In September 2011, The Asia-Pacific Journal published my research into the presence of US military defoliants, including Agent Orange, on Okinawa during the 1960s and early ‘70s.1 Drawing on the testimonies of over 20 US veterans who had served on the island at a time when it was a forward staging post for the war in Vietnam, the article catalogued the storage, spraying and burial of these dioxin-tainted chemicals on 14 American installations from the Yambaru jungles in northern Okinawa to Naha Port in the south. Despite this large number of firsthand accounts, however, the Pentagon continues to deny that military defoliants were ever on the island.
Fuelled by the September article – as well as others I have written for The Japan Times and investigations conducted by journalists from the Okinawa Times - Okinawa’s politicians and activists have now demanded that both the Japanese and US governments allay residents’ concerns by coming clean on the usage of Agent Orange on the island.2 This tide of anger culminated on October 28th when Okinawa's governor, Nakaima Hirokazu, met with John V. Roos, the US Ambassador to Tokyo, and requested that he launch an investigation into the issue. Roos reportedly replied that he would do so assiduously.3
With new information regarding the presence of these defoliants on Okinawa emerging rapidly, this article aims to update readers on the most significant developments. First, it looks at the recent statement from a senior US official who claims defoliants were tested on the island between 1960 and 1962. Next, it examines a 1966 Air Force document which seems to debunk contemporary Department of Defense denials that herbicides were ever present on Okinawa. Following this, the article explores new evidence that these defoliants were used post-1972 – specifically on Iejima Island as well as at Camp Foster and MCAS Futenma. Finally, it outlines the press conference I held in Nago City on November 4th where, for the first time, Okinawan residents told the media about their experiences of US defoliant usage on their island.
Tests in the Yambaru jungles: 1960 – 1962
On September 6th, 2011, the Okinawa Times led with a front page story written by the paper’s US correspondent, Heianna Sumiyo. Titled “Defoliants sprayed (on Okinawa), testifies former American high-ranking official”, the article outlined defoliant tests that had been conducted between 1960 and 1962 in jungle near the northern villages of Kunigami-son and Higashi-son.4
According to the veteran, who spoke to Heianna on the condition of anonymity,
“Within 24 hours of the spraying, the leaves had turned brown. By week four, all of the leaves had fallen off. It was confirmed that weekly spraying stopped new buds from developing. I do not recall the specific size of the area sprayed.”
The former service member claimed that the Department of Defense chose Okinawa for these tests primarily for two reasons. Firstly, the effects of the defoliants on the Yambaru jungles would elucidate how they would work in Vietnam since the two environments were very similar. Secondly, since the entire island of Okinawa was under US military control, the Pentagon could bypass the more stringent health & safety standards imposed by civilian authorities elsewhere.
The high-ranking official’s account dovetails with publicly-available records regarding the Pentagon’s defoliant tests at this time. During the early 1960s, the US military was still fine-tuning the technology with which it conducted aerial spray missions over south Vietnam as part of Operation Ranch Hand.5
Some Department of Defense officials were growing impatient with the slow pace of results so they expedited tests elsewhere under the cloak of the highly-secretive Project AGILE.6 Although, some of the documents concerning AGILE show that defoliant experiments took place in Puerto Rico, Thailand and the mainland United States, the details of the other locations remain classified. Attempts to release the remaining files related to Project AGILE under the Freedom of Information Act have thus far been unsuccessful.
Service members stationed on the north of the island at the time in question substantiate the Okinawa Times story. One veteran who was on Okinawa between 1961 and 1962 claims that, during war games in the Yambaru, he witnessed defoliated sectors of jungle. Having bivouacked in these areas, he is now suffering from several diseases that the US government lists as dioxin-related – and he believes were caused by his experiences in the Yambaru. Adding weight to the high-ranking official’s account is the fact that, to date, the only case in which the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has paid compensation for sicknesses contracted from defoliant exposure on Okinawa was to a former Marine Corps truck driver who came into contact with these chemicals between 1961 and 1962 when they were “used in Northern Okinawa for War Games training”.7
Air Force Report on Okinawa and herbicides: 1966
In October 2011, I received a Department of Defense document8 from Paul Sutton, the former Chairperson of the Vietnam Veterans of America Agent Orange/Dioxin Committee. Dated September 8th, 1966, the report detailed an 18-day trip made by civil engineering representatives to the Philippines, Taiwan and Okinawa. While on Okinawa, they visited Naha Air Base, Kadena Air Base, the Headquarters of the US Army and the US Army Medical Laboratory.
According to the report, one of the purposes of the trip was to “review base programs and assist individual bases with establishment of safer and more effective programs” related to “pest control” and “herbicides”.
“Literature on various products was distributed at the conference and all bases visited. This action is designed to keep sections informed on some of the newer chemicals now available for pest and weed control.”
The document also states that “Okinawa certifications are valid until October 1966. Due to language problems, translation will be necessary.”
Before discussing this document, it is important to clarify the US military’s usage of the terms “herbicide” and “defoliant”. According to William Buckingham in his official Air Force history of Operation Ranch Hand, “‘herbicide’ and ‘defoliant’ are used practically interchangeably in discussions about the “Ranch Hand” program.”9 Even today, the Pentagon avoids references to “defoliants” – possibly due to the term’s dioxin-laden connotations. For example, during recent email correspondences I have received from Major Neal Fisher – Deputy Director of Public Affairs for United States Forces Japan – he repeatedly refers to Agent Orange as “Herbicide Orange.”
With this in mind, it seems that the 1966 report directly contradicts current Pentagon denials. In 2004, for example, General Myers stated, “records contain no information linking use or storage of Agent Orange or other herbicides in Okinawa.”10 This 7-year old denial has become the benchmark by which the VA continues to refuse aid to veterans claiming dioxin-exposure on Okinawa.11
The 1966 Air Force report, which specifically refers to herbicides, appears to offer sufficient grounds for former service members to appeal against their denials of recognition and support by the VA. Joe Sipala, the organizer of the Agent Orange Okinawa Facebook campaign to push the Pentagon for transparency on the issue, says
“It really helps veterans. Here is an official Air Force document that clearly mentions herbicides on Okinawa – contrary to what the Department of Defense states about having no records.”
Numerous veterans with whom I am in contact have begun to incorporate the document into their appeals an