Friday, March 14, 2008

Xtra Files 4: Counting Sheep or Two Shakes of a Dead Lamb's Tail - Remembering the Infamous Sheep Incident at Dugway

Tooelean Twilight Phantom

In the early morning hours of March 14, 1968, I was fast asleep in my cozy little bed, seemingly safe from monsters and bogy-men, while outside a winter storm raged. Not too far away, somewhere in the stormy twilight sky, a Phantom F-4 fighter-jet fitted with a special canister containing the highly toxic VX chemical-nerve agent headed out across the Great Salt Lake Desert on what should have been a "routine" open-air, chemical-weapons test. Blinded by the snow storm, the pilot skillfully navigated his way over the snow-covered alkaline mud flats of Skull Valley as though he had done it a hundred times. The dense quiet of snow falling at Lone Rock was briefly interrupted by the thunderous sound of the Phantom's two powerful J79 engines as it passed over the unpopulated landmark. Visually stealthed by the storm, the warcraft continued on course southward towards its target.Nearby, at Dugway Proving Grounds, located about forty miles southwest of where I slumbered, the US Army was conducting a routine, open-air, chemical-weapons test. Except for the storm, everything seemed routine, but on this particular blustery morning, something went terribly wrong. The F-4 was scheduled to employ a 300-gallon TMU-28 spray-tank canister over a specified target, but unfortunately, it failed and began to vent from beneath the jet as it maintained its scheduled flight-path. The powdery aerosol nerve agent continued to spew from the faulty canister as the Phantom thundered over rangelands populated mostly by thousands of sheep. Particulates of the highly toxic VX chemical mingled with snow flakes that tumbled and danced their way to the ground, contaminating the snowy desert below.

XO Infamous Sheep Incident OX

The result was the death of more than 6,000 sheep,
* and a host of other wild animals and birds. The toxic carcasses of the poisoned animals were sent to a central location in the desert where mass graves were dug, and the bodies which had become gelatinous (a gruesome side effect of VX) were buried and forgotten. The US Army denied any involvement, but agreed to pay the herdsmen for their financial losses... to $hut them up. They did a pretty good job of covering up the story, but people knew that something had happened, and assumed that some gas had drifted from the test site and poisoned the sheep. No one knew for sure... except the army, and they weren't talking.

Whiffs - Not a Gas

Unfortunately for the government, the sheep incident, as it has come to be known, didn't go entirely unnoticed, and stirred up a bit of media attention. In 1974 my small town of Tooele (pronounced too-ill-uhh), was all a-buzz when it was made known that a big-time Hollywood movie company was coming to town to make a film. Lots of Tooelians were cast as extras,** to appear on the big screen, in Whiffs starring Elliot Gould. This was Gould's first movie following the critically acclaimed box-office s*m*a*s*h, M*A*S*H. There were lots of other celebrities*** in the film too, but unfortunately, it wasn't very good. .
"We don't want to kill the enemy... we just want to make him a little sick."
Eddie Albert as Col. Lockyer in the 20th Century FOX film, WHIFFS 1975

Whiffs' title song was nominated for an Oscar in 1975, but other than that, the mis-managed movie didn't make much of an impact, and lingered about as long as a fart in a windstorm.
Whiffs did have an interesting premise, with lots of promise. Based, very loosely on the incident at Dugway, Whiffs is a fictional dark comedy about a government human test guinea pig, (played by Gould), who's health and quality of life is permanently impacted by repeated exposure to chemical weapons. Since he's no longer of any use to the army, he's forced to take an early retirement. He gets back at the system by stealing from the chemical weapons stockpile at Duggum**** Proving Ground, then unleashes chemical warfare on my home town. This was accomplished in part by a yellow and blue, bi-plane that flew a grid over Tooele spraying us with gas... crop-duster style. When my small city of about ten-thousand people was completely incapacitated, the banks were robbed, and the hero made his climactic getaway.

Geofrey Cambridge as Dusty spraying Tooele with a chemical weapon
in the 20th Century FOX Film, WHIFFS 1975

During the filming of
Whiffs, the bi-plane spewed Hollywood smoke***** as it flew all around town for what seemed like days. It was closely followed by a helicopter that filmed it canvasing our town with a grid of "gas." It was exciting to watch. My friend Albert Buck and I rode our bikes to the Tooele City Airport, a desolate landing strip beyond the westerly edge of town, to sneak a peek at the unusual aeroplane. I had never seen a bi-plane before, except on TV, so I was anxious to look at it up close. Soon it approached the runway from the south, landed and taxied to the fueling area where we were waiting to inspect it. Located a few hundred feet on the opposite side of the runway, and over an old barbed-wire fence to keep out cattle, the Tooele Army Depot, keeper of the majority of America's chemical weapons stockpile, loomed quietly, as if watching. Sprawling across the valley to the foothills on the other side, thousands of bunkers, warehousing the implements of war, spotted the landscape like nervous goose bumps on Mother earth. A grim reminder of the reality of chemical warfare... in my own back yard.

Forty Years Later

Today, forty years later, America's chemical weapons' stockpile has been destroyed at the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility located at the Deseret Chemical Depot about twenty miles south of Tooele.

Dugway Proving Grounds remains operational, and continues to produce America's latest and greatest biological weapons. DPG is sometimes called 
Area 52, or the new area 51, probably because of all the unmanned aircraft/drone research and development taking place there these days.

*Counting sheep+ means something quite unique to this Tooelean. Fortunately we can all rest well knowing that our government doesn't lie to us anymore. Sleep tight tonight my little sheep.

** Including Paula Argus, my high school English teacher who tot me too rite rill good.

*** Eddie Albert, Jennifer O'Neil, Harry Guardino, Alan Manson to name a few.

****Spoof on Dugway Proving Ground, and perhaps alluding to the mass-graves the government dug to hide their dastardly deed.

***** Or was it another governmental chemical or bio-test conducted under the guise of a Hollywood movie?

Begin counting sheep now. Below are 6,000...

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They might just as well have been people had conditions been different.


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gippy said...
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Anonymous said...

strangers have left on longer trains before