St. Louis Residents Who Survived Military Testing Tell Their Stories

In 2022, filmmaker Damien D. Smith’s documentary “Target St. Louis: Volume 1″ chronicled the post-World War II secret military experiments on Black St. Louis residents of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. Smith’s film was nominated for Best Documentary at the BronzeLens Film Festival, but the stories the documentary told managed to not generate much public interest.

Ben Phillips, one of the men who previously shared his experiences with Lewis, is now telling his story and the stories of the families who lived at the housing complex to CNN. Phillips says that the U.S. Army conducted secret testing, spraying a chemical known as zinc cadmium sulfide, a substance that is potentially carcinogenic, according to the National Institute of Health.

Phillips described the spraying to CNN.

“The majority of it was done at night. So, you know, you’re at home, it’s a summer evening, you got your windows opened up on the seventh floor because you don’t have air conditioning,” he said. “And it’s spewing this stuff off the roofs.”

Phillips also discussed memories of his younger sister having convulsions that stopped once the family moved out the projects, saying, “I had a little sister who was having convulsions when she was about a year and a half old. It went on for about two and a half years, and then stopped.”

Phillips’ story reached the ears of United States Senator for the state of Missouri Josh Hawley. Hawley, a Republican, held a bipartisan rally at the U.S. Capitol calling for justice for Phillips and others with similar stories.

Hawley said during a press conference, “Dating all the way back to the Manhattan Project, the government used the city of St. Louis as a uranium-processing facility, as a major site, and then when that was over […] it allowed it to seep into the groundwater, it allowed it to get into Coldwater Creek, it allowed it get into the soil. Generations of Missourians—children—were poisoned because of the government’s negligence.”

Hawley continued, “If the government is going to expose its own citizens to radioactive material […] for decades, the government ought to pay the bills of the men and women who have gotten sick because of it. They ought to pay for the survivor benefits of those who have been lost.”

The senator has been pursuing compensation of victims of nuclear radiation exposure, culminating in an extension to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in July, and his legislation aimed at those ends received an endorsement from President Joe Biden. 

Smith, whose grandmother hails from St. Louis, recounted her experiences in the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. Smith discovered that cancer was a prevalent issue among ex-residents of this low-income housing complex when he interviewed them for his documentary.

Smith shared with CNN, “I started doing some more research about it and it infuriated me that they can test on a population that they deemed to be basically sub-human.”

He emphasized how he felt this violated constitutional rights. “Definitely stripped them of any constitutional rights,” he said.

Spraying victim Phillips maintains that his ultimate goal is not motivated by financial gain, rather he wants the public to know about what he and others survived, as he told CNN: “This happens so often to marginalized communities – African American communities – because they’re easier to prey upon because, at least back then, they hardly had a voice.”

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