The Man Who Forgot His Germ War Confession

Jeffrey Kaye
16 min readDec 20, 2023
USAF 1st Lt. William (Bill) Fornes, left, approx. 23 years old, during Korean War; Bill at 69 yrs old, Andersonville, VA (photos are screenshots from C-SPAN interview, May 10, 1998, in public domain)

Bill Fornes wrote a confession as to his role in the U.S. biological warfare campaign during the Korean War. Years later, he denied he ever confessed.

Originally posted at Hidden Histories

This is the history of one of the more odd episodes of the Cold War. But it allows us to look deeper into the scandal that broke after the publication of in 1952–53 of dozens of confessions by Air Force and Marine Corps officers held prisoner by China and North Korea, who provided details of the U.S. use of biological weapons (BW) during the Korean War.

The U.S. has long denied that it engaged in biological warfare. Cold war scholars, such as Milton Leitenberg, in a publication by the partially-U.S. government funded Woodrow Wilson Center, have insisted that the U.S. did not even have available any offensive, antipersonnel biological warfare weapons during the Korean War. I have shown elsewhere that this conclusion was mistaken.

Notably, there are CIA communications intelligence reports, declassified only in 2010, of Communist military units reporting attacks via germ warfare during the Korean War. There is also the record of a November 1950 briefing by a Department of Defense official to the FBI that the U.S. had available five months into the Korean War antipersonnel weapons for use “by covert means” that carried the biological agents brucella melitensis (which causes undulant fever), anthrax, bubonic plague, and psittacosis (parrot fever).

In the end, the weapons used against Korea and China were likely mostly “stop gap” weapons based on designs by former members of Japan’s Unit 731. Indeed, as an article I intend to publish quite soon will explain, the U.S. leaned upon their understanding of the attack balloons Japan sent across the Western U.S. and Canada in the closing months of World War II to create their own biological agent delivery system using balloons by the early 1950s.

The Spider’s Web

In a 2021 article published at Counterpunch, I’d written that Colonel Walker Mahurin had written the only book by a U.S. military officer and Korean War prisoner about his experience of being accused of dropping germ weapons on Korea and China during that benighted war.

I was wrong, having not looked hard enough. I recently found a book by another POW, U.S. Air Force pilot William (Bill) L. Fornes, who was shot down over North Korea on August 6, 1952. Published in 2001 by the vanity press Minerva Publishing Co., Fornes’ book, Walking Through the Spider’s Web, was written with the encouragement of and in participation with his Valdosta, Georgia, neighbor, Glynn L. Ellis.

Photo of front cover of Fornes’ 2001 book, “Walking Through a Spider’s Web,” Minerva Publishing Co. (photo: Jeffrey Kaye)

The book describes Fornes’ family background and early years, but the bulk of the narrative concerns his capture and incarceration by the North Koreans and Chinese for approximately a year, followed by his experiences with the FBI and the military afterwards. Much of the book is written as if it were an interview with both Bill Fornes and his wife.

Fornes was not just any POW, or even a typical POW “confessor” regarding use of biological weapons. Fornes was a very public figure in POW politics. He retired from the military in April 1974. Afterward he became an official with the American Ex-POWs organization (AXPOW). Bill and his wife “worked tirelessly to raise funds, maintain detailed records and gain support” for a National Prisoner of War Museum, according to a 1988 book on American ex-prisoners of war (pg. 76). AXPOW played a pivotal role in both the fundraising and design of the museum, which finally opened in Andersonville, Georgia in 1998.

When the museum debuted, Fornes was invited on C-SPAN to discuss his work on the project, and was asked about his Korean War experiences, about which more below.

Mr. Fornes died on March 21, 2009 in Valdosta, Georgia, apparently after a “lengthy illness.” He was 80 years old. His wife Nancy died in 2021.

Fornes’ Germ Warfare Confession

Fornes’ story is unique because one can compare the account he provided to Chinese interrogators after his capture to those he provided later in his life, both in his autobiography and to C-SPAN nearly fifty years later. The Korean War-era and later narratives are very much at odds, though, as we shall see, some of the details within each still overlap in certain interesting ways.

Photo of Bill Fornes as a POW, from Dec. 1, 1953 Supplement to People’s China, p. 32

In his August 27, 1952 deposition, published by China as a supplement to its December 1, 1953 issue of People’s China (see pgs. 32–34), Fornes, who was then all of 23 years old, confessed to participation in a large-scale biological warfare campaign waged by the U.S. Air Force and Marines from January 1952 onwards.

Facsimile of page from Fornes’ confession to Chinese interrogators, screenshot, People’s China, December 1, 1953, p. 33. This portion concentrated on the destruction he witnessed in Pyongyang.

Fornes wrote:

I left San Francisco on January 25, 1952 aboard a troop transport and arrived in Yokohama, Japan on or about February 8, 1952 where I was later assigned to the 136th Fighter-Bomber Wing whose number has now been changed to the 58th Fighter-Bomber Wing.

I was shot down on my 50th mission on August 6, 1952. I have participated in germ bomb missions five times….

My fifth germ mission was on Aug. 6, 1952. The mission was briefed to destroy some rail bridges across the Chong-chong-gang river North of Huichon. There were 6 flights on the mission of which “E” flight was composed of Lt. Salisbury the flight leader, myself his wingman, Capt. Chauret the No. 3 man and Lt. Hart the No. 4 man. The bomb load of my flight was one-500 lb. germ bomb and one 500 lb. general purpose bomb on each aircraft. The course to the target was by the radio station MR, located at Chorwon, and from there directly to the target….

Immediately upon leaving the target the flight was jumped by MIGs [Soviet-built fighter jets], and I was shot down.

At the close of his deposition, or “confession,” then-1st Lieutenant Fornes described his experience coming face to face with the devastation U.S. bombing had wreaked upon North Korea.

After my capture I began to see the destruction which I had taken part in bringing upon a peaceful people. I saw only one city, Pyongyang, but my heart sank when I saw it. There a city lay in complete ruin, from factories to hospitals, from private homes, to churches, nothing was spared. I saw men, women, and children who suffered alike in the destruction. I was ashamed, I felt humble when I saw this. I began to think and realize what I had done to the Chinese and Korean people. Willingly and sincerely I exposed the crimes which I had committed and repent for each and every one of them.

“All that junk about germ warfare”

So it was with some fascination that I sat down to read Fornes’ later account of his capture, his confession, and its aftermath. I fully expected to hear him claim that his confession was coerced, and supposedly false in regards to use of biological weapons. That was, after all, what the other two dozen or so confessors had told military and intelligence interrogators under threats of prosecution for treason after they returned from captivity at the end of the war.

But that’s not what Fornes said. He denied he’d made any confession at all! Even more, in his book, Walking Through the Spider’s Web, he never even referred to the fact that such a confession existed or was published by China state authorities.

According to Fornes’ account, he was told to confess to the participation in the BW raids. But first, he was asked to provide details on the F-84 jet fighter-bomber he flew, and the names of others in his squadron. Hungry and thirsty, Fornes said he decided to “cooperate.” Then he made up the names of his squadron personnel.

“I wrote any name I could think of — movie stars, grade school classmates and other names that meant nothing,” Fornes wrote. He also lied about the capabilities of the F-84. But the Chinese interrogators saw through him.

I became angry with myself when he accused me of being a warmonger and he said that I would have to cooperate and confess to carrying out germ warfare aginst the Korean people before I could become a POW. That was the very reason that I held out as long as I could in giving him any information at all. Now, I knew that I would have been better off if I had not given him anything because he knew now that I had lied to him about the people in my squadron and about the airplane. He said, “If you would lie about these things, you would lie about germ warfare.”

I wasn’t just a little angry, I was mad as hell because I knew that all that junk about germ warfare was just that — a bunch of junk that he was making up. I lost my temper and called him a son-of-a-bitch. When I did, he backhanded me and knocked me down. Then he left. [Spider’s Web, pg. 55–6]

The Korean War armistice took place on July 27, 1953. (Fornes dated it as July 25 in his book.) For Fornes and fellow prisoner Howard Hitchens [1], this was a low point in his captivity, he wrote. He described his situation, and made here the specific claim that he and Hitchens “had never confessed to germ warfare.”

We worried because we had been classifed as war criminals by the Chinese. We were also charged with carrying out germ warfare and because we had never confessed to germ warfare, they had never considered us as POWs and they told us that. We were told over and over that the only way we could be considered to be POWs would be to confess our crimes of carrying out germ warfare. To do that, in my opinion, would be like putting a rope around our own necks. I was not about to do that. [Spider’s Web, pg. 67]

Despite fears he would not be released, both he and Hitchens were released with other prisoners in September 1953.

Fornes interviewed on C-SPAN

Fornes’ book was published in 2001. It’s unlikely it was seen by many. It never seems to have been reviewed. But a few years earlier, on May 10, 1998, Fornes’ was asked about his Korean War experiences by an interviewer at C-SPAN. As explained earlier, Fornes’ was appearing on the program to discuss his role in the work to open a National Prisoners of War Museum.

The full C-SPAN interview is linked here, but a smaller clip with just the relevant section where Fornes discusses his Korean War experience can be viewed at this link.

Fornes’ narrative on C-SPAN drew heavily from his narrative from Spider’s Web:

I was a POW for 13 months, ten of which was in solitary confinement before, because I was — I was considered a war criminal by the Chinese for having supposedly carried out germ warfare on the Korean and Chinese people. I didn’t know what in the world they were talking about. But after seeing the devastation that had occurred in the country, I could understand they had to blame somebody for all of the disease and lack of food and unsanitary conditions. So they blamed, blamed the pilots for carrying out germ warfare. And I made a terrible mistake by tying to, uh, outwit them by — When they wanted military information, I told them some, well, fabricated lies. They wanted to know who all the people were in my squadron and what the capabilities were of my aircraft. When they withhold food and withhold water, you can, you can last awhile — you can do without food a lot longer than you can do without water. But eventually it gets to the point that, well, you have to do something to survive. When I gave them the list of names of anybody I could think of — John Wayne, Donald Duck — and as far as my aircraft was concerned they could carry a bigger bomb load than a B-29 and was faster than a MIG. But about a week later, the interrogator, who spoke better English than I did, came back with a current roster of my squadron members. And a Dash-1, the operational manual for my aircraft that was more up-to-date than mine was back at home base. We had Koreans working on base, but how do you tell the difference between a South Korean and a North Korean? Their intelligence was fantastic! So he said, ‘If you lied about that, then you’d lie about germ warfare.’ And that’s why I was considered a war criminal and kept in solitary confinement for those ten months.”

While the bare bones of his post-release narrative is consistent, it’s notable that there is no outright denial that the U.S. used germ or bacteriological warfare. Instead of calling the charges “junk,” as he had in his book, Fornes’ states that he believes the BW charges were due to the understandable need to blame someone for “all of the disease and lack of food and unsanitary conditions.”

The emphasis on the suffering of the North Koreans recalls his statement to interrogators of how horrific was the destruction he witnessed in Pyongyang.

There was still no indication from Fornes, a spokesperson for ex-POWs, that he himself had made a signed admission of involvement with the use of biological weapons.

What did happen to Fornes’ confession? Presumably, like the other POWs, Fornes retracted this confession upon his release from captivity, while in control of U.S. military intelligence. In any case, his retraction was not among the handful released to the UN in December 1954, and seems not have been ever publicly released.

Special Treatment

There is one other oddity in Fornes’ story. According to his account in Spider’s Web, after his release he was not subjected to interrogation on board the U.S. Military Sea Transportation Service ship, R. L. Howze, as were most of the prisoners who had confessed to U.S. use of BW.

Fornes maintained that after his release, and a week’s stay in a U.S. Army hospital in Tokyo, he was flown on a C-54 transport plane to Wake Island, Midway, and then on to Trippler Army Hospital in Honolulu. By this account, he stayed three days at Trippler, and then flew on to Travis Air Force Base in Northern California. “All the people on board the plane were ex-POWs and this included one Army nurse,” Fornes wrote (p. 72).

Again, unlike the other repatriated confessing airmen, Fornes stated that “no one had debriefed us at any of the stops so far” (ibid.). As I’ve documented elsewhere, most of the returning airmen were interrogated by military intelligence on the ship back to the States. All of the airmen had been threatened with possible prosecution for treason.

Fornes then stated that back in California, he joined his wife and parents on an auto trip across country to Virginia. I’ve seen no other POW BW confessor where the released man was so free to move about without military or intelligence contact so soon upon release. Of course, Fornes never mentioned retracting any confession, because he never said he made a confession. It seems unlikely he simply forgot all about that. Instead, it appears to be a carefully constructed alternative narrative, whose reasons appear obscure.

It’s also worth recognizing here one reason it was easy for Fornes to deny ever having made a confession was due to the fact the flyers’ confessions were actively suppressed in the United States, and in the West in general. The text of these orphaned documents did not surface for public perusal until the onset of the Internet, and even then, no historian or media outlet has addressed them in their aggregate. The topic remains taboo among both media and academia, unless one follows the orthodoxy of the government’s position, as exemplified by scholar Milton Leitenberg.

Langley Air Force Base, where Fornes said he was interrogated by the FBI. Photo: 1st Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office. (Public Domain)

It was when Fornes was finally back in Virginia that some kind of intelligence processing seems to have taken place. Fornes said he was to report to the Army post at Camp Pickett, where he explained he underwent more medical examinations. Afterwards, he reported to Langley Air Force Base, where after a night in the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters he was interviewed by the FBI.

The first thing they did was to read me my rights, saying that if I wanted, I could have an attorney present. They said, “All we want is to ask you a few questions.” I said, “Well, go ahead and ask. I don’t think I need an attorney because I don't know of anything that I need one for.”

What they were interested in was whether I had participated in any propaganda schemes or if I had confessed to that germ warfare charge that the Chinese charged us with. I said, “Absolutely not.” I guess the interrogation lasted two and a half hours. They didn’t tell me anything. When the interview was over, they just said that I was free to leave….

The FBI really had no reason to charge me with anything. I’m sure their report was eventually turned over to the Air Force, but I was never debriefed nor interviewed by any Air Force personnel. What the FBI did was the closest I came to being debriefed by anyone. [Spider’s Web, pp. 78–9]

If Fornes was never debriefed by anyone, he was the only Air Force POW who confessed to using BW that was not debriefed by Air Force Intelligence. The claim itself seems unbelievable.

It is interesting that Fornes was told from the outset that he could have an attorney present if he wished. This certainly signaled to Fornes that he was in some kind of legal jeopardy, something he certainly seemed to understand (“The FBI really had no reason to charge me with anything.”) One wonders why the FBI would ask him if he had confessed to “that germ warfare charge.” They had evidence, we know now, that he did. Either Fornes lied about what the FBI asked him, or the FBI had no knowledge that Fornes had in fact signed a confession. The latter seems unlikely, but not impossible.

In any case, Fornes’ treatment post-release from captivity was markedly different from that reported on other prisoners (or in books such as Walker Mahurin’s Honest John). Perhaps Bill Fornes was selected out for special handling because he had been singled out for special treatment. There’s no evidence he was, but it is true that he became in later years a spokesperson for ex-POW issues.

In the end, Fornes’ story remains curious, and the reader may wonder why we’ve wandered down such a circuitous path to such an ambivalent conclusion. But if you consider that the BW charges were in fact true, then the journey of Bill Fornes becomes one more example, of the very few we have, of how the men who went through this experience handled their very unique situation over the years. It appears it was difficult to keep a straight story.

In the Shadows

Or perhaps there was something more nefarious going on. In a previous article, I explored the interest the CIA’s behavioral and mind control programs — Bluebird, Artichoke, MKULTRA, MKNAOMI, etc. — had in the POW confessors, and even in the POWs who may or may not have collaborated with the Chinese or North Koreans. Even to this day, the induction of amnesia is a desired outcome of CIA interrogation techniques.

Beyond all this, there is the strange fact, left unmentioned in this article thus far, that Air Force and Marine Corps brass had the BW flyers briefed at some point prior to their missions that they had carte blanche to “confess” anything about their missions to their captors, if necessary. The fact of such an instruction was leaked at the military inquiry into the actions of the most senior of the BW confessors, Marine Corp Colonel Frank Schwable. How this might or might not have played into Fornes’ story is unknown.

A final point: I tried to find out more about Fornes’ neighbor, who interviewed Bill and his wife, and who shaped the narrative we have now. But there was very little I could find out about Glynn F. Ellis, who talked to Fornes “for months over the fence about flying,” and who “eventually got me talking about my experiences as a prisoner of war in Korea and suggested” that Fornes write a book (Spider’s Web, p. 5). Fornes stated it took two years to put the book together.

Ellis seems to have worked for awhile as a history professor at a small Georgia college. But I couldn’t find out more about him, nor an address where I could contact him. Like much in the pursuit of hidden history, some things remain in the shadows.

Endnotes:

  1. U.S. Air Force 1st Lieutenant Howard Hitchens, like Fornes, was only 23 years old. He was a navigator flying in B-26s for the 17th Bomb Wing, 17th Bomb Group, 37th Squadron out of Busan, South Korea. He was shot down and captured on October 29, 1952. His confession was published by China in both book and journal format [pg. 58–60] along with Fornes and seventeen others. Like Fornes, but not necessarily all the confessors, he ended his deposition with a plea for peace: “Since I have been captured I have had time for reflection, and I realize more than ever how horrible germ warfare really is. It should be repulsive to any civilized man. I have been well treated by the Chinese Volunteers — so well that I now have begun to think tkey certainly must want peace. At this time I want nothing but to return home in a peaceful world — and to raise my family without the fear that we will be destroyed by some inhuman means. Yes, I want peace — and I am willing to work for it.” The confession was dated January 16, 1953. Like Fornes, Hitchens provided a number of names of other flyers and various officers. This wasn’t true of all those who confessed. First Lieutenant Robert E. Martin, for instance, studiously avoided providing any actual names, and his deposition ends with observations about problems with morale in his squadron, but no anguished appeal to peace or against BW in general. (See Martin’s confession on pgs. 53–55 of the China Monthly 12/1/53 supplement.)

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