By Jeremy P. Amick
When Ronald “Rick” Price enlisted in the Army in the early 1960s, he predicted his military career might land him in an overseas assignment, such as the war beginning to unfold in Vietnam—instead, he remained stateside and became part of a secretive program, the details of which have only recently been declassified.
Inducted into the Army in November 7, 1962, the Mendon, Mo., native began his basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood days later. As he neared the end of his initial training, the recruit learned of an opportunity that triggered his curiosity.
“We were told about a new program that was a ‘real good deal,’” said Price, 72, Russellville, Mo. “We didn’t know what it was, but they wanted people with farm experience, which I had from working on farms growing up.”
The young soldier wondered if he had made the right choice in volunteering for the mysterious program, as he underwent a battery of psychological exams, including lie detector tests, to determine his fitness for the program.
“Their was a group of us that began the process and it was the worst kind of thing I had ever been through,” Price explained. “Especially the lie detector test … the questions they asked were very strange and they had us scared to death that we—and our families!—would be thrown in jail if we didn’t tell the truth.”
Days before graduating basic training, Price and a group of program candidates boarded a plane bound for Denver, Colo., reporting to Rocky Mountain Arsenal in mid-February 1963. While there, Price said, they underwent further testing which “really pared down the group.”
He continued, “They put us on these machines I had never seen before, something like a small combine with a hopper in front. For a week or so, all we did was drive those things up and down the road.”
Days later, he traveled to Fort Dietrich, Md., for training on how to reply to individuals attempting to collect information, which Price summed up as being told “not to make friends” outside of his group. He returned to Colorado and was told to pack up his military uniforms because he would not see them again until he left the service.
After a few days of training at Yuma Test Station in Arizona, he was sent to El Centro Naval Air Station in California, where he was assigned to a group of plain-clothed soldiers who had their own facilities, ID cards and work area.
“We were on TDY (temporary duty) and made $16 a day on top of our regular Army pay,” he said. “Our job was to grow wheat with a very potent wheat rust on it— a mold-like substance that attacked the wheat stem.”
Price also noted that he soon discovered the reason for the combine-like machines he had operated in Colorado, as he and his fellow soldiers began using the equipment to harvest the wheat rust, which was then placed in air-tight containers and shipped back to Rocky Mountain Arsenal for testing.
“The rust,” Price said, “was primarily used as a very effective material that could be spread on the crops of a country, destroying them and essentially starving the population.”
An article on a history website of Palm Beach County, Fla., describes a simliar operation that once existed on Boca Raton Air Force Auxiliary Field in the late 1950s. The Army Chemical Corps, the article states, “recruited men from the farm states of the Midwest” as part of a program to form spores from spraying wheat with a fungus that was later tested for use in biological warfare.
“It was called ‘Project TX,’” Price said. (A fact sheet printed by the Deployment Health Support Directorate under the Department of Defense notes that “TX” is the “agent symbol for the ‘fungus Pucciniagraminis var. tritici,’ commonly known as stem rust of wheat.”)
Price spent the majority of his time at the El Centro facilities, but also performed temporary duty at locations such as Edwards Air Force Base in California, assisting in the training of soldiers new to the project.
“We were just pretty much ignored wherever we were stationed,” he said. “The military people didn’t know what we did—we just looked like farmers—and if questioned, we were told to say that we worked for a construction company.”
During the latter part of his enlistment, Price returned to Colorado for a few weeks until receiving his discharge in November 1964, at which time he signed a 50-year non-disclosure agreement regarding the duties he had performed.
Returning to Mendon, Price enrolled in college and, in 1966, married his fiancée, Judy. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history, education and psychology from Missouri Valley College in 1969; the same year moving to Russellville when hired as a teacher and counselor for the high school.
The following year, he left his teaching and began his employment with state government, with whom he remained until his retirement in 1991. Since then, he has remained busy while engaged in various construction pursuits.
Although he believed his service would result in overseas duty, Price asserts he is proud of the unique contribution he was able to make to his country and the close friends he met along the way, despite the secretive nature of his job.
“Looking back, it really didn’t seem like what we were doing was a big deal, but now I know what we were doing was an important part of preparing for national defense,” Price said.
“And one of the best parts of my job was the close friends I made with the few guys who worked in the project… and we still remain in contact.”
Mentioning an upcoming “project” reunion, Price added, “We all know each other’s names and where everyone lives, and I think it is somewhat unique among military organizations that we have such a tight-knit group.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.