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How Umatilla chemical weapons changed NW history

After initialing bowing to Pentagon plans to ship deadly weapons from Okinawa to Umatilla, Oregon's Tom McCall fought back. He soon became an outspoken Republican leader who pushed new land-use laws and criticized his own party's administration in D.C.

In 1973, Oregon Gov. Tom McCall read by candlelight to dramatize his concern about the energy crisis.

In 1973, Oregon Gov. Tom McCall read by candlelight to dramatize his concern about the energy crisis. National Archives/Wikipedia

This week's report on the end of chemical weapons at the Umatilla Chemical Depot in Oregon recalls for this observer the high drama of a battle in 1969-70 to prevent the shipment of huge quantities of deadly nerve gas and other toxics from Okinawa to the Depot. It spawned one of the most intense protest movements of the era in Oregon and Washington.

Operation Red Hat was the Pentagon’s name for the maneuver, brought about by leakage on Okinawa, the Japanese prefecture which the administration of President Richard Nixon was in the process of returning to Japan after 27 years of post-war American administration. Two leaks, only one of a chemical nature, brought about plans to move the gas: several American servicemen were exposed to low levels of nerve gas, and the nature and extent of the secret storage was revealed to Okinawans.

Nixon agreed to move the gas, and the Pentagon chose Umatilla as the recipient. Leaders in the Northwest got classified briefings; the gas would be unloaded at Bangor Naval Base in Washington and moved by rail to Portland and then eastward to the depot near the Columbia River in Morrow County.

Oregon Gov. Tom McCall, a Republican and Nixon backer, originally bowed to Pentagon appeals to his patriotism and reluctantly approved the shipments. His press secretary and close friend Ron Schmidt, however, immediately lobbied heavily for McCall to fight the shipments, and threatened to resign if McCall refused. An emotional McCall attempted to reach the White House to no avail; his calls were not returned. The Pentagon went ahead with an announcement that the state had approved the shipment — based on comments made by McCall to Pentagon briefers.

But McCall had not approved the Pentagon statement, and in the 24 hours since the meeting, he had changed his mind, troubled by Schmidt’s strong views and his own conscience. The governor mounted a strong campaign to stop the shipments. By the end of 1969, two months after the Pentagon announcement, 23,000 people had signed petitions or sent messages protesting the shipments. McCall was not alone in the political arena; all but one member of the Oregon and Washington congressional delegations had supported him, but without taking specific action.

There was little opposition to the shipments in the Umatilla community; when I visited there I was assured by the mayor of nearby Hermiston and other leaders that the Army was a good neighbor and a good employer. The stuff had to go somewhere, and it might as well be Umatilla.

I recall a conversation with an emotional McCall in which he vowed to lay his body on the railroad tracks if the shipments proceeded. He had found the cause that would almost immediately change his political image from that of a personable and cautious governor to that of an activist who took risks and spoke his mind regardless of the outcome. Just ahead were Vortex, the nation’s only state-sponsored rock festival, which McCall arranged to head off possible violence from anti-military protests against an American Legion conference in Portland; the state’s land-use laws; verbal blasts at the Nixon Administration; and a flirtation with an independent run for the White House in 1972.

As the Army moved forward with shipping plans, termed Operation Red Hat, McCall and Washington Gov. Dan Evans received classified briefings that caused alarm. Evans was told to prepare for evacuating 1,300 square miles and 150,000 people in case of a mishap as the ship unloaded at Bangor Naval base and moved by train through Western Washington and eastward to Umatilla. Evans joined McCall in opposition.

As if to pose a contrast, April 22, 1970 was the first Earth Day, and it helped galvanize opposition to the shipments. Seattle protesters held a “die-in” demonstration, falling to the streets in mock death. Others threatened to block trains. Senators Warren Magnuson of Washington and Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood of Oregon introduced a bill to stop funding of nerve gas shipments into the country, but there was no chance it would pass soon enough to block Operation Red Hat.


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