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Sep-17-2011 15:58printcomments

US Military Defoliants on Okinawa: Agent Orange

“the use of herbicides was not confined to the jungles. It was widely used to suppress vegetation around the perimeters of military bases and, in many instances, the interiors of those bases.” - Vietnam War journalist, Philip Jones Griffiths

A defoliant spray run is conducted by a UC-123B Provider aircraft as part of Operation Ranch Hand during the Vietnam War. (Photo: USAF)
A defoliant spray run is conducted by a UC-123B Provider aircraft as part of Operation Ranch Hand during the Vietnam War. (Photo: USAF)

(OKINAWA) - On August 19th, 2011, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement in response to recent media coverage about the US military’s use and storage of defoliants (including Agent Orange) on Okinawa during the Vietnam War. MOFA announced that, although it had requested the US Department of Defense to investigate these allegations, Washington had replied that it was unable to find any evidence from the period in question. As a result, Tokyo asked the US government to re-check its records in more detail.1 This was the first time that the Japanese government had asked the US about military defoliants since 2007 - and its refusal to accept the Pentagon’s stock denial was rare. The current announcement arose after two weeks of unprecedented press reports which alleged that these chemicals had been widely used on Okinawa during the 1960s and ‘70s.

With fresh revelations coming to light on a regular basis, this is still a rapidly developing issue. However in this paper, I will attempt to unravel the situation as it currently stands. Starting with a brief overview of the role of Okinawa during the Vietnam War and the military’s use of defoliants during the conflict, I will then explore the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) rulings of 1998 and 2009 that appeared to offer official recognition of the presence of these defoliants on the island. Following this, I will summarize US veterans’ accounts of their experiences handling these defoliants on Okinawa - including their transportation, storage, spraying and burial. In conclusion, I will assess the obstacles that these veterans and Okinawan residents face in winning an admission from the Pentagon - plus possible signs of hope that, while difficult, such an acknowledgement is achievable.

Okinawa and the Vietnam War

After its capture by the US military in June 1945, Okinawa was quickly transformed into a forward base for Operation Olympic, the anticipated Allied invasion of the Japanese mainland. The atomic bombings and Soviet declaration of war on Japan rendered that assault redundant - and as the victors focused their attention on the Tokyo-centered occupation, Okinawa’s significance plummeted. By November 1949, Time Magazine had dubbed it a “forgotten island”, claiming that, “For the past four years, poor, typhoon-swept Okinawa has dangled at what bitter Army men call ‘the logistical end of the line.’"2

This attitude of neglect was reversed by Mao Zedong’s consolidation of Communist rule in China and the outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula in June 1950. The US government - with the encouragement of Emperor Hirohito - now perceived Okinawa’s importance as a strategic buffer against communism in the region. In 1952, the Treaty of San Francisco effectively ended the Allied occupation of mainland Japan, but its Article 3 spelled out the future of Okinawa:

“The United States will have the right to exercise all and any powers of administration, legislation and jurisdiction over the territory and inhabitants of these islands, including their territorial waters.”3

Soon after the treaty was signed, the US military - under the auspices of Ordinance 109 - embarked upon an aggressive campaign of base building across the island, extending earlier base construction. Lending Okinawa the nickname, “The Keystone of the Pacific”, these installations were used throughout the Korean War, but it was during the conflict in Vietnam that they truly came into their own.

In the 1960s, Okinawa became the hub of the entire war in South East Asia. American ships offloaded their cargoes at Okinawa’s ports where, nearby, bases stockpiled materiel - everything from beer and toilet paper to more hazardous items such as mustard and nerve gas (discussed below in Operation Red Hat - the 2009 Fort Harrison VA ruling). From Kadena Air Base, B-52s departed on daily bombing runs to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia - while in Okinawa’s northern Yambaru jungles, mock-Viet Cong villages were constructed and peopled with daily-hired locals for that added dose of reality in war games.

In the span of a little over 15 years, Okinawa had gone from being the “logistical end of the line”, to the linchpin of US strategy in the region - leading Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, Commander of U.S. Pacific forces, to state in 1965, “Without Okinawa we cannot carry on the Vietnam war.”4 Despite this, however, there was one essential component of its war machine that the Pentagon still denies ever passed through Okinawa: military defoliants.

Military Defoliants - A Brief Overview

During the 1930s and ‘40s, the US military pumped millions of dollars into researching a range of defoliants to deprive enemy soldiers and civilians of jungle cover and crops. The findings proved too late to use in World War Two, but from the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, the Department of Defense continued wide-scale tests of these chemicals in forests and farms across the continental United States and Puerto Rico.5

Depending on the balance of chemicals, the military labeled the barrels containing these defoliants with a different colored stripe - giving rise to the names by which they were commonly known - Agents Pink, Green, Purple, White, Blue and Orange. In 1962, the Pentagon officially initiated Operation Ranch Hand - the decade-long spraying of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Between 1962 and 1971, approximately 76 million liters of defoliants were used - of which, roughly 4 million liters were spread by “hand sprayers, spray trucks (Buffalo turbines), helicopters and boats.”6 To those of us whose main image of Agent Orange has been shaped by iconic TV footage of C-123 airplanes trailing clouds of mist, this smaller-scale spraying may come as a surprise.

But as Vietnam War journalist, Philip Jones Griffiths, describes, “the use of herbicides was not confined to the jungles. It was widely used to suppress vegetation around the perimeters of military bases and, in many instances, the interiors of those bases.”7 Fred A. Wilcox makes a similar point when he writes, “base perimeters were routinely sprayed.”8

This localized spraying was conducted by GIs without the protection of even basic safety equipment since it was not until the late 1970s that the general public became aware of the toxicity of the dioxin contained in these defoliants. Throughout the 1960s, the manufacturers, Dow and Monsanto, repeatedly suppressed memos related to the dangers of their products.9 Furthermore in 1969, the US military, despite suspecting the risks as early as 1967, continued to assure its personnel that “(Agent) ORANGE is relatively nontoxic to man or animals. No injuries have been reported to personnel exposed to aircraft spray.”10

By 1971, the barrage of scientific evidence and press reports on the health dangers of these defoliants finally forced the Pentagon to call an end to Operation Ranch Hand. But the remaining defoliant stocks continued to be used to suppress vegetation for many more years. Scientists estimate the total volume of dioxin contained in the defoliants manufactured between 1961 and 1971 to be over 360 kilograms11 - an apocalyptic amount given the fact that its lethal dose is measured in parts per trillion. In Vietnam alone, the Red Cross estimates that “3 million Vietnamese have been affected by Agent Orange, including 150,000 children born with birth defects.”12

Although, the manufacturers of these defoliants have never paid any compensation to the people of Vietnam, in 1984, they settled out of court with exposed US veterans for $180 million.13 The US government currently assumes that any American service member who was stationed in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 was exposed to military defoliants and is eligible for assistance with dioxin-related diseases - including prostate cancer, Hodgkin’s disease and multiple myeloma. The Veterans Affairs Department (VA) maintains an official list of areas where the Pentagon acknowledges its defoliants were used - including Canada, Thailand, the Korean DMZ, Laos, Puerto Rico and over a dozen US states.14

Military Defoliants on Okinawa - the 1998 San Diego VA Ruling

For a fleeting moment in July 2007, it seemed that the Department of Defense was on the verge of adding Okinawa to this list of locations after the Kyodo news agency ran an article titled: “Agent Orange was likely used in Okinawa: U.S. vet board”.15 Journalists had uncovered a 1998 VA ruling from the San Diego Regional Office that awarded compensation to a US veteran who claimed that his prostate cancer was the result of his service on Okinawa from 1961 to 1962.16

The former service member, a driver for the US Marine Corps, “reported that he had been exposed to Agent Orange while in the process of transport, as well as when it was used in Northern Okinawa for War Games training.” The veteran stated that military defoliants were used “particularly near base camp perimeters. Spraying from both truck and back pack were utilized along roadways too.”

In its ruling on the case, the VA stated that: “the veteran was indeed where he said he was, at a time when military build-up from a support standpoint was considerable, doing a job which was entirely consistent with the mixing and other transport of herbicides, and at a time when these were both used and warnings not necessarily given.” It concluded, “Service connection for prostate cancer due to Agent Orange exposure is granted.”

The 1998 ruling broke new ground in three significant ways. For the first time a US government department had awarded compensation to a veteran solely attributable to exposure to defoliants on Okinawa. Due to Okinawa’s role as a hub for GIs transiting to and from Vietnam, the majority of veterans served in both locations - thus muddying the issue of where their exposure had occurred. But in the 1998 ruling, the veteran had never been to Vietnam - thus his dioxin-connected illness could be pinned to Okinawa.

The second significant point is that the ruling appeared to contradict the Pentagon’s official line on the subject. In 2004, General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had issued this response to an enquiry from the House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ Affairs: “records contain no information linking use or storage of Agent Orange or other herbicides in Okinawa.” He further stated, there was “no record of any spills, accidental or otherwise, of Agent Orange. Therefore, there are no recorded occupational exposures of service members in Okinawa to Agent Orange or similar herbicides.”17 After the Kyodo article was published, the Department of Defense reiterated this stance.

Thirdly, the 1998 award opened the floodgates for hundreds of other veterans who long suspected that they, too, had been exposed to these defoliants on Okinawa. Had this ruling been made in a civil courtroom, then it might have set a legal precedent upon which others could have based their own claims. However, the VA does not work that way - a point well illustrated by this 2010 denial of a veteran attempting to support his own application with the 1998 ruling:

“Board decisions are not precedential. 38 C.F.R. § 20.1303. Thus, any reasoning, conclusions, or other findings made in any other Board decision, … has absolutely no relevance to this adjudication and the Veteran's claim will be decided on the basis of the individual facts of the case.”18

Due to this protocol, in the thirteen years since the 1998 award was made, no other veterans have been awarded compensation for their exposure to military defoliants on Okinawa.

Operation Red Hat - the 2009 Fort Harrison VA Ruling

Exacerbating the frustrations of many former service members was a further comment made by the VA Regional Office in Fort Harrison, Montana. In November 2009, it ruled on the claim of a supply clerk who alleged he had been exposed to defoliants while stationed on Okinawa between 1962 and 1964. Although the VA rejected the veteran’s claim, it unwittingly appeared to offer up evidence that directly contradicted the Pentagon’s stance on the issue.

“The records pertaining to Operation Red Hat show herbicide agents were stored and then later disposed in Okinawa from August 1969 to March 1972.” 19 (my italics)

This assertion is entirely consistent with public records regarding the 1971 Operation Red Hat. During the two-phase project, the Army removed its stockpiles of over 12,000 tons of bio-chemical weapons (including nerve and mustard gas) from Okinawa to Johnston Island in the south Pacific.20 It has long been suspected that some military defoliants were included among these shipments - especially since in the same year, the US moved over three-and-a-half million liters of military defoliants from South Vietnam to Johnston.21 Moreover, the statement that herbicides were “disposed in Okinawa” is supported by a veteran’s account regarding the burial of defoliants at three locations on the island during this period (see below: Disposal of defoliants at Camp Hamby, MCAS Futenma and Kadena Air Base).

Coming so soon after the 2007 Kyodo report, this latest  disclosure raised the hopes of many veterans sick from dioxin exposure on Okinawa. Yet the VA - without exception - continued to deny all claims. Previously, many of these former service members had been fearful that going public with their experiences would harm both their reputations and their chances of receiving compensation - but now many realized that they had very little to lose.

Veterans Speak Out

On April 12th, 2011, The Japan Times published my article, based upon the testimonies of three US veterans, titled “Evidence for Agent Orange on Okinawa.”22 James Spencer, a longshoreman, described the unloading of hundreds of barrels of Agent Orange at Naha Port and White Beach. Joe Sipala, an Air Force sergeant stationed at Awase Transmitter Site, explained how he regularly sprayed the defoliant around the base in order to kill weeds. Lamar Threet, a medic on Camp Kue, explained how Agent Orange was used on the installation - including an incident where a service member was drenched in defoliants when a barrel tipped over. Accompanying the article was, for the first time, a photograph of a drum of Agent Orange on Okinawa.

Finish reading this article here: US Military Defoliants on Okinawa: Agent Orange

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Dave September 20, 2011 7:56 am (Pacific time)

I to have had a time with the VA denial process. I worked with seabags from deceased marines during the war shipping them back to the states. Simply denied for lack of evidence but my records show I was there doing what I said. You can continue to deny the facts but I will continue to fight for what I believe to be right.

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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.


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