“Without Okinawa, we cannot carry on the Vietnam war.”
— Admiral Ulysses Sharp, Commander of U.S. Pacific Forces, December 1965.
During the 1960s and ’70s, the United States military transformed Okinawa into a forward operating base for its war in Vietnam. From mainland American ports, it transported supplies to the island it dubbed its “Keystone of the Pacific” before transferring them into smaller ships for the passage to South East Asia. But there is one vital ingredient of its war machine that the Pentagon denies ever passed through Okinawa — the defoliant, Agent Orange.
Given the fact that the military transported everything else through the island — from tanks and toilet paper to guard dogs and hundreds of thousands of GI’s — such a claim is implausible. Yet as recently as 2004, the US government has asserted that its records “contain no information linking use or storage of Agent Orange or other herbicides in Okinawa.”
Over the past few years, though, the cracks in that denial have started to show. In 2007, it came to light that the Department of Veterans Affairs — the US government body responsible for caring for sick soldiers — awarded compensation to a marine who had developed prostate cancer as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange in the northern jungles of the island. Then in 2009, the same department admitted that “herbicide agents were stored and later disposed in Okinawa” during Operation Red Hat — the 1971 US military project to remove its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons from Okinawa to Johnston Island.
Bolstering these official comments are the firsthand accounts of over twenty US veterans who have come forward to describe their experiences with Agent Orange on Okinawa. Longshoremen, forklift drivers, medics and marines, these former service members paint an alarming picture of the widespread use of the herbicide on ten American military installations stretching from the Yambaru jungles in the north to Naha Port in the south. Not only did these veterans help to unload and store the defoliant, they also sprayed it as a localized herbicide to keep down the vegetation around their bases’ runways and fences. “None of us gave Agent Orange the respect we should have,” says one supply yard worker who regularly used it without masks or gloves. “We didn’t know anything about its risks like we do today.”
Now, many of the US veterans who came into contact with Agent Orange on Okinawa are suffering from serious illnesses that the US government recognizes as the result of exposure to dioxins. In some cases, their sons and daughters were born with deformities consistent with Agent Orange poisoning. Despite this, none of these veterans exposed on Okinawa has been able to receive compensation — due solely to the fact that the Pentagon continues to deny that the defoliant was present on the island.
All of these veterans are painfully aware of the harm that Agent Orange may have caused Okinawan civilians at the time. Some of them express their concern at having bartered the defoliant with local farmers in exchange for food and beer, while others talk of seeing groups of school children walking close to base perimeters soon after spraying. “I wonder whether those kids are alive today,” one of the veterans told me. “Or whether the chemicals I was spraying damaged their health as much as it has mine.”
Agent Orange is far from a historical problem. Today in Vietnam, 50 years after the defoliant was first brought to the country, there are over twenty potential dioxin hotspots on the sites of former US bases where Agent Orange had been stored. Yet the people of Vietnam are better informed than those on Okinawa — the last American forces left Saigon in 1975 so Vietnam has been able to conduct extensive environmental testing on the land where the bases once stood. However, on modern-day Okinawa, the US military continues to occupy approximately 20% of the island — and it has repeatedly refused requests to test the levels of pollution within its bases. Such a stance is particularly worrying given the military’s environmental track record on Okinawa which includes the irradiation of the entire Torishima Island through the use on depleted uranium ordnance in the 1990s and the discovery of lethal concentrations of arsenic and asbestos on land returned to civilian use in 2003.
Any discussion of American bases on Okinawa quickly becomes entangled with wider issues of imperialism, global security and legitimacy. But the question of whether Agent Orange was used on the island ought to transcend partisan maneuvering. The Pentagon’s increasingly unconvincing denials not only prevent veterans from receiving the medical care that they so desperately need, but they also endanger the health of both local Okinawans and American service members currently stationed on the island.
With the potential environmental and human impact so enormous, any delay by the US and Japanese governments to launch a comprehensive investigation into the issue is criminally negligent. It is time to reveal the full extent to which Okinawa has been suffering its own dioxin poisoning over the past 50 years.
Jon Mitchell is a Welsh-born writer based in Yokohama. As a result of his research into Agent Orange on Okinawa in August, 2011, the Japanese government asked the U.S. Department of Defense to reinvestigate the presence of military herbicides on the island.
This essay first appeared in Japanese to coincide with the release of “Living The Silent Spring” — a new documentary detailing the damage military defoliants have caused to the children of both Vietnamese and American soldiers. A trailer for the film can be viewed here: http://cine.co.jp/chinmoku_haru/trailer.html