Better late than never

Former U.S. Senator (and NBA All Star) Bill Bradley (D-NJ) was on the morning news recently, talking about the need to work together in Washington to address our impending economic disaster. And I’ve got to give him credit—unlike so many political mouthpieces today, he sounded like a true statesman, rather than a partisan politician.

I worked with Sen. Bradley on various initiatives during the late 1980s and early 1990s. I also saw him several times on airplanes in and out of Washington, D.C.. It was quite an impressive sight (in more ways than one) to see him cram his tall, athletic frame into an economy class seat with the rest of us—instead of riding up front in first class like some of his colleagues in the Senate.

But when I saw him on the news recently, I recalled his role in helping recognize—and correct—an old WWII medical scandal that was covered up by the Army for decades.

I learned about this scandal from my colleague Dr. Ron Spark, who had been in my medical residency program at Pennsylvania Hospital. While helping his son with a school project, Dr. Spark made an interesting discovery. One that gave him reason to believe the Army had covered up the fact that they had amassed a stockpile of poison gas during WWII.

As you might know, poison gas was a terrible problem during WWI. So much so that not even Hitler (who served as a corporal in the trenches of WWI) would consider using poison gas again during WWII. So there was a tacit understanding among the combatants not to use it. And no one ever did. At least not “officially.”

But then something strange happened.

When Italy dropped out of the war and the Germans launched a counter-offensive, they bombed and sunk a lot of Allied ships in and around Naples, hoping to block the harbor. During the bombing, gases were released from some of the bombed Allied cargo ships. These gases drifted onto shore, making civilians and soldiers seriously ill. 

A young Army physician diagnosed and treated the victims as suffering from poison gas. 

His superiors all the way up to Winston Churchill publicly denied that there could be any poison gas in the Allied cargo ships. The Allies could not admit to the world that they had even considered the use of poison gas—let alone had it at the ready. So, instead, the good doctor was drummed out of the Army.

This incident is another illustration of the old saying, “no good deed goes unpunished.” At least not in Washington.

But 50 years later, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Spark and his son, the truth was uncovered. The Army admitted the cover-up. And the retired doctor was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. I helped Dr. Spark and his son do some of the research buried in the historical archives at Walter Reed Army Medical Center which were under my supervision. So I was invited to the ceremony on Capitol Hill, where Senator Bradley presented the medal to his distinguished fellow resident of New Jersey.

Better late than never.