Hellfire Boys

The Birth of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service and the Race for the World¿s Deadliest Weapons


By Theo Emery

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This explosive look into the dawn of chemical warfare during World War I is “a terrifying piece of history that almost no one knows” (Hampton Sides).

In 1915, when German forces executed the first successful gas attack of World War I, the world watched in horror as the boundaries of warfare were forever changed. Cries of barbarianism rang throughout Europe, yet Allied nations immediately jumped into the fray, kickstarting an arms race that would redefine a war already steeped in unimaginable horror.

Largely forgotten in the confines of history, the development of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service in 1917 left an indelible imprint on World War I. This small yet powerful division, along with the burgeoning Bureau of Mines, assembled research and military unites devoted solely to chemical weaponry, outfitting regiments with hastily made gas-resistant uniforms and recruiting scientists and engineers from around the world into the fight.

As the threat of new gases and more destructive chemicals grew stronger, the chemists’ secret work in the laboratories transformed into an explosive fusion of steel, science, and gas on the battlefield. Drawing from years of research, Theo Emery brilliantly shows how World War I quickly spiraled into a chemists’ war, one led by the companies of young American engineers-turned-soldiers who would soon become known as the “Hellfire Boys.” As gas attacks began to mark the heaviest and most devastating battles, these brave and brilliant men were on the front lines, racing against the clock — and the Germans — to protect, develop, and unleash the latest weapons of mass destruction.



Research Division, Bureau of Mines/Chemical Warfare Service

George A. Burrell—Chief of the Research Division. Within days of President Wilson’s war declaration, Manning asked Burrell to direct chemical warfare research for the Bureau of Mines. With the consolidation of the Chemical Warfare Service in 1918, he retained his position as chief of research.

James Bryant Conant—A brilliant Harvard chemist who came to Washington in 1917. Recruited to work in the Research Division, his work on mustard hastened the mass production of the chemical warfare agent. When lewisite became a focus of offensive war research, Conant was sent to Willoughby, Ohio, to set up the secret lewisite plant there called the Mousetrap. Became president of Harvard in 1933 and later played a critical role in the Manhattan Project.

Bradley Dewey—A chemist from Burlington, Vermont, who worked on gas mask development with Warren K. Lewis. In charge of the Gas Defense Plant in Long Island City, New York.

Frank M. Dorsey—Chief of the Chemical Warfare Service’s Development Division. A chemical engineer in the Lamp Development Laboratory at General Electric’s Nela Park campus outside Cleveland, Dorsey was instrumental in developing charcoal for gas masks. He later played crucial roles in mustard production and construction of “the Mousetrap.”

Arno C. Fieldner—An Ohio State University graduate who worked on gas masks.

Yandell Henderson—An irascible Yale physiologist accused of being an apologist for the Central powers before the war. His work on physiology and pathology paved the way for human-subject research, in which soldiers were used in testing equipment and as test subjects for the effects of chemical weapons.

George A. Hulett—A Princeton chemist and longtime consultant to the Bureau of Mines, enlisted to travel to France in April 1917 to investigate war gas research for the bureau. His observations and recommendations were pivotal to the organization of the Chemical Warfare Service in France.

Warren K. Lewis—MIT chemist who worked on gas mask research.

Winford Lee Lewis—An Illinois chemist who came to work for the Bureau of Mines in January of 1918. His Organic Research Unit No. 3 at Catholic University uncovered previous experiments that led to the development of the chemical warfare agent lewisite.

Vannoy Hartog Manning—Director of the Bureau of Mines in Washington, D.C. One of a few U.S. government officials who saw the impending need to prepare for chemical warfare. The Research Division began under his oversight and provided the nucleus for the Chemical Warfare Service.

Eli K. Marshall—A Johns Hopkins physician whose work also centered on the physiological and toxicological effects of chemical weapons.

James F. Norris—An MIT professor known as Sunny Jim with a famously ferocious intellect. Initially put in charge of both offensive and defensive chemical research problems, he later became chief of only offensive gas research. His chance encounter on the street with James Bryant Conant brought the young chemist into the orbit of the growing Research Division.

E. Emmet Reid—A chemist and early recruit of the Bureau of Mines who came from Johns Hopkins to find new chemical warfare agents.

George S. Rice—Van Manning’s chief mining engineer for the Bureau of Mines. One of the earliest members of the committee that spearheaded the bureau’s research efforts.

William H. Walker—An MIT chemist considered a pioneer of chemical engineering and industrial chemistry. Became the chief of Edgewood Arsenal before relinquishing control of the arsenal to Amos Fries in June of 1919.

Department of Justice/Bureau of Investigation

A. Bruce Bielaski—Chief of the Bureau of Investigation, the predecessor of the FBI. After the war, he went to work for Richmond Levering.

Charles DeWoody—The Bureau of Investigation’s division superintendent in New York City who succeeded Offley.

Warren W. Grimes—Bureau of Investigation agent assigned to Jones Point, New York. Dismissed shortly after Scheele’s arrival in Jones Point in April. Code name “Warren White.”

Richmond M. Levering—An oilman from Indiana who worked for the Department of Justice under the auspices of the American Protective League. He retrieved Walter Scheele from Cuba in March 1918 and put the German spy to work in his factory in Jones Point, New York.

Francis X. O’Donnell—Bureau of Investigation agent assigned to Jones Point, New York. Code name “O’Dell.”

William Offley—The Bureau of Investigation division superintendent in New York City.

Graham Rice—Bureau of Investigation agent assigned to Jones Point, New York. Code name “Riser.”

Walter T. Scheele—A German chemist sent to the United States to conduct industrial espionage. Activated to manufacture chemicals for Germany, he was then ordered to create chemical bombs to ignite cargo on Europe-bound ships. Indicted in 1916, he fled to Cuba and was captured in March 1918. Facing possible execution for his role in the ship-bomb plot, he agreed to work for the U.S. government and conducted research at a secret lab in Jones Point, New York, for the duration of the war. Had the code name “Nux” and gained the alias “Dr. Smith” while at Jones Point.

Bruce R. Silver—A chemist for the inventor Thomas A. Edison. Silver evaluated Scheele’s expertise after his capture and worked alongside Scheele at Jones Point until shortly after the war. His tenure ended in spring of 1919, when funding for his work at Edison’s lab dried up.

U.S. Army

James T. Addison—Chaplain for the First Gas Regiment. Arrived at Fort Myer in January 1918, went to France in February 1918 with Companies C and D.

Earl J. Atkisson—Commander of the Thirtieth Engineers (Gas and Flame), renamed the First Gas Regiment.

William M. Black—Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Amos A. Fries—A U.S. Army engineer sent to France in July of 1917. Expecting to be appointed director of roads, he was promoted to chief of the American Expeditionary Force Gas Service. He became one of the most vocal advocates of chemical warfare in the U.S. Army; after the war, his efforts cemented the Chemical Warfare Service as an independent branch of the U.S. Army.

Harold J. Higginbottom—One of the earliest recruits to the First Gas Regiment. Trained at American University with Thomas Jabine, deployed on Christmas Day 1917 in Company B.

Thomas Jabine—A chemist from Yonkers, New York, he was among the earliest recruits to the First Gas Regiment. Trained at American University, deployed on Christmas Day 1917 in Company B. Transferred to Company C in September 1918. During the Meuse-Argonne offensive, he was gassed near Charpentry on October 3, 1918, and spent the remainder of the war recovering.

Peyton C. March—U.S. Army chief of staff in 1918. Became a vocal critic of chemical warfare and unsuccessfully tried to prevent the Chemical Warfare Service from gaining permanent footing as an independent branch of the U.S. Army in 1919.

John J. Pershing—Commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Forces.

Charles L. Potter—Appointed director of the gas service in the fall of 1917, an early attempt to organize the disparate sections of the service under a single organization. The toothless Office of the Gas Service proved ineffective, leading to Sibert’s appointment and eventual consolidation of the Chemical Warfare Service.

William Luther Sibert—One of the top engineers of the Panama Canal. Sent to Europe in mid-1917 to be General John J. Pershing’s right-hand man in organizing and training the American army. Dismissed and ordered back to the United States, he was put in charge of the domestic gas service and oversaw its consolidation into the Chemical Warfare Service in June of 1918. Was demoted in winter of 1920 and retired from the U.S. Army.


Heinrich Albert—The German commercial attaché in New York.

Fritz Haber—One of Germany’s most esteemed chemists and one of the architects of Germany’s gas program in World War I. Famous before the war for having discovered how to convert nitrogen into ammonia for fertilizer—in doing so, creating the biggest boom in commercial agriculture in history—his role in Germany’s gas program horrified many chemists who admired and studied under him. His award of the Nobel Prize in 1918 for fixed nitrogen was extremely controversial. A patriotic Jew, he resigned from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in protest of Hitler’s regime and went into self-imposed exile, dying in early 1934.

Franz von Papen—The German military attaché in Washington, recalled to Germany in 1915. He was subsequently found to have been secretly fomenting sabotage and espionage against the United States, including the “cigar bomb” plot that smuggled Walter T. Scheele’s chemical bombs aboard cargo ships and set dozens of fires while the vessels were at sea.

Franz von Rintelen—A captain in the German Admiralty who was central to efforts to bankroll espionage and sabotage in the United States.



January 5, 1993

The sky over Washington sagged with rain as the construction crew arrived at the cul-de-sac in the city’s Spring Valley neighborhood. Overnight, a south wind had gusted across the city, making the January morning unseasonably warm as work resumed on Fifty-Second Court NW. A workman swung up into the cab of the backhoe that hulked near one of the houses. The engine roared to life.

The excavator carved out a sewer trench toward a corner of one of the unfinished houses ringing the dead-end street. Older parts of Spring Valley were pockets of venerable Washington power, where retired generals and ambassadors lived in seclusion, separated by high hedges and rolling lawns. But in this new corner of the neighborhood, the brick homes were only a short distance apart, their front steps close to the sidewalk. The southernmost house was finished, with shrubs planted under the windows and a sapling staked with guy wires, but the house next door still needed its sewer connection. As the backhoe scooped bucket after bucket of dirt, mountains of soil grew on each side of the trench.

At around 1:40 in the afternoon, the backhoe operator cut the engine, jumped to the ground, and peered at the soil he had just excavated. A rust-covered tube about twenty inches long lay in the dirt, stubby and fat with a metal nub at the end. The bucket had punctured the metal casing. As he looked at the tube, he could hear a hiss of escaping gas. He called the fire department.

When police and firefighters arrived on the scene, they eyed the metal tube. It looked like military ordnance, the hazmat team said. A mortar maybe. Better call Fort McNair, the Washington headquarters for the U.S. Army Military District.

The ordnance-disposal detachment from Fort McNair didn’t arrive until after 3:00 p.m. The unit inspected the trench and the punctured tank. They had a theory: that the shell was a long-buried relic of chemical warfare.

After sundown, a helicopter thundered in the darkness over the neighborhood. The Huey descended into a vacant lot, and a figure in a military uniform stepped down from the cabin. Lieutenant Colonel William T. Batt commanded a specialized team called a Technical Escort Unit, trained to recover chemical munitions. The trip from the unit’s base at Aberdeen Proving Ground—almost seventy-five miles away—would have taken an hour and a half in the best traffic, but buried ordnance in a residential neighborhood was an emergency that called for speed. Floodlights lit Batt’s path to the trench on Fifty-Second Court. Two and a half hours later, the wail of sirens announced the arrival of the rest of the team. After the entire unit had assembled beside the pit, they agreed the munitions could contain chemical warfare agents.

The subdivision became a military zone. Floodlights illuminated the area in a harsh glow. As news of the discovery spread, reporters scrambled to the scene, and television trucks clogged nearby streets. Police began round-the-clock surveillance. The army recommended that residents within three hundred yards evacuate, and three families hastily packed up and left. Away from the sealed-off street, an army spokesmen briefed reporters. The area could once have been a munitions scrap heap, he said. While the age of the mortars may have reduced their potency, he warned that they could still be dangerous. “Any time you’ve got a fuse in it, you’re dealing with a hot potato.”

No one seemed to know how the munitions had ended up there. Residents wondered what else might be buried under their feet and in their yards. The ordnance team from Aberdeen began sifting through the soil in protective suits. When they stopped at 3:30 a.m., they had found four unexploded mortar rounds and three rounds of seventy-five-millimeter artillery, all dating to World War I.

The discoveries set in motion a scramble to find other ordnance buried beneath the cul-de-sac, like old bones in a forgotten cemetery. Ultimately, 144 pieces of World War I–era munitions would be disinterred, flown to distant proving grounds, and destroyed in controlled explosions. The crisis provided daily grist for the nightly news and the morning headlines as this long-buried history spilled out into the open. In an ironic counterpoint to the discovery of chemical weapons in Washington, a United Nations inspection team across the globe was in a tense standoff with Saddam Hussein over inspections for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War.

Soon after the excavation began, the local newspapers published an enigmatic photo from late 1918. A Washington-area woman owned the picture, which showed her father, a young officer named Sergeant Charles William Maurer, standing over a pit surrounded by carboys, bottles, and jugs of chemicals. Wearing a gas mask, he appeared to be throwing the jugs into the ground. A caption on the back of the photo had a name for the pit: “Hades, the most feared and respected place on the grounds.”

Little by little, the story unfolded. During World War I, American University had turned over its campus to the army. One end of campus became a wartime training camp, but the other became the headquarters of its embryonic chemical warfare Research Division, called the American University Experiment Station (AUES). The army leased the fields and wooded dells around the campus to use as a proving ground. They lobbed mortars and dug trenches. They tested chemicals on dogs, goats, and other animals, and on men as well. Many years before the area became Spring Valley, the dell behind the campus had earned the nicknames “Death Valley” and “Arsenic Valley.” The soldiers called the hilltop campus Mustard Hill.

Spring Valley has never been quite the same since that January day in 1993. After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the investigation and declared the cleanup of Fifty-Second Court complete, questions arose about another spot across Spring Valley, where houses had been built on the back side of the American University campus. A persistent city employee and other environmental officials insisted that the army had overlooked another burial site there. The corps resisted reopening the investigation, but when they did, they promptly found new chemical weapons detritus, including pits containing hundreds of munitions, some with mustard agent inside, buried in the backyard of the South Korean ambassador’s residence. The new discoveries embarrassed the Army Corps of Engineers and stirred lingering suspicion about the army’s commitment to cleaning up Spring Valley. The environmental remediation, estimated to eventually cost more than $300 million, was still ongoing at press time.

On a crisp November morning in 2012, I stood in a gaggle of reporters in the driveway of a stately brick two-story house across Spring Valley from Fifty-Second Court. The house sat at the bottom of the hillside behind the American University campus, abutting the South Korean ambassador’s residence. At the top of the hill, just out of sight, were athletic fields and a child-care center. The frosty air pinched red the noses and cheeks of the officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the driveway facing the reporters.

More than ninety years earlier, Sergeant Maurer had stood on the same hillside and posed beside the pit called Hades with the jars and bottles of chemicals lined up next to him. The house in front of us had been built atop that spot, and the photo helped to pinpoint the pit’s location beneath the back patio of the house. A family named the Loughlins had lived there for several years before the cleanup around them forced them to move; fearful for their health and safety, they never moved back in and forced the builder to buy the house back. No one had lived there since. On that November morning, the Corps of Engineers was going to tear the house down. The cleanup of the property had proved so complicated, with so many lingering questions about what was still buried there, that the army decided that the easiest route was simply to demolish the house altogether and cart away whatever lay beneath.

After a few questions, the corps officials asked the reporters to step back down the driveway. We retreated to the street, behind a barricade of Jersey barriers. The driver in the excavator cab started the engine and raised its long hydraulic arm. Almost gently, the bucket began to pluck at the brick façade. A few bricks rained down, then the bucket raked downward, and the bricks sheered away from the side. And then the driver punched the bucket through a window and began to rip out the guts of the house.

In a sense, Hellfire Boys began that day. My curiosity about this history wasn’t sated by the two articles I wrote for the New York Times about the demolition. The more I searched for information about the American University Experiment Station, the more puzzled I grew over how little was known about what had happened there. It seemed strange that this history of chemical warfare in the United States, with its mysterious laboratory tucked into the nation’s capital, could be so little understood and so poorly documented. There were military histories and technical documents, to be sure, as well as articles in the Washington newspapers during the crisis on Fifty-Second Court. A handful of books have been written in the years that followed. None provides a complete picture about the day-to-day work in the labs, the men’s labors over beakers of poison gas, or the men who volunteered to go to France with the First Gas Regiment.

But there were hints. I tracked down Sergeant Maurer’s daughter and grandson, who showed me other photographs from the American University Experiment Station: soldiers mugging in their uniforms, perched atop casks labeled TNT; Will Maurer grinning shyly beside his sweetheart in Washington, posing at the zoo; lyric sheets from a talent show for the soldiers on Mustard Hill. Eventually, I found eight copies of the station’s newspaper in the Library of Congress. The papers covered a two-month period toward the end of the war, revealing the daily lives of these men at the cutting edge of military science on the campus. Since then, I’ve visited or contacted dozens of libraries and archives. I’ve filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the army and the FBI. I tracked down soldiers’ descendants and asked them to check their attics and closets for letters and diaries. I’ve combed through newspapers. I accumulated tens of thousands of documents, photographs, and reports from the National Archives and Records Administration. A chance discovery there unexpectedly led me to the hitherto unknown story of Walter Scheele’s captivity and the secret laboratory where he labored over the last eight months of the war. My research took me to Flanders fields in Belgium, to see for myself where these weapons were used and how. It took me into the living rooms of descendants of the soldiers in the Chemical Warfare Service, descendants who were proud of their ancestors but not always comfortable with the work they undertook in war. The descendants wanted this story told, but some were nervous—they wanted it told fairly, dispassionately, factually. I promised to do the best that I could. I stand by that pledge.

When I began this endeavor, I saw it as a sliver of lost history, a fascinating but long-forgotten fragment of American history. I worried that the passage of a fearful century, distended and warped by anxiety over weapons of mass destruction, would make a dispassionate chronicle of this legacy impossible, fraught with latter-day perceptions about the perils of chemical weapons. I worried that the peephole of the early twenty-first century, after a century of war and tribulation, would be an imperfect lens.

And then gas warfare returned to the headlines. I would never have dreamed that chemical warfare would reappear in the news, like a phantom from beyond the grave. In 2013, the world learned of the sarin-gas attack in Damascus attributed to Bashar al-Assad’s forces and saw the horrific images of civilians dying from nerve gas. Then came the reports of barrel bombs filled with chlorine—the original chemical weapon of the twentieth century unleashed in 1915 outside Ypres, Belgium. Reports of ISIS launching mustard-filled shells followed, and then another sarin attack in 2017, again blamed upon Assad’s forces. Improbably, a weapon of the past became a weapon of the present, and the subject I had undertaken took on a completely unexpected relevance and urgency. As one chemical weapons expert told me, “Everything old is new again.”



Chapter One

Holy Week

What horrors night foretells

Of the living Hells

Where thou and thy brave comrades fought for me

On the bloody tarn

Of the Meuse and Marne

I’ll take a turn next month in place of thee.

But banish now the thought,

The past is wrought;

I only pray to God to make me brave,

And there in grim death smile,

Feeling the while

To-morrow we shall meet beyond the grave.

—Robert B. MacMullin

Company E, First Gas Regiment, AEF

The chime of glasses and the clink of cutlery filled Rauscher’s banquet hall in Washington as Vannoy Hartog Manning and his wife, Emily, arrived for a late supper. On the evening of April 2, 1917, a cloud of war hung over the nation’s capital. Earlier in the night, President Wilson had delivered the most momentous speech of his presidency, asking Congress to declare war upon Germany. Red, white, and blue bunting draped the city, and throngs of prowar demonstrators roamed the rain-spattered streets, bellowing patriotic songs and jeering at protesters and pacifists in their white sashes and armbands. Here and there, fistfights broke out between opposing sides. As the night grew late, the crowds withdrew to indoor rallies, where partisans shouted the president’s pleas to Congress, read from the extra editions of the newspapers rushed off the presses.

The Mannings filed into Rauscher’s after the president’s rousing speech, but the buffet was hardly a political affair, the stuff of neither patriotism nor politics. Rather, it was a genteel reception honoring a famous ornithologist and photographer, William Finley, who had traveled to Washington from his home in Oregon. The Mannings were among a hundred people invited for the late supper, many of them fresh from the chaos at the Capitol, President Wilson’s words and the thunderous ovations from Congress still ringing in their ears.

The elegant banquet hall was a picture of Washington decorum, a gentle occasion that would be noted in the society pages of the morning papers, a bubble of civility amid the city’s tumult. Members of Wilson’s cabinet, society ladies, and naturalists looked admiringly at the photographs of baby birds and animals that Finley displayed. The momentous events of the day, the roar of the crowds, the president’s speech, the protest and debate—all of that remained outside in the city’s rainy streets.


  • One of Hello Giggles' "Top Books to Get Your Dad for Christmas"
  • Praise for Hellfire Boys

    "Through dogged reporting and a clear-eyed journey back through a world of secrets that are literally toxic, Theo Emery has dispassionately constructed an astonishing narrative of the scientists and soldiers who were tasked with winning a horrible war a century ago. Refusing to allow our modern revulsion of chemical weapons (however well-founded) to shape his extraordinary narrative, Emery--like all good historians--is determined to let the era of his subject speak for itself."—Hampton Sides, New York Times bestselling author of In the Kingdom of Ice, Ghost Soldiers, Hellhound on His Trail, and Blood and Thunder
  • "A fascinating and deeply researched account of how America reinvented its military--and itself--in its first modern global war. Theo Emery combines science, history, and character-driven drama to illuminate some of the darkest aspects of our national past."—Beverly Gage, author of The Day Wall Street Exploded and Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University
  • "Brims with shock and surprise... Through squarely a crackling history, Hellfire Boys is also a relevant primer on the past 100 years and on a kind of total warmaking that continues to haunt us--sometimes from another hemisphere, sometimes in our own back yard."—Dan Zak, Washington Post
  • "Moving crisply between stateside turf wars and battlefront combat, this well-written and well-researched slice of history will appeal to virtually any history or war buff."—Library Journal (starred review)
  • "Even military buffs will learn from this intensely researched, often unnerving account.... Readers will share Emery's lack of nostalgia for this half-forgotten weapon, but they will admire this satisfying combination of technical background, battlefield fireworks, biographies of colorful major figures, and personal anecdotes from individual soldiers."—Kirkus
  • "Journalist Emery offers a useful and absorbing reminder that, a century earlier, it was a different weapon of mass destruction that terrified both soldiers and civilians... This is a timely and often unsettling examination of a previously well-hidden government program."—Booklist
  • "Illuminating... Emery zeroes in on a little-known and sparsely documented moment in the history of chemical warfare."—The National Book Rivew

On Sale
Nov 14, 2017
Page Count
560 pages

Theo Emery

About the Author

Theo Emery is a journalist who has written for the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the Tennessean, and other publications. He has appeared on NPR and WBUR in Boston. He graduated from Stanford University in 1994, and earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College in 2014. He was a 2015 Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellow. He lives outside Washington, D.C.

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