The hospital -- "our hospital," as Sterling Seagrave puts it, he being the seventh and possibly last generation of the Seagraves to be born in Burma -- is in the northeastern part of the country. "It sits on mountains overlooking China. You can see snowcapped peaks in the distance. It's a huge thing, eight or 10 buildings the size of the White House."
The hospital has everything and nothing to do with the book Seagrave just published about chemical warfare -- "Yellow Rain." The book details what he and our State Department believe to be the Soviet development of a substance called T2, which has been used by Soviets, he says, and by their surrogates, in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, China, Yemen and Afghanistan.
Seagrave quotes a Laotian tribesman in the book:
There was blood coming from their noses and ears and blisters appeared on their skin. Their skin was turning yellow. All the chickens, dogs and pigs were also dead. The people who were not dead were jerking like fish when you take them out of the water. Their skins were already yellow. Soon some of them turned black and they got blisters like the others. Blood came from their noses and they died.
Seagrave is the scion not only of seven generations of doctors and Baptist missionaries in Burma, but also of Gordon Seagrave, who became famous as the "Burma Surgeon." The father's death in 1965 was followed by the confiscation of his hospital by the Burmese government and by the ouster of the Seagrave family from their home of 150 years.
The son, on this cold night in Washington, wears a lightweight blue blazer. He sips soda water in a hotel bar. He seems chronically wary, as if he's certain he will at any moment remember that he has forgotten his car keys or left the water running.
"I'm vindicated," he says. "Local boy makes good."
He is 44, a dropout of the University of Miami, of Mexico, of Venezuela; a veteran of the Merchant Marine, and of two very bad days being beaten by Cuban policemen who suspected rightly that he was trying to join the then-guerrilla forces of Fidel Castro. He has held a lot of jobs in journalism, from The Washington Post to the Pittsburgh Press to 10 years of free-lancing. He traveled in a dugout canoe down the Mekong River, from the Chinese border to Vientiane, Laos. He lived for two years in Malaysia, a year in Thailand, all over Asia, except in Burma, where his father and family are buried. He was married to a Burmese. He is divorced. He spent years living with his two children on a 32-foot sailboat. He is rootless and homesick at the same time.
"Hell, we've got a 30- or 40-million-dollar plant in Burma," he says, referring to the hospital, always in the present tense. "My first memories are of fleeing the Japs to India. Anybody who grows up in the situation I did is permanently crippled."
This has something to do with his decision "to come back to the U.S. to go to ground. I got a job with Time-Life books here. But it was quiet. I needed something to do. One night I met this man who'd been searching for MIAs in Laos."
The man, whom he calls Schramm in the book, had come back from Laos with the femur of an American pilot and tales picked up from four French mercenaries about Hmong tribesmen being killed by airplanes dropping gas.
"Ypres," the Frenchmen had said, referring to poison gas attacks at Ypres during World War I.
Seagrave looked into it.
He traveled through Indochina collecting reports, as did American officials trying to find out what weapon it could be that would cause such deaths. He interviewed scientists and read biology texts. He studied the history of gas and germ warfare, all the horror and politicking that have resulted in all the labored and hopeless international covenants against it.
Mode of attack and Material/Agent used: Two L-19 airplanes -- first one sprayed yellow and green powder that was not wet like rain -- but fell to ground. Second plane few minutes later -- fired rocket that exploded about 20 meters overhead releasing a red smoke/gas.
Miscellaneous: The yellow and green powders made everyone feel dizzy, confused actions, blurred vision, difficult to move, people fell down, jaws were stiff (clamped shut), could not speak and had almost immediate vomiting and diarrhea before the red smoke came down.
Red smoke caused all to start coughing, have massive nosebleeds within five minutes; blood came from nose and mouth and people fell down and were dead in less than 15 minutes.
-- Report to the House subcommittee on Asian and Pacific affairs by Col. Charles W. Lewis, Army dermatologist.
Our government couldn't prove what poison was being used. They couldn't even prove that any poison was being used. Without that proof, Seagrave's years of research were worthless, and he would continue to be haunted -- perhaps as seven generations of his family had been haunted -- by tribesmen saying, as they said to him: "Why doesn't anybody care what is happening to us?"
Then everything changed.
"It all came about since last Christmas. I was just back from stealing across the border into Afghanistan. I thought the poison the Soviets were using there and in Indochina was palytoxin, from coral, one of the deadliest poisons known. I was convinced. There was this extraordinary bleeding in all the deaths. The doctors I talked to said it had to be something weird and new. And I was sure it was from the Soviet Union. They have depots in Indochina, and they were in Afghanistan, and they were supplying Nasser during the civil war in Yemen when these deaths occurred.
"I got a call from a fellow I know in the Defense Intelligence Agency, and I went over to Rosslyn to this conference room full of grim-faced people from the DIA, NSA, CIA and the State Department.
"They were getting samples, but they couldn't find anything. They were testing for World War I and World War II stuff, mustard or nerve gas. I kept ranting at them -- you've got to test for toxins. Then I talked with a fellow at the University of Hawaii who told me that it couldn't be palytoxins -- they wouldn't kill you if inhaled, or if they touched the skin, only if they got into a cut.
"I thought: four years of work down the drain. But after that meeting in Rosslyn a woman came up to me. She was a microbiologist working at Fort Detrick. She suggested it might be mycotoxins. I sat down in January and read all the texts on mycotoxins. It was right there in front of me. It was the fusarium fungus, which has caused epidemics of deaths when it has infected wheat and corn, particularly in the Soviet Union."
Months passed. The government did nothing, as far as Seagrave knew. He wrote. "I figured the book would flop. I . . . took the kids and went out to Vancouver to go camping. When I got back I called a friend I used to work with at Time-Life. She said a guy in the State Department was trying to get hold of me. I called him. He said that we'd tested, and it was a toxin called T2."
A month ago, when Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. announced "physical evidence" of biological warfare in Southeast Asia, he aroused skepticism -- the evidence consisted of one leaf and bits from another leaf. But on Nov. 11, Richard Burt, the State Department's director of politico-military affairs, stated that "we now have the smoking gun. . . . We now have four separate pieces of physical evidence."
And so Seagrave's book gets reviewed favorably by The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, and he has caught the wave of the same ocean of history he's been drowning in ever since the Japanese Army harried his famous father and his family out of Burma.
"I've told the rebels in Burma, when you get that a------ Ne Win out of there, I want that hospital back for 24 hours. I want it back so that I can give it to them. They can't take it from me, I have to give it to them. And they can't use it as a barracks anymore. They have to use it as a hospital."
After all these years of drifting -- "My life is so derailed," he says -- he's come home to being doctor and missionary to Southeast Asia.
On a November night, he walks into the wind slapping down a Washington street and says: "I was the ne'er-do-well of the family. I was the bum. I think Dad would be proud of me now."