The U.S. Navy Studied How to Turn Fiberglass Into a Ghastly Weapon
Splinters would have cut anyone who came into contact, inside and out
American fighter bombers fly over across South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia dropping bombs filled with tiny fiberglass shards.
A few hours later, Viet Cong insurgents — and anyone else unfortunate enough to move into the contaminated areas — begin to develop maddening itches and painful sores. Some go blind from glass in their eyes.
This was the horrifying plan researchers at defense contractor HRB Singer developed for the Office of Naval Research in 1967. Part of a larger program nicknamed Project Poorboy during the Vietnam War, the Pentagon funded research into methods for stopping insurgents from moving down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
“The technique and substance recommended are not absolute,” the scientists explained in a 1968 review of the project. “[But] they do provide a means of identifying trespassers, of causing irritation and incapacitation as time progresses without engendering cries of bacteriological or chemical warfare.”
Still, the new weapon would present its own appalling, indiscriminate and potentially deadly effects. Thankfully, the Navy never acted on the proposal.
The HRB Singer scientists were explicit in their descriptions of how the fiberglass weapon might work. The small shards would settle in treetops, plants or lie in wait on the ground. Light enough to be carried on the wind, insurgents would have kicked up the material as they passed through the jungle.
“The fibers pervade the extremities, clothing, eyes, and food of the infiltrator as he passes through the area,” the scientists wrote in their proposal. “The infiltrator is not immediately aware of this pervasion but within a few minutes, when any activity is involved, he is physically irritated.”
“There are no effective countermeasures to this procedure,” the HRB Singer team added, predicting truly shocking results. Itchy, pus-filled sores would spring up on any exposed part of the body, especially the feet, within hours.
Before hitting their victims, the fibers could easily become covered with bacteria or other pollutants. Fighters could be blinded after getting the spun glass in their eyes. Scratching would only drive the splinters deeper into the skin.
Guerrillas could inhale the “fiber floss” or inadvertently eat unsealed food covered with fragments. Once inside the body, the tiny bits of glass could cause ulcers or tiny cuts on the throat, stomach and intestines.
It’d be useless to try and pluck the glass out of clothing. Difficult to remove from the skin, the fibers would probably have been impossible to remove from areas inside the body without surgery.
“Fibers which penetrate a person’s skin can be removed only by a tweezer and magnifying glass or by waiting until the penetrated area becomes infected and the splinter is forced out by the infection,” the report noted.
Above — fiberglass. Pasa/Flickr photo. At top — an A-6 Intruder loaded with bombs during the Vietnam War. Navy photo
The idea behind the fiberglass bombs developed out of desperation. By 1968, the U.S. Navy and Air Force had already tried blowing up the Viet Cong’s jungle pathways with regular bombs and using large, air-dropped mines to halt cargo trucks, but with little success.
In search for a solution, the Pentagon looked at more exotic options like artificially increasing rainfall, dumping chemicals to gum up dirt roads and building an electronic fence that would warn American jets of guerrilla activity. The Air Force and the U.S. Army both tried dropping huge tear gas bombs to make specific zones uninhabitable. Navy scientists considered using nonlethal bacteria or glowing chemicals to mark individuals passing through insurgent-controlled territory.
But as the HRB Singer team explained, these compounds might cause an international incident no matter how safe they might be in the end. Despite mixed results in combat, tear gas proved to be a focal point for criticism both in the United States and abroad.
“Most remarks have been highly critical and give the impression that these munitions have had widespread use and have caused many casualties,” the top American headquarters in Saigon wrote in a report on the utility of the riot control agents in 1965. “However, when after action reports are studied, it is obvious that these munitions have had only limited effect on the enemy at best.”
The Pentagon was still dealing with the fallout more than three decades later. In 1998, CNN ran a story that accused American troops of using sarin nerve gas during an operation in Laos. Subsequent reviews of the events by the news network and the Air Force showed that the weapons were actually tear gas cluster bombs.
Navy aircraft aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea get ready for combat during the Vietnam War. Navy photo
HRB Singer argued that because fiber floss was not a chemical or biological weapon, it would not meet the same public criticism. In addition to bombs, U.S. troops could simply dump the material out of cargo planes or fire it from artillery.
But an explosive charge scattering the fiberglass wouldn’t make it any less dangerous. HRB Singer recommended using random sizes ranging from five thousandths of an inch up to a quarter of an inch in length. The researchers also suggested the Air Force consider mixing these needles into batches of plant-killing chemicals like the infamous Agent Orange.
But the problems with this plan should be screamingly obvious. It would have indiscriminately harmed insurgents, civilians and animals — and in a particularly appalling manner. The HRB Singer scientists did not appear to consider any potential environmental damage caused by scattering fiberglass all over Vietnam.
“Civilians who either assist the troops or pass through the impregnated areas themselves will also become impregnated,” the researchers wrote matter-of-factly. “Civilians who give aid to victims may not be badly impregnated but recognition of these civilians can be accomplished by inspecting the persons’ hands for small glass fibers imbedded in the skin.”
Before receiving the report, the Navy sent a sample of fiberglass to the Marine Corps’ Landing Force Development Center for further tests. But that appears to be as far as the project got.
In the end, the Pentagon focused on trying to shut down the Ho Chi Minh trail with traditional air strikes, defoliants and thousands of tiny land mines — the effects of which are still felt through Southeast Asia. The world is fortunate the Navy decided against adding a fiberglass storm to the mix.