I enclose some photos that were forwarded to us after the death of a family member. The pictures included ones of soldiers, marked “Camp Leach, Wash. D.C., 1918.” Although I am a native of Washington, and explored every corner of the city by street car, bus and auto, I never heard of Camp Leach. So please, see if you can uncover the mystery!
—Rose E. Smith, Sterling, Va.
Col. Smith S. Leach was a West Point grad (class of 1875) who worked on river and harbor improvements around the country, prepared “The Engineer’s Field Manual” for the Army and was in charge of the District’s water supply. He died in 1909 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Nine years later, the Army decided to rename one of Washington’s newest military installations in his honor.
Camp Leach had formerly — and briefly — been known as American University Camp, for that was where it was located: on 650 acres of land donated by the college in Spring Valley in Northwest Washington.
Answer Man couldn’t make out any identifiable landmarks or geographical features in the photos Rose sent, but they are fascinating images, nonetheless. Groups of men creep toward the camera, bayonets fixed on their rifles, presumably training. They are Doughboys, clad in the distinctive steel helmets and leg puttees of the Great War.
In some photos, white clouds of smoke are visible in the background. Could that be evidence of what made Camp Leach famous — and which makes it notorious to this day? During World War I, the Army created and tested chemical weapons at Camp Leach and at a contiguous facility called the American University Experiment Station.
The work actually grew out of the Bureau of Mines, because mining engineers were accustomed to dealing with noxious gases. Eventually, the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service took over. Engineers performed gas-mask research, investigated offensive and defensive chemicals, and developed smoke mixtures for Navy smoke screens and Army battlefield signaling. Hundreds of different gases were tested in Spring Valley, including mustard gas, phosgene and ammonium cyanide.
Those tests didn’t always go off as planned. On Aug. 3, 1918, a piece of lab apparatus exploded in Manufacturing Shack No. 8 at the American University Experiment Station. About 300 yards away, across Nebraska Avenue NW, former West Virginia senator Nathan B. Scott was sitting with his wife and sister-in-law on the porch of their country house. They detected a strange odor and their eyes began to ache. The Washington Post reported that, as the yellow cloud rolled toward Scott’s house, it killed chickens, birds and other small animals.
The family took refuge in the dining room — its windows were shut — while Scott telephoned the camp.
“It is an outrage that a citizen cannot enjoy his home without being made to suffer like this,” he told a reporter.
The arrival later that day of an engineer from Camp Leach bearing a number of respirators did not mollify the senator’s wife.
“If we have to wear those things, we will move to a less exciting place,” she told the Washington Times. “They may be just the thing to save our lives, but I cannot imagine the Senator getting up fifteen minutes earlier every morning to practice a gas mask drill.”
Army officials offered their apologies, but, after all, there was a war on. Wrote the Times: “The affair is one that might happen any time, they stated last night, and is something that must be expected in the ordinary routine of their experiments.”
The war ended on Nov. 11, 1918. The Army moved out of Spring Valley in 1921. Somehow, people forgot what had gone on there.
They were reminded on Jan. 6, 1993, when a contractor digging a utility trench on 52nd Court NW noticed something odd in the bucketful of dirt his backhoe had just unearthed: a canister that made “a sloshing sound.” Ruh-roh.
Ever since then, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has overseen a cleanup in what is now one of Washington’s toniest neighborhoods. About $260 million has been spent so far, said Dan Noble, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Baltimore District. Work is expected to be finished around 2020.
It doesn’t sound as if the War to End All Wars is quite over.
Speaking of the Army, the United States used to have a draft. That’s how a young man named Elvis Presley entered military service in 1957. Speaking of Elvis, it seems clear to me that the new giant panda cub at the National Zoo should be named after him.
The connections between the two are numerous. As Vienna, Va., reader Sanna Benson points out: “Elvis had a jungle room. Panda will have a jungle room too — just with bamboo.”
Send me your reasons why the panda should be named “Elvis.” Just put “Panda Elvis” in the subject heading.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.