At Basic Training, Dad Was Sent to an Iron Chamber. It Was Filled with Mustard Gas

I am writing this as my dad told me, as I found in his records, and as I discovered on the internet.

It was 1945, the peak of World War II. Dad was a high school senior in a small southern Alabama town. The recruiters were all over his school, trying to sign up recruits. Dad signed up with the U.S. Navy, and he had to get his parents and the principal to sign off on his early graduation.

Off he went to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station for his basic training. He was 17 years old. Dad had been training there a few weeks with the men in his company, 581. On June 4, 1945, Dad’s entire company was sent to an iron chamber where everyone was lined up and several recruits at a time were sent inside and exposed to an unknown gas. They were sealed in, masks off, breathing in the gas.

James Jerry Ryals’s basic training photo.

James Jerry Ryals’s basic training photo.

Everyone left gasping for air. Within an hour or two, everyone in 581 was admitted to the base hospital.

Dad said a second company came in right behind them. They had just come out of that same chamber. There were no beds available. Men were stacked in the hallways, and they screamed and cried in agony for weeks. Dad’s lips, mouth, throat, and lungs were blistered so bad he could hardly breathe. His eyes swelled shut, and he was blistered all the way from his face to in between his toes—and especially his groin area, so Dad’s medical record says. He was there for three weeks.

The medical report called it “pharyngitis”—which is basically a sore throat.

Dad went home on leave right out of the hospital, and as soon as he got there, his mom and dad drove him to Pensacola Naval Base because he was still so sick. He stayed there for another week. They called it “pharyngitis” again.

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But Dad went back to Great Lakes to complete his basic training. His company had been dispersed, abandoned. Company 581 no longer existed—Dad never graduated with Company 581 or with any company. No class pictures. No ceremony.

The Navy then sent Dad to the Pacific theater. He was trained to load the anti-aircraft guns on the ships. They went up and down the China coast exploding tethered and floating mines they came across that the Japanese had set in place.

One day, the seas were so rough that Dad fell on deck and busted his knee up pretty bad. There was no doctor on board his ship. A medic taped it up, but didn’t clean it and left trash in his knee, which you can see in my dad’s most recent X-rays. That bothered him for the rest of his life, causing him to walk with a limp.

Dad served well past the end of the war in the Pacific and got an honorable discharge in 1947 before he came home. A couple of months later, friends and family wanted pictures of my dad in his uniform. He put it on. He broke out from head to toe in blisters. His family took him back to Pensacola Naval Station.

At least he didn’t breathe in the fumes again, but the gas was still embedded in Dad’s uniform. They sent him home with the same diagnosis, “pharyngitis.” A sore throat.

Dad filed a claim right after that based on the bogus pharyngitis diagnosis. The government denied Dad’s claim. I knew nothing of any of this until about 15 years ago when I had to start looking after my parents. Dad had strokes in his early 50s that left him unable to drive or cook. The strokes changed everything. Mom’s macular degeneration was getting bad—she was legally blind. She hadn’t driven in years, depending on Dad.

James Jerry Ryals, in his late teens, poses in his Navy uniform. When he tried on his uniform again after he was out of the Navy, his skin broke out in blisters.

James Jerry Ryals, in his late teens, poses in his Navy uniform. When he tried on his uniform again after he was out of the Navy, his skin broke out in blisters. Photo courtesy of the author.

I sold my house and their house, and I bought one we could share. I started asking Dad about the old days and his days in the war, which I had never really asked him about before. Dad started telling me these stories about a month in the hospital: blistered face, lungs, and scrotum; a gas chamber; two entire companies.

I didn’t know what to think. I just knew my dad did not lie—not even a small lie. Dad also told me he was told by the doctors to not ever speak of this. Mom was not too far from death at that point, so I guess Dad had been just protecting Mom by not speaking out before. Maybe that’s why more people didn’t speak out. There were quite a few who did file claims, I saw online. All denied.

I started requesting all of Dad’s military records, and they were all just like Dad told me. I searched the internet and found the Navy definitely did mustard gas testing at Great Lakes. I found an article that tells of an iron chamber that was sealable, built especially to test blistering agents on specifically the 1945 recruits at Great Lakes. The same article states they made the mustard gases and blistering agents at the University of Chicago, just around the corner, underneath the bleachers of all places.

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We tried fighting the VA by ourselves, at first, but were run around in circles, lied to, and not believed; we realized we needed a lawyer. Finally got one and after months of consulting, we had to insist on filing for mustard gas exposure. No one wanted to believe Dad, but we caused such a stink that they finally appointed a specific lawyer to work with us and filed for “full body exposure” from mustard gas.

James Jerry Ryals retired from Eastern Airlines after his World War II service in the Navy.

James Jerry Ryals retired from Eastern Airlines after his World War II service in the Navy. Photo courtesy of the author.

Our lawyer started to believe us, so she filed claims for Dad’s strokes, heart conditions, lungs, and left knee. Our lawyer tried everything because it looked like they were not even going to consider mustard gas exposure. VA kept trying to throw us off by acting like they didn’t have our paperwork. They said they lost all of Dad’s files at one point. Then they mixed them all up.

At one point, we were getting calls from VA in Puerto Rico. We’re not in Puerto Rico.

Dad’s lawyer had to reconstruct Dad’s entire claims process chronologically. It took her a long time to get them straight and then submit them back to VA, to make sure their records were intact. Unbelievable! It felt like they were stalling until Dad was dead.

VA finally hired a veteran medical doctor to examine Dad and look at his files to determine if he actually did have full-body exposure to a blistering agent or mustard gas. The doctor interviewed us for three hours. About a month went by and we hadn’t heard anything from the doctor’s interview yet, so we decided to hire another veteran medical doctor to interview Dad and review his records. He interviewed Dad and me for about three and a half hours. About a month later, we got the reports from both doctors. Both doctors stated that it is “more likely than not”—an official term used in benefits decisions—that Dad was exposed to a blistering agent or mustard gas between 1945 and 1947 while in the U.S. Navy.

James Jerry Ryals about a year before he died. Photo courtesy of the author.

James Jerry Ryals about a year before he died. Photo courtesy of the author.

They have to write it a certain way, the lawyer explained. We were thrilled: Finally this should be a slam dunk.

Months turned into years, and we heard nothing from VA about the exposure. They gave him 20% for this, 10% for that. He was up to 50% when, all of a sudden, they gave him 100% and $3,000 a month. VA finally admitted to Dad’s exposure to a blistering agent or mustard gas while in the U.S. Navy. Dad is the only veteran that had VA admitting to mustard gas exposure that I can find, although they admitted using mustard gas at Great Lakes. That’s all over the internet. Dad’s the only one who kept his uniform and exposed the “pharyngitis” cover-up.

Finally, that was something—a start.

“What about the claim from 1947?” we asked. The lawyers said VA would never go for it.

“Why not?” I asked. No real answer.

We pushed to file anyway. The lawyers filed a claim for just 10% from 1947, just to try and get our foot in the door, so to speak. I am still waiting for an answer. Dad died in September 2020, about two years after VA admitted to this atrocity and started giving him the $3,000 a month. They stalled long enough, it seems.

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The lawyers told me that when Dad died, his whole case died with him, and there was nothing more they could do. I asked for and received all of his records on discs. About a week after he died, VA sent him $4,000 for his left knee, which they immediately took back out after they realized he was dead. They took James Jerry Ryals’ honor, his youth, and his life without any accountability. They admitted to Dad’s poisoning, but, just like schoolyard thugs and bullies, they essentially said, “So what if I did it, what are you going to do about it?”

It took more than 75 years to prove the U.S. Navy did this to two entire companies of men—children really. No accountability. Thuggery.

My Dad was the best.

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James T. Ryals

James T. Ryals was in the printing business for more than 30 years. He then refurbished houses in Mobile, Alabama, while taking care of his parents. He is now retired with two children, two grandchildren, and a great-grandchild on the way. 

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