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The U.S. Military Sealift Command auxiliary crane ship SS Flickertail State (T-ACS-5) as the ship arrives at Johnston Atoll during Operation Steel Box.

Operation Steel Box, also known as Operation Golden Python, was a 1990 joint U.S.-West German operation which moved 100,000 U.S. chemical weapons from Germany to Johnston Atoll.


At a U.S. Army depot near Clausen, West Germany 100,000 GB and VX filled American chemical munitions were stored.[1] The weapons in this depot were scheduled to be moved due to an agreement between the U.S. and West Germany. The 1986 agreement, between Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl, provided for the removal of 155 mm and 8 inch unitary chemical projectiles.[2]


Operation Steel Box began on July 26, 1990 and ended on September 22, 1990,[3] but the weapons did not reach their final destination until November.[1][4] The move from the storage facility to an intermediate facility at Miesau utilized trucks and trains, civilian contractors, and U.S. and West German military personnel.[2] The weapons were repacked and shipped by truck from their storage facility until they reached the railway in Miesau.[1] The truck transport portion of the mission involved 28 road convoys which delivered the munitions the 30 miles from Clausen to Miesau.[4]

SS Gopher State, one of two ships that carried chemical weapons to Johnston Atoll, pictured here upon arrival at the atoll during Steel Box.

The munitions were carried by special ammunition train from Miesau to the port of Nordenham. The train transport was well publicized and escorted by 80 U.S. and West German military and police vehicles.[1] At the port the munitions were loaded onto two modified ships, the SS Gopher State and the SS Flickertail State,[2] by the Army's Technical Escort Unit.[1] The ships were operated by the U.S. Military Sealift Command,[2] and upon leaving Nordenham they sailed for 46 straight days.[1][2] The ships arrived at Johnston Atoll and on November 18 unloaded the last of their cargo containers.[1]

Reaction and issues

Security and emergency response

Security and emergency response were both concerns during Steel Box. Besides the police and military escort for the trains, the road convoys had restricted airspace overhead.[1] Along the route, emergency response teams were on stand-by.[1] While the ships were inport U.S. Navy EOD Detachments provided underwater hull sweeps to insure limpet mines were not attached to the ships. The 46 day trip at sea was non-stop, with refueling taking place along the route.[2] The ships were also escorted by the U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser USS Bainbridge CGN-25 and USS Truxtun CGN-35.[2] The transport ships avoided the Panama Canal, for security reasons,[1] and took the route around Cape Horn, the tip of South America.[2] There were no reported chemical agent leaks or security breaches during the transport phase of Steel Box.[2]

International reaction

The 1990 shipments of nerve agents from Germany to JACADS caused several South Pacific nations to express unease.[2] At the 1990 South Pacific Forum in Vanuatu, the island nations of the South Pacific indicated that their concern was that the South Pacific would become a toxic waste dumping ground.[5] Other concerns raised included the security of the shipments, which were refueled at sea and escorted by U.S. guided missile destroyers, while they were en route to Johnston Atoll.[2] In Australia, Prime Minister Bob Hawke drew criticism from some of these island nations for his support of the chemical weapons destruction at Johnston Atoll.[6]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Mauroni, Albert J. Chemical Demilitarization: Public Policy Aspects, (Google Books), Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003, p. 126–28, (ISBN 027597796X).
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 Broadus, James M., et al. The Oceans and Environmental Security: Shared U.S. and Russian Perspectives, (Google Books), p. 103, Island Press, 1994, (ISBN 1559632356).
  3. Junker, Detlef, et al. The United States and Germany in the Era of the Cold War, 1945–1990: A Handbook, (Google Books), Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 224, (ISBN 052179112X).
  4. 4.0 4.1 Pike, John E. "Operation Golden Python/Operation Steel Box",, accessed November 11, 2008.
  5. Anderson, Ian. "Protests grow over nerve gas disposal", New Scientist, August 11, 1990, accessed November 11, 2008.
  6. Cooper, Andrew Fenton, et al. Relocating Middle Powers: Australia and Canada in a Changing World Order, (Google Books), UBC Press, 1993, p. 148, (ISBN 0774804505), accessed October 25, 2008.

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