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A Hidden History: American University’s Role in World War I

By Emma Ashooh | 12/7/15 9:33pm | Updated 12/7/15 9:33pm

Courtesy of American University Archives 

American Word Magazine

The tunnel from the library to the SIS building is not the only thing underneath American’s campus; if you look in the right places, you will also find traces of chemical weapons and arsenic.

The year is 1917 and American University has been open for three years. At this time, the university only accepts graduate students (undergrads are not admitted until 1925) and the “campus” is an open field atop a hill consisting of only the Hurst and McKinley buildings. However, the graduate students are not attending classes in these buildings; rather, classes are held in their professors’ homes. This is because the novice university has just leased its land to the Army as a labs and testing site.

As barracks begin to pepper campus, the university is broken into two halves. One is Camp American University (which extended from today’s SIS building past Hamilton) where 2,000 chemists set up shop to develop offensive weapons. The other is Camp Leach (from Hurst Hall east across Massachusetts Avenue) where 100,000 soldiers work and receive training. The government has also begun to construct the Chemical Warfare Service Building, which is now known as the Mary Graydon Center.

During World War I, armies used poisonous gas on the battlefields and in the trenches, tactics the U.S. planned to embrace. The Army-hired chemists at AU set out to develop a lethal poisonous gas, a task that was met with great success. They synthesized the chemical lewisite, a gas principally containing arsenic. This substance was nicknamed the “dew of death” because a single drop was lethal.

The American University Experiment Station (the area now known as Spring Valley) is where the chemical weapons were created and poison-filled mortar shells were launched. The resulting gas clouds engulfed the surrounding fields. The Army also tested its chemical agents, such as mustard gas and lewisite, on animals here to see how effective the weapons were.

Before the tested materials could be sent over to Europe, the war had ended. The American University Experiment Station was now useless. With no more work to complete, soldiers took the agents and munitions and buried them inside of pits in what was called “Death Valley.” There is a photo from 1918 that depicts Sergeant Charles Maurer disposing of barrels and mustard gas in a burial pit. On the back of this photo, he wrote, “The most feared and respected place on the grounds. The bottles are full of mustard, to be destroyed here. In Death Valley. The hole called Hades.” With a nickname like Hades, the soldiers must have known all of the destruction they were hiding in that pit.

Out of sight, out of mind. This was certainly the case with the all of the buried munition. New buildings were constructed and more students were admitted as AU flourished. It was not the last time AU would be involved in a war effort. During World War II, the Navy used the campus for research and training, while classes continued and students went about life as normal.

The hole called Hades was long forgotten by Spring Valley residents, buried away in history. American University never forgot, though. In the 1950s, workers constructing a radio station on campus discovered a bomb, immediately halting their work. In 1986, AU began to build their sports center. In an attempt to avoid the radio station mishap, university officials asked the Department of Defense if any dangers still lingered on the grounds from AU’s involvement in World War I. After inspection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) did not find any buried objects at the site and determined that no further action was needed.

It was in 1993 that the public first learned of the hidden history. A team of contractors digging a utility trench found bombs with traces of chemical agents. This marked the beginning of a clean-up project that continues to this day. The 661-acre Spring Valley Formerly Used Defense Site (FUDS) consists of 1,600 private homes/embassies, American University, and Wesley Seminary—and the Army is checking it all.

In addition to removing arsenic‐contaminated soil, conducting a groundwater investigation, and searching for buried munitions, USACE has investigated the land of the Korean Embassy and the neighboring house at 4825 Glenbrook Road, which is owned by AU. The Army tore down the Glenbrook Road home, believing it to be the site of the hole called Hades after analyzing Sergeant Maurer’s photograph. More than 500 munitions items, 400 pounds of laboratory glassware, and more than 100 tons of contaminated soil were recovered during the former two investigations of the sites in 2000-2002 and 2007-2010.

While conducting clean-up tests at AU, the Army discovered contamination near the Watkins Building and behind the Hamilton and Kreeger buildings. High arsenic levels were discovered along with buried vials, broken glass, and other miscellaneous debris. In 2001, the soil at the Child Development Center was determined to have dangerously high levels of arsenic. The center was moved to a different area until all of the risky materials could be removed.

With the cleanup project set to conclude in 2017, the traces of AU’s involvement in WWI are almost all gone. Currently, the Army is exploring more of the 4825 Glenbrook Road property.

While there are no more army barracks set up around campus or chemists dedicated to wartime experiments, the buildings we learn in and the soil we walk on are filled with stories of a forgotten past. There once existed a hole called Hades, so there is no telling what else you may uncover. The next time you are out on the Quad relaxing in the sun, consider all of the history yet to be discovered that lies just beneath your feet.