Painful memories: Vet says experiment left mental scars

By DANZA JOHNSON / NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – William Watkins has a lot of memories of his 20 years in the military, but four weeks of that time he’d like to forget.
When Watkins was an 18-year-old in basic training in the U.S. Air Force in 1955, he signed up for a voluntary experiment called the Summer Survival Ration Study Project.
Being an eager teenager and even more eager to get a break from basic training, Watkins and 99 other young men signed up for the project, not knowing that what was designed to help the military would cause mental pains for the men for years to come.
The four-week project was designed to see how little food and water a person could survive on in harsh working conditions. Watkins said no one ever told the men what they’d be doing and why they were doing it.
While the Air Force acknowledges the experiment took place, it provided the Daily Journal with no details.
“We were human guinea pigs and nothing more,” said Watkins, who is 73 and now lives in Tupelo. “That was the hardest four weeks of our lives. We were just young men who wanted to get away from basic training for a while so we signed up. It was supposed to be volunteer and it was, until we signed our names on that line. Then the volunteer part was over.”
The men in the project were separated into four squads of 25 and each squad was assigned to a specific diet and water regimen, according to Watkins.
One group was to work hard labor for 24 hours on just one canteen of water per day, or about one quart. That group included Watkins, who also could eat one piece of candy a day. The next group worked hard labor with unlimited water and food.
Another group did easy work with limited water and food, and the last group did no hard work and had unlimited water and food.
“We walked five hours a day in the scorching hot sun on one canteen of water,” said Watkins. “It was torture. We’d sweat all the water out and had no way to put it back in. We were so thirsty and they controlled all the water. They controlled shower usage because they knew we’d drink that water. They even control bathroom usage because guys would try to drink out of the toilet bowl.”
Conducted by two professors from the University of Illinois, the experiments were held at a deserted base in Camp Atterberry, Ind.
Watkins said he had to go to the hospital because of a mysterious rash he got during the project.
It wasn’t until later, “after we matured,” Watkins said, that he and his fellow study participants realized the impact and significance of what they had gone through.
Despite the four grueling weeks he spent in the project, Watkins said he loved the military. He retired in 1975 with the rank of master sergeant.
But he is bothered his records have no mention that he participated in the Summer Survival Ration Study Project.
“It’s like it never happened,” said Watkins. “I have the pictures and memories that prove that it did happen, but there is no paperwork in my file that has anything to do with those four weeks. It’s like a time loop that just blanked out that time and that’s not right. We went through some great pain and sacrifice during that time and people should know about it. I am an old man and I don’t have a lot of time left, so I just want the Air Force to acknowledge what we did for this country as young men.”
A statement e-mailed to the Daily Journal by Maj. Cristin L. Marposon with the United States Air Force press office acknowledged that in 1957 there was a report on the development of survival rations for a series of experiments carried out in the mid-1950s.
The report was called the “Psychologial Basis for Various Constituents in Survival Rations Part IV – An integrative study of the all-purpose survival ration for temperate, cold, and hot weather.”
It was conducted by Frederick Sargent II and Robert E Johnson of the University of Illinois, which also acknowledged the study.
Regarding Watkins himself, Marposon said, “our office has no personnel records, and therefore can’t verify whether or not Mr. Watkins was in the Air Force.”
Contact Danza Johnson at (662) 678-1583 or danza.johnson@djournal.com.