JOINT TRAINING CENTER, Jordan –
U.S. Army Soldiers with 655th Regional Support Group, 316th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), 377th Theater Sustainment Command, donned their gas masks and participated in an improvised game of baseball Feb. 12, 2020, at Joint Training Center-Jordan, paying tribute to former service members who used the sport to prepare for chemical warfare during WWI.
The idea for the historical recreation was spawned from U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Aimee Ouellette, Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) and safety noncommissioned officer with the 655th RSG. She is currently an undergraduate student at the American Military University, slated to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in history. While conducting research for her senior thesis,
“The Influence of America’s Game on the Country’s Chemical Training in WWI,” she discovered a historic military photograph from 1918 showcasing Soldiers posing in gas masks with baseball bats and mittens in hand. She later found that baseball games were used as training aids and morale boosters for military personnel during WWI.
“This [gas mask baseball] was somebody’s idea and it took off because everybody likes playing baseball,” said Ouellette, “It’s just a fun game!”
The historic 1918 snapshot found in the U.S. National Archives, tagged under chemical warfare service and drills, is said to have been captured by Underwood and Underwood. This photograph displays Soldiers posing outside the Gas Defense Plant in Long Island City, N.Y., which assembled more than 3 million gas masks during the time frame of the war. This iconic photo was mimicked by 655th RSG Soldiers, followed by a game of gas mask baseball, to honor the WWI Soldiers and their training methods that were to raise awareness, knowledge and confidence in dealing with poisonous gas.
CBRN hazards come in a variety of guises and varying methods of release. Soldiers must be ready and capable to conduct a full range of military operations to defeat all enemies regardless of the threats they pose, even chemical threats. Common gasses used as weapons during the war included phosgene, chlorine and mustard gas, commonly known as “the king of battle gases.”
According to Ouellette, the level of psychological terror for chemical warfare during the WWI era was far different than how we view potential gas threats in modern-day times. People were said to have commonly suffered from, “gas mania” and “gas fright,” meaning they reacted defensively during times when there was no actual threat of poisonous gas.
“Rumors were going around like your eyes could fall out or you would be perfectly fine and just die the next day,” said Ouellette.
The U.S. Chemical Warfare Service was founded during WWI with its name being changed in 1946 to the Chemical Corps. More than 2 million men were drafted to serve in WWI. During that period of time, Soldiers used small box respirator gas masks that were manufactured by the British. The masks were equipped with a padded nose clip, a bite piece, and were said to have been far more difficult to don and tolerate for long periods of time compared to modern masks. This presented more of a reason to practice proper donning techniques, breath control and overall mental toughness.
“The baseball games were used for teaching gas mask tolerance without the panic,” explained Ouellette.
Soldiers would also practice their military occupational specialties with their masks donned. For example, combat medics would carry stretchers through rugged terrain while engineers would dig trenches in their CBRN protective gear. It seemed that baseball equipment was readily available at most training camps so using the game to train and build tolerance seemed to be a win-win situation.
Aside from baseball equipment, multiple Major League Baseball players served in the war and aided with chemical warfare training. The late Wesley Branch Rickey, who served as commander of 1st Gas Regiment during WWI with the U.S. Army, was a member of the Chemical Warfare Service and the MLB. Other notable professional players who served included George Sisler, Tyrus Cobb and Christy Mathewson, who died from complications of tuberculosis on the eve of the 1925 World Series.
We still have the greatest Army in the world. We serve the people of the United States, and we are going to protect them with our lives if that is what it comes to.