That one time the Army drugged three soldiers and locked them in a room
In May 1962, four soldiers walked into a makeshift communications outpost outfitted with maps, food, medicine, and a chemical toilet. For the next 72 hours, the men would attempt to operate as a normal communications team while cameras rolled. Oh, and three of them were high on a powerful hallucinogenic drug.
It reads like a reality TV show, but it was an actual experiment conducted by U.S. Army researcher John Ketchum. An Army colonel who retired in 1976, Ketchum spent most of his career researching potential chemical weapons, primarily weapons made from drugs like LSD and PCP.
Ketchum wanted to test the effects of another drug called 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, or BZ. BZ was originally developed as an ulcer drug but was scrapped when it started causing hallucinations and mental distress. Army tests indicated BZ would lower a soldier’s ability to perform simple tasks like an obstacle course. In 1962, the Army was ready to see how it would affect operations.
That May, they allowed Ketchum to create the fake outpost and drug the volunteers. The experiment began on a Friday morning and continued for 72 hours.
During these 72 hours, the men responded according to the quantity of the drug they had received.
The leader of the group, identified only as L in Ketchum’s book, was given a placebo and spent most of his first 36 hours keeping the soldier who received the highest dose from hurting himself.
H and C, two soldiers who received low doses of the drug, spent the first day trying to get it out of their system with opposing methods. H began doing pushups repeatedly, while C went to sleep. Neither approach seemed to accelerate recovery and it took both men 24 hours to recover. Despite their recovery, neither H or C would help L much with their military tasks. But, they did help supervise Pfc. Ronald Zadrozny, an Army intelligence soldier who got the largest dose.
Zadrozny received a delirium-inducing dose of BZ. Within two hours of his arrival, he needed the assistance of L to stand up, and he would push people away who tried to help. He said he didn’t want to be treated like a little kid, according to Ketchum.
The Army wasn’t content just leaving the men in the room. The team had missions, primarily compiling information radioed and called into the outpost, before they needed to relay information to a fake rear headquarters. L would handle nearly all of these tasks while H and C read or slept. Zadrozny, once he could stand and walk around, spent most of his weekend staring into camera lenses whenever they were exposed or attempting to leave the locked area.
He would pace the walls of the outpost, checking for exits. Then he would grab his hat and jacket, put them on, tell the rest of the men goodbye, and attempt to leave through the door. Every time he found it locked, he would get confused and try the handle for minutes. He attempted escape through the medicine cabinet until H pulled him away. Finally, he’d begin another repetition, starting by putting on his hat and jacket and saying goodbye to everyone.
In his book, Ketchum wrote that it was only after hours of this process that Zadrozny finally put it together. He tried the door a final time and turned to the room, telling the rest of the subjects, “We’re trapped!” H then looked up from a magazine and told the room, “He’s getting better.”
The whole time Zadrozny was trying to find a way out, the one sober member of the team was getting engrossed in a game against the research team. The researchers had scripted the radio calls the drugged soldiers would receive, but they ran out of script and had to start improvising. Signal soldiers assigned to the researchers came up with a plot involving a chemical train that was going to be ambushed and crafted a nonsense code for it using poker terms like “The Dealer.” L spent the latter half of the exercise trying to figure out what “Full House” meant and who “The Dealer” was as a fictional train came barreled towards its death.
Eventually, the drugs wore off and the 72-hour experiment ended. The team was released back to the barracks and left with some truly odd stories of the Cold War.
Ketchum would go on to test BZ in an open air environment, but the weapons were never deployed in combat. As further tests showed, maintaining effective concentrations of the gas in a real world scenario proved difficult and military opinion eventually swung away from the use of drugs as weapons.
(h/t to The New Yorker‘s Raffi Khatchadourian, who discovered many of the archive documents from Edgewood and wrote stories about this and other experiments at the arsenal.)