Skeptics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for scientific skepticism. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

A Japanese friend of mine claimed that Allied forces used poisonous gas during the Battle of Okinawa. I asked for a link to such a claim, and got a link to this section of the Japanese language Wikipedia article on the Battle of Okinawa.

The paragraph that mentions chemical weapons is


The paragraph in question mentions Kakazu (嘉数) and that poison gas 毒ガス (Japanese language Wiktionary entry, translation - neither entry mentions flamethrowers) was used.

Did Allied forces use chemical weapons in Okinawa during World War II?

I'm skeptical because I hadn't heard about Allied forces (especially non Soviet Union Allied forces) using chemical warfare in World War II, and because denial of Japanese atrocities, and false claims of Allied atrocities, is fairly mainstream in Japan.

While searching for information on this, I came across pages stating that after the war, the United States stored chemical weapons in Okinawa. I am not asking about this in this question.

share|improve this question
+1, excellent question, but for sure Japanese largely used chemical weapons in China during World War II, though. – Carlo Alterego Jan 16 '13 at 10:09
up vote 4 down vote accepted

According to Battle of Okinawa: The Blood and the Bomb by George Feifer.

Okinawans, including honorable civic leaders who weren't anti-American, [charged] that the poison gas [was] used on some caves was in violation of the Geneva Convention. Well after the war, still haunted by the huge number of civilian deaths, they'd ask interested Americans to investigate. They did, and discovered what actually happen: American explosives unintentionally released poison gases that cause thousands of agonizing deaths in confined cave spaces. The most lethal was the yellow smoke of the petric acid [sic] used in Japanese munitions stored there.

However, there is no such thing as "petric acid", perhaps he means picric acid.

See also Identity and Resistance in Okinawa footnote 14 at page 50:

  1. See Miyagi's account (note [13]) for a description of a poison gas attack on a cave next to hers (the site of the present Himeyuri Memorial) where forty-six of fifty-one civilians died
share|improve this answer
Picric acid smoke can be yellow, that is true. I'm not sure it's very poisonous or most lethal though. In fact "most lethal" does not sound like a desirable characteristic of any propellant residue. Combustion products (CO, CO2, no O2) can sadly be deadly of itself. – ChrisW Jun 2 '15 at 18:53
@ChrisW I'm thinking more in terms of NOx decomposition products. – DavePhD Jun 2 '15 at 19:05
@ChrisW There was also a mass picric acid poisoning of US sailors on a ship anchored at Wakayama, Japan in 1946, due to traces in drinking water. No fatalities, but more than 100 with blood in urine. I don't know full details. see page 239 here… so it could be picric acid itself too. – DavePhD Jun 2 '15 at 19:18
The CDC warns of kidney problems, skin irritations, swallowing causes nausea etc., high doses attack blood cells and damage the liver, and yes, blood in the urine ... I think any "yellow" smoke from picric acid is uncombusted/exploded rather than detonated. – ChrisW Jun 2 '15 at 19:23
I mean, +1 for supplying a reference as you did, but fwiw I'm not sure how/whether that last sentence in the quote is true (or if it's true, complete). – ChrisW Jun 2 '15 at 19:26

It is unclear and may depend on how you define chemical weapons.

Battle of Okinawa, 1945

The weapons used include

  • flame-throwers
  • chemical smoke mortar rounds
  • white phosphorus grenades

An hour later another infantry assault was attempted, supported by 105-mm. artillery, light tank fire, antitank guns, heavy machine guns, 60-mm. and 81-mm. mortars, 4.2-inch chemical mortars, and bazookas; but the attack was again stopped by Japanese who hid underground during the heavy fire and then rushed back to their firing positions to meet the oncoming Americans.

From Okinawa: The Last Battle, Appleman, Burns, Gugeler and Stevens

It is unclear whether the chemical mortar rounds were designed merely to produce smoke to hide troop advances or were intended to harm enemy troops. From the text it seems they were probably intended to produce smoke through which US troops could move without being seen.

The 4.2-inch chemical smoke on the south side of Kakazu West was interspersed with high explosive artillery shells to keep the enemy pinned down. Under cover of the smoke the survivors of Company L pulled back off the hill to the gorge, carrying their wounded with them.

As well as flamethrowers and "chemical smoke", according to this account, the US army used phosphorus grenades

Colonel Maybury directed supporting fire in front of Company C, which quickly moved to the top without losing a man. It then proceeded leisurely and methodically to destroy the remaining Japanese with white phosphorus grenades and flame throwers. Only 20 of the 110 defenders escaped to the south.

It isn't 100% clear but this account can be interpreted as meaning that phosophorus grenades were used in an anti-personnel role.

The account doesn't identify the type of grenade, A more recent type is described as

The M15 White Phosphorous grenade is a bursting type grenade used for signaling, screening, and incendiary purposes.


The M34 chemical smoke grenade is the most versatile of all hand grenades. The grenade can be used for signaling, screening, or incendiary missions, or for producing casualties ... The filler has 15 ounces of white phosphorous.

Geneva Protocol, 1925

According to several sources 1, 2

The 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons in war. The Protocol was drawn up and signed at a conference which was held in Geneva under the auspices of the League of Nations from 4 May to 17 June 1925, and it entered into force on 8 February 1928.


a sizeable fraction of its parties have reserved to themselves a right to retaliate in kind if chemical and/or biological weapons should ever be used against them by enemies or allies of enemies.

The protocol states

the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world; and


this prohibition shall be universally accepted as a part of International Law, binding alike the conscience and the practice of nations;


extend this prohibition to the use of bacteriological methods of warfare and agree to be bound as between themselves according to the terms of this declaration

Chemical Weapon


The general and traditional definition of a chemical weapon is a toxic chemical contained in a delivery system, such as a bomb or shell.

The Convention defines chemical weapons much more generally. The term chemical weapon is applied to any toxic chemical or its precursor that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action. Munitions or other delivery devices designed to deliver chemical weapons, whether filled or unfilled, are also considered weapons themselves.

The toxic chemicals that have been used as chemical weapons, or have been developed for use as chemical weapons, can be categorised as choking, blister, blood, or nerve agents.

However this is a modern definition and the Convention referred to is a more recent one.

Chemical Weapons Convention 1992

Although produced 47 years after the date of the events in the question, this convention defines chemical weapons and so has some relevance.

White phosphorus does not appear in schedule one of CWC

1991 US View re phosphorus

A Declassified report mentions


Some commentators have suggested that this phrase illustrates that WP is regarded as a chemical weapon by US intelligence.


According to the account given above, the US army did use flamethrowers, chemical smoke and white phosphorus grenades. These were probably not considered chemical weapons by the standards of the time. Nor by a strict interpretation of current conventions.

Speculation: A soldier defending his homeland against foreign invaders might take a different view if the invaders are using flamethrowers and white phosphorus grenades against him or her. Perhaps, literally in the fog of war, the unpleasant and potentially harmful smoke from white phosphorus grenades was described by Japanese soldiers as "poison gas".

(my emphasis throughout)

share|improve this answer
They also used CS(also known as tear) gas which while not normally deadly is an irritant and would fall into the category of chemical weapons though it is not in the prohibited class. As of 2007 I know the US ARMY used CS gas in basic training. – Chad Jan 17 '13 at 18:18
Whether or not white phosphorous is considered a chemical weapon is quite an open discussion. It's a very efficient incendiary weapon, but also a very toxic one. People who suffer from WP burns often don't die from the burn wound itself but from the poisoning. I guess it's one of those tactics of war which are only atrocious if used by non-US forces. – Philipp Dec 7 '15 at 15:06

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.