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.
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
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.