained neutral. For the time being.

    President Wilson promised to keep America out of the war. Good intentions. America's resolve was soon tested. On May 7, 1915, a German U-Boat sunk the British passenger ship Lusitania. Of the 1198 that perished, 123 were Americans. The country outraged, moved a step closer to war. With impunity, Germany began sinking U.S. merchant ships. Many lives were lost. America could no longer stand on the sidelines. Finally, on April 6, 1917, the United States of America declared war on Germany. Tears fell.

    America's peaceful standard of living changed overnight. German citizens were barred from being within a half-mile of any military or Naval installation. Enemy aliens were blatantly told: "obey the law; keep your mouth shut." A similar sequel would be repeated 24 years later.

    Primarily, there had been three known types of gases used on the battlefield when the United States entered the war. Of all, the most lethal were asphyxiants or suffocating gases. Initially, the ones of choice - chlorine and phosgene. Death occurred to those unfortunate men in the most violent way imaginable.

    On another front, America was consumed with gas mask design, manufacture and tests for battlefield effectiveness. Time was of the essence. Suitable masks could not be delivered to troops quick enough. The war would not wait. Little time was available for research. Some mask designs were taken from the French, some from the British. It was a daunting task.

    Mustard gas became the gas of choice. It took center stage. Unlike other gases that were carried away with the wind, it lingered for days. The perfect war gas. It reigned supreme.

    "Mustard was a blister agent called a vesicant. When it came in contact with skin, pustules formed hours later, often in spots where the skin was most tender. The blisters caused agonizing pain as the skin separated from the underlying tissue. Clothing didn't provide protection: for liquid soaked through cloth and leather to the skin underneath. To make matters worse, it was still extremely toxic if inhaled, even in small quantities, and caused terrible inflammation of the throat and lungs. It caused temporary blindness if it came into contact with soldiers eyes. It could be lethal in high concentrations, but the vast majority of cases with long-lasting injuries took exposed soldiers off the battlefield for eight weeks or more. While it had a distinctive smell, it could be faint and was easily masked with other gases."

    On American soil, many experiments were performed with mustard on humans and animals. Dogs, the animal of choice. Inhumane. Animal rights groups protested vociferously. Their voices fell on deaf ears. The testing went on. Volunteers were sorely needed to test the efficacy of gas masks. Still in early development. Many patriots stepped forward. All experienced permanent, debilitating illness of varying degree. All in the name of research. In the name of war. Their names, their sacrifices, not mentioned anywhere in the annals of history. Better to forget it ever happened. That, we can't.

    In 1997, the Convention for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had been adopted. It contained tighter control over the manufacture of chemical weapons. Another worthless treaty. In 2013 Syrian forces attacked a suburb in Damascus with poison gas. Corpses of men, women and children were strewn everywhere about the village. They perished a savage death. Two years later another attack followed with mustard. In the early part of 2017, the half-brother of the North Korean president was killed with a poisonous agent. There's no indication that chemical warfare has ended. History has a way of repeating itself. All we can do is hope for the best. Plan for the worst.

  • Rachel

    Well-written and interesting account of the American response to chemical weapons during WWI. In The Hellfire Boys, Theo Emery traces the development of gas weaponry, the military response, and the impact these weapons had on the people inventing them and the soldiers using them. Emery also recounts the shifting public perception of chemical warfare following the war, as well as the offshoots of chemical weapons research that still exist today. Emery has clearly put a lot of research and thought

    Well-written and interesting account of the American response to chemical weapons during WWI. In The Hellfire Boys, Theo Emery traces the development of gas weaponry, the military response, and the impact these weapons had on the people inventing them and the soldiers using them. Emery also recounts the shifting public perception of chemical warfare following the war, as well as the offshoots of chemical weapons research that still exist today. Emery has clearly put a lot of research and thought into the book based on the detailed accounts and many personal anecdotes from people involved in the American chemical weapons programs that were included in his writing. Although this is a bit of a slow read, The Hellfire boys is anything but boring and I would absolutely recommend this book.

    I received this an ARC of this book from the publisher.

  • Steven Z.

    At a time when we hear about weapons of mass destruction and a possible nuclear attack from North Korea it is interesting to contemplate the origins of such weaponry. During World War I unbeknownst to most people living in the Spring Valley neighborhood of Washington, DC the United States Army in cooperation with American University set up a chemical proving ground on campus. The area was known as “Death Valley” or “Arsenic Hill,” while soldiers referred to it as “Mustard Hill.” The area was lon

    At a time when we hear about weapons of mass destruction and a possible nuclear attack from North Korea it is interesting to contemplate the origins of such weaponry. During World War I unbeknownst to most people living in the Spring Valley neighborhood of Washington, DC the United States Army in cooperation with American University set up a chemical proving ground on campus. The area was known as “Death Valley” or “Arsenic Hill,” while soldiers referred to it as “Mustard Hill.” The area was long forgotten until January, 1993 when a cache of chemical weapons was found on a construction site nearby. Throughout the First World War this area was called the American University Experimental Station, augmented by the discoveries of January, 1993 and the overseas news dealing with the chemical attacks in Syria by the forces of Bashir Assad, and the fears raised by ISIS, government officials were prodded into action. A new book by Theo Emery entitled, HELLFIRE BOYS: THE BIRTH OF THE U.S. CHEMICAL WARFARE SERVICE AND THE RACE FOR THE WORLD’S DEADLIEST WEAPONS investigates the American role in developing chemical warfare and its profound repercussions.

    Emery begins by describing what is believed to be the first chemical attack during World War I. It occurred on April 22, 1915 when the Germans launched their chemical canisters against British and French forces at the Battle of Ypres. The author offers a vivid description of the attack and its effect on those caught in its gaseous haze. The attack’s importance centers on the fact that it spawned a “chemical” arms race in a war that already had produced an unmeasurable amount of casualties and devastation, it soon became the “Chemist’s War.” As Emery describes the development of chemical warfare he does the reader a great service by integrating his storyline into the larger picture of the war.

    America’s involvement in this arms race starts with the role of the US Bureau of Mines. Headed by Vannoy Hartog Manning its charge was safety of miners, but also researching poisonous gases seeping from rock formations. From that beginning the United States engaged in an often rocky road to research, develop, and have ready for wartime use a number of toxic gases for the battlefield. It began with a need for the production of millions of gas masks for troops and civilians. For this factories, laboratories, along with enlisting the assistance of doctors to study the effects of the gas were put in place. What emerges is a somewhat shaky partnership between the government, particularly the military, and the private sector, that eventually come to be called the “military-industrial complex” by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The productive process to meet the German “gas” challenge would involve many different geographic locales across the United States with its headquarters at American University in Washington, D.C.

    Many important individuals are introduced by Emery accompanied by short biographical sketches. Men like Vannoy Hartog Manning who headed the Bureau of Mines; George Burrell, in charge of laboratory research at the American University site; George A. Hulett, a Princeton Professor who sent Manning to study the battlefield situation and the role of gas as a weapon; Major-General William Luther Sibert, who would eventually be put in charge of the army’s gas program; Lt. Colonel Amos A. Fries, an engineer that became the head of “gas services,” and made the important discovery that the United States knew little about gas warfare as it entered the war. In addition to these men General John J. Pershing plays a significant role as the American commander in Europe as does James B. Connant, in charge of developing the lethal American “mustard gas” program designed to combat what the Germans were bringing to the battlefield. A number of interesting characters also emerge that include the German spy, Walter Scheele, who to avoid imprisonment worked with the Americans by offering his knowledge of German gas research; Winford Lee Lewis, a Northwestern chemistry professor studies how metal shells corrode from toxic chemicals that led to the creation of lewisite, America’s most toxic weapon; and Richmond M. Levering, an oilman from Indiana who had many dubious business dealings with the government, but was placed in charge of the captured German spy network in the United States.

    Emery also devotes a great deal of coverage to the role of regular American troops. Emery takes us to the trenches of Europe and the research facilities that were created. In so doing the reader is exposed to an intricate description of what it was like to be caught in a chemical war. One of the most interesting characters is Harold J. Higgenbottom, an early recruit to the First Gas Regiment and through his eyes we see the battlefield in addition to the effects of gas warfare in the field. Higgenbottom’s buddy, Thomas Jabine is also discussed as he too was one of the first to join the Gas Regiment, and as a chemist he was sent to Europe, but he was gassed near Charpentry in October, 1918 and spent the remainder of the war recovering.

    What is important to realize is how unprepared the United States was to engage in a chemical war in Europe. As “gases” became to be seen as offensive weapons and a major part of the military arsenal, Washington had to catch up, quickly. In a rather haphazard way, Emery is very effective in analyzing the American approach to chemical warfare. He offers an effective summation of the allied use of phosgene and chloropicrin gases that were used at the Battle of Arras by the British as the United States declared war on Germany in April, 1917. Emery offers a vivid description of “Camp” American University from its building expansion, recruitment of chemists, organization, and constant growth. Further, Emery explains how the government grew frustrated with the private sector and developed its own production facilities, i.e., production of gas masks and later mustard gas. To the authors credit he explains each chemical and how it was developed, and applied in such a way that a chemistry novice like myself could understand.

    One of the most vivid chapters in the book is entitled “Science and Horror,” where Emery describes the first encounters of US troops with German chemical attacks. Again, through the eyes of Harold Higgenbottom we learn that part of the problem was the poor training and equipment that did little to offset German attacks. American soldiers suffered ghastly attacks and in many cases they were left to suffer horrible deaths as they lay in the trenches.

    There was a great deal of bureaucratic infighting throughout the war between the Corps of Engineers, the US Army, and the Bureau of Mines. Fries argued for a separate gas service as did General Pershing. Numerous examples are offered as production was deemed to be unacceptable. Finally on June 25, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson settled the matter by issuing an executive order placing the Research Division and the American University Experimental Station under the War Department. All in all, some 2000 chemists were at work across the United States. To justify this radical change in military strategy the US Army launched a massive publicity campaign to educate Americans on the importance of interjecting chemicals into warfare. The Germans may have had a head start in chemical warfare but by June, 28, 1918 when President Wilson signed General Order 62 creating the Army Chemical Warfare Service on par with the Corps of Engineers the US stockpile had caught up, and would soon surpass the Germans. It is interesting to note that by the summer of 1918 American commanders were recommending that 50% of all shells employed in combat have a chemical component.

    The final section of the book is devoted to the immediate post-war period that focused on what government policy would be toward the use of chemical weapons, and educating the public that was kept in the dark during the war. First, was the issue of disposal that led to sinking a great deal of the US stockpile in the Atlantic Ocean. Environmental concerns really were not even imagined. Along those lines many corporations vied for parts of the stockpile for their own industries and bidding and the transfer of chemicals to the private sector did take place. Second, was the the debate led by Secretary of War Newton Baker who opposed the continuation of the Chemical Warfare Service. The opposition was led by Lt. Colonel Fries who felt it was imperative to maintain stockpiles and continue production as a matter of national security. Interestingly in 1925 the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous, or Other Gases, and Bacteriological Methods of Warfare was agreed to under the auspices of the League of Nations. Even General Pershing favored it, but he was unable to convince the US Senate to ratify the treaty. It took until January, 1975 for President Ford to sign the treaty that the Senate finally ratified almost fifty years later.

    Emery’s monograph is an important contribution to the field of WWI weaponry as it explains how and why the US integrated chemicals into its arsenal. This change led the US and many other countries on the road to incorporating new chemical discoveries and their application to war. All one has to do is listen to the news almost on a daily basis to understand how relevant Emery’s research is to today’s world, particularly when the work of chemists and other scientists that began in 1915 set the US and the world on a path that today is laden with chemical weapons.

  • Brooks

    The USA chemical industry like the rest of America was unprepared for WWI. Wilson won election on a neutrality platform and few believed the USA would join the war. Gas research fell to the bureau of mines as they had the strongest chemical program within the government and gas masks would be critical. At the start of the War, Van Manning, head of the bureau, made a call for registering all USA chemists. The French and English lost many of their most talented scholars in the trenches in the firs

    The USA chemical industry like the rest of America was unprepared for WWI. Wilson won election on a neutrality platform and few believed the USA would join the war. Gas research fell to the bureau of mines as they had the strongest chemical program within the government and gas masks would be critical. At the start of the War, Van Manning, head of the bureau, made a call for registering all USA chemists. The French and English lost many of their most talented scholars in the trenches in the first months of war and the USA did not want to repeat that mistake. With the start of the War, American University was only 1 building and struggling. The board of trustees passed the land and buildings to the government and the bureau of mines took it for weapons research. They are still finding gas shells today from the work during the war. The government also open Edgewater, MD to produce mustard gas and other chemical weapons. They built a massive chemical plant able to produce tons of mustard gas per day.

    As part of the story, German spies used chemical weapons to start fires on commercial ships. Stevedores would hide cigar sized tubes filled with acid on one side and metal fillings separated by thin tin. The acid would burn threw the tin in a few days and then react with the metal causing a very hot fire. After a few mysterious fires, some of the devices were found and several spies were arrested. The key chemist was able to escape to Cuba but was eventually arrested. He turned and worked secretly for the Americans making new chemicals. They built a secret plant outside of Cleveland to produce the chemical, but the war ended before their use.

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