|The Frank Olson Legacy Project|
Ransom paper, part 2
Frank Olson was a
biological warfare expert. He was recruited by the US Army from graduate
school at the University of Wisconsin in 1943 for his knowledge in airborne
diseases. Olson was one of the first waves of scientists hired by the
founding fathers of the crash American biological warfare program. The
program, which grew out of British and American fears that either Germany
or Japan would attack allied forces with such weapons, centered on defensive
(protective gear, detection devices, agent dissemination and mortality
information) and offensive (agent development, delivery systems, tactics)
research. Frank Olson served in the active duty Army Chemical Corps at
Camp Detrick Maryland for several years before trading his Army job for
a civilian position in the branch. As a civilian he was drafted into a
new sub-division created in 1949 called the Special Operations Division,
of which he eventually, in 1952, earned the leadership position
The Special Operations
Division grew out of a 1948 report stating that the United States had
become vulnerable to biological attack by foreign "espionage agents,"
from which there was little or no defense. The Special Operations Division
(otherwise known as SOD) was ordered to determine the effects of a mass
attack by enemy secret agents on the general population of the United
States. A parallel research project was to determine the effectiveness
of biological agents in clandestine operations, such as assassination.
Olson became involved
in tests determining the vulnerability of the general population to biological
warfare attack and he worked on several large scale and super-secret experiments.
One series of tests sought to test the practicality of ventilation systems
in the delivery of biological warfare agents. The Pentagon was chosen
as the first target and was infiltrated by SOD men dispersing simulant
agents from sprayers hidden in suitcases. The simulant agents were found
to have been readily spread through the Pentagon by the buildings
ventilation systems. These tests proved that specific targets such as
buildings or subway systems could provide a self-contained means of spreading
biological warfare agents to civilians. The next level of testing explored
the vulnerability of cities and even whole regions of the nation to biological
warfare attack. The SOD set up tests where simulant bacteria and fluorescent
tracer particles were emitted from high-flying aircraft into the large
air masses which constantly move across the earths surface. These
tests proved that pathogens could be released from a single aircraft and
could cover vast areas with an equal dosage of biological warfare agent.
The other line of
work being carried out in the SOD consisted of development of the covert
operations side of Biological Warfare. Much like 007s secret laboratory
of spy goodies, the SOD developed useful delivery systems and specialized
agents for use by the intelligence services. The SOD developed a close
relationship with the CIA, providing among other items, the shellfish
suicide pill, various lethal or incapacitation agents and means of delivery
such as the microinnoculator fountain pen, poisoned chewing gum, and an
anthrax filled scuba tank. The joint Army-CIA covert biological warfare
project fell under, initially, the cryptonym MKDETRIC, later changed to
The SOD branch was
a rather small, isolated group which seemed to be somewhat tight knit.
Frank Olson, while giving up his position as head of SOD due to a chronic
ulcer problem, remained a popular figure within the Camp Detrick laboratories.
He had an outgoing, upbeat and likeable personality. Many of his co-workers
had become his close friends, including Colonel Vince Ruwet (who replaced
Olson as SOD chief) whose family often socialized with the Olson family.
Olson was also very much a family man. He spent as much time as his intensive
work schedule would allow with his wife Alice (whom hed met at the
University of Wisconsin) and three children Eric 9, Lisa 7 and Nils 5.
Several times a year
the MKNAOMI portion of SOD would hold a working retreat where
the Army scientists could plan and brainstorm up-coming projects and requirements
with their CIA associates. On Wednesday November 18, 1953, Frank Olson
left his home in Fredrick, Maryland to join his colleagues at the remote
Deep Creek Lodge in the western portion of the state. Frank returned home
earlier than planned, on the evening of Friday, November 20th. As Alice
Olson remembers it:
[He] came back
on Friday, and from the time he walked through the door, he was a totally
different person. He came in, I would guess about 5 PM, he sat at the
dinner table, he didnt talk to me and he didnt talk to the
children. I said something about the adults in the family not communicating
and he said that he would tell me [about it] after the children went to
bed. I got the children in bed and he sat there and said Ive
made a terrible mistake and was totally depressed. I didnt
know what was wrong except he said he had made a terrible mistake. And
from Friday night until Sunday we had an incredible fog. There wasnt
a glimmer of sunshine, it was foggy for two days and it fit the mood perfectly.
I didnt know what was wrong, but I have never seen anybody--I had
never seen him in that kind of mood. And he wouldnt tell me anything
that had occurred except Im going to have to resign, Ive
made a terrible mistake.
That night Alice
tried to reassure and reason with him, Frank, did you ever break
Did you ever
"Of course not."
Having covered what she considered the most serious mistakes he could
have made, she was at an even greater loss. He continued to deny all attempts
at reassurance, You just dont understand he would counter.
He did promise however, to seek guidance from his friend and superior,
Vincent Ruwet first thing Monday morning.
Monday morning Alice
received a phone call from her husband at work, I talked to Vin,
he said I didnt make a mistake, everything is fine and Im
not going to resign. Frank remained at Detrick for the rest of the
day, and that night he seemed to be much happier.
Tuesday, however, saw the return of depression and anxiety.
Frank returned from
work early to announce that he had consented to psychiatric care. Even
more startling was the fact that a coworker, Jim Stubbs, had driven Olson
home and had wanted to stay, "because he thought that I [Frank] might
do you [Alice] bodily harm." Alice was shocked; she had never seen
her husband in such a state "My legs buckled beneath me. I couldnt
believe what I was hearing." Later that afternoon, John Malinowski,
another SOD scientist who had also been at Deep Creek Lake, arrived to
pick up Olson. Frank was to be taken to a specialized government psychiatrist
with a security clearance equal to Olsons, necessary if Olson was
to speak his mind openly. Alice opted to ride out to Fort Detrick with
Frank and Malinowski before the two men continued on to the psychiatrist.
On the way, they decided to stop at a diner for lunch, where Olson would
again display disturbing behavior. During the lunch, Malinowski left the
table and Frank turned to Alice and said I cant eat this food,
its poisoned. Alice was stunned, she realized that her once
rational husband had developed irrational delusions. After lunch they
continued on to Detrick, where Olson was handed over to Vincent Ruwet,
who would accompany Frank to the psychiatrist. Frank would be gone for
several days, but would be home in time for Thanksgiving.
brought Vincent Ruwet, who had returned to Fredrick after turning Frank
over to another government man named Robert Lashbrook. He explained that
Frank was not ready to return home, that he wanted to spend more time
with the psychiatrist. Ruwet informed Alice that it had been decided that
Frank would be briefly admitted to the Chestnut Lodge sanitarium in Maryland
to afford him some rest and recuperation time. Ruwet and Mrs. Olson went
on to discuss Franks condition. Ruwet reassured Alice that it was
probably just the pressure of the job that had made Frank irrational and
that rest would return him to his normal self. Looking back, Mrs. Olson
recalled the two discussing "reassuring things I wanted to hear.
That he was going to be okay. It never occurred to me that he wouldnt
be okay." The day after Thanksgiving, Frank called his wife from
the Statler Hotel in New York City. He reassured her that he was fine
and that he would be home soon. That night, about 3 am, Olson fell from
the 13th floor of the Statler Hotel onto the sidewalk of Seventh Avenue.
On the morning of
November 29th, Alice Olson received a phone call from Vincent Ruwet and
was notified of Franks death. She was told that he had "jumped
or fell" from his hotel room in New York City. The news was an immense
shock to Mrs. Olson. Prior to his return from Deep Creek Lake her husband
had been a happy-go-lucky man who had hoped to leave his government job
and return to school to become a dentist. She would later state that he
had never before shown signs of depression. The illness afflicting Olson
during those days in late November were a complete mystery to Mrs. Olson.
Literally overnight she had become a widow and was left to deal with the
death of her husband while raising her children. Franks death was
a trauma which would have a lasting effect on the children. With few details
about his death and no explanation for his sudden breakdown, Mrs. Olson
had little to offer her children although she would later say,
had been very important to me that my children not feel their father had
walked out on them.
In the days immediately
following Franks death, those members of SOD close to the family,
particularly Vincent Ruwet, did much to help the widowed Mrs. Olson. They
arranged for the government to cover the funeral costs and pushed for
Mrs. Olson to quickly receive benefits under the Federal Employee Compensation
Act. While it had been acknowledged that Frank had committed suicide,
Ruwet and John Schwab (another of Olsons superiors at SOD) had placed
his official cause of death on the compensation claim as a work related
illness. This allowed Mrs. Olson to file a claim with the government and
a double-indemnity (accidental death) claim with Franks life insurance
policy. Within three days of Franks death, Mrs. Olson had been approved
for a government pension equal to 2/3rds of Franks salary.
Alice Olson would eventually go back to school, earn a degree and become teacher in order to support her family. She remained in the same house in Fredrick, where she would meet weekly with Vincent Ruwet (who would later become the base commander at Fort Detrick) for drinks and to discuss Frank. She would unfortunately develop a drinking problem which would haunt her until the later portion of her life. The Olson children would grow up under a strained childhood, particularly the eldest, Eric, who was old enough to vividly remember the morning the family was notified of Franks death. He would be particularly haunted by the death of his father. Eric would go on to receive a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard and collaborate with renowned psychiatrist Dr Robert Lifton on developing therapy for those who underwent traumatic experiences, including brainwashing.