During the Vietnam War, 25,000 barrels of Agent Orange were stored on Okinawa, according to a recently uncovered U.S. army report.1 The barrels, containing over 1.4 million gallons (5.2 million liters) of the toxic defoliant, had been brought to Okinawa from Vietnam before being taken to Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean where the US military incinerated its stocks of Agent Orange in 1977.
The army report is the first time the U.S. military has acknowledged the presence of these poisons on Okinawa – and it contradicts repeated denials from the Pentagon that Agent Orange was ever on the island. At the same time that the document was revealed, a series of photographs was also uncovered apparently showing the 25,000 barrels in storage on Okinawa’s Camp Kinser near Naha City.
The army report, published in 2003, is titled “An Ecological Assessment of Johnston Atoll”. Outlining the military’s efforts to clean up the tiny island that the U.S. used throughout the Cold War to store and dispose of its stockpiles of biochemical weapons, the report states, “In 1972, the U.S. Air Force brought about 25,000 55-gallon (208 liter) drums of the chemical Herbicide Orange (HO) to Johnston Island that originated from Vietnam and was stored on Okinawa.”
In the early 1970s, the U.S. government banned the usage of Agent Orange in Vietnam after scientific studies showed the dioxin-tainted herbicide posed a serious threat to human health.2 Moreover, the time frame stated in the report suggests that the barrels were a part of Operation Red Hat – the military’s 1971 operation to remove from Okinawa its 12,000-ton stores of chemical weapons (including mustard gas, VX and sarin) in preparation for Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese control the following year.3
A previous statement from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2009 stated, “The records pertaining to Operation Red Hat show herbicide agents were stored and then later disposed in Okinawa from August 1969 to March 1972.”4 However, attempts to access the sources the V.A. used to make that statement – including the filing of multiple Freedom of Information Act requests – have been hampered by U.S. authorities.
Lending weight to suspicions that the barrels were shipped as part of Operation Red Hat was the discovery by independent researcher Nao Furugen of a set of photographs in the Prefecture’s archives. The images were taken during a U.S. military public relations event designed to assure the local media that the safety procedures in place for Operation Red Hat were sound. However, in the background of the shots, there is a large stack of barrels. Apparently striped with painted lids, they are consistent with the way in which the U.S. military shipped herbicides during the Vietnam War.
According to documents supplied by veterans involved in the shipment of stocks of Agent Orange to Johnston Island, the barrels arrived in various stages of deterioration. Some accounts show that almost 9000 of the 25,000 barrels developed leaks on Johnston Island – leading to the contamination of large areas of land.5
These accounts have caused alarm on Okinawa where local residents have, for the past 12 months, been urging the authorities to conduct environmental tests within the bases where U.S. veterans allege Agent Orange had been stored. However, both Tokyo and Washington have refused these requests.6
During the past year and a half, dozens of U.S. veterans have spoken out about their spraying, storage and disposal of Agent Orange on Okinawa during the 1960s and ‘70s. At this time, the island was a major staging point for the U.S. war in Vietnam where the American military sprayed millions of liters of Agent Orange poisoning tens of thousands of its own troops and approximately 3 million Vietnamese people.7 Many former service members stationed on Okinawa claim that they are suffering from similar illnesses due to exposure to the herbicide. However the U.S. government is only known to have paid compensation to three of these veterans – including a former soldier who was poisoned whilst handling thousands of barrels of Agent Orange at Naha Port between 1965 and 1967.8
Following the discovery of the army report, ten former service members wrote a letter to the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs demanding a full investigation into the military’s usage of Agent Orange on Okinawa. “We have a strong desire to do the right thing for all of the U.S. veterans who were exposed to herbicides/Dioxin on Okinawa as well as for Okinawa”, states the letter, organized by former Air Force sergeant, Joe Sipala.During the Vietnam War, 50,000 Okinawans were also employed on the island’s U.S. installations and there is increasing evidence to suggest that they – and local residents – have been affected, too.9 However, attempts to organize health surveys have been stymied by the authorities. According to Masami Kawamura, cofounder of Okinawa Outreach, the citizens’ group at the forefront of demands for a full inquest into Agent Orange usage on the island, the Okinawan Prefectural government “claimed that if they ‘investigated blindly’ without identifying locations with ‘high probabilities’ of being contaminated with AO, this could just create rumors harmful to the communities. [We] reminded them that it’s the prefectural government’s responsibility to protect Okinawan people’s life, health and the environment and that the prefectural government has not fulfilled that responsibility.” 10
Sipala, who believes he was exposed to Agent Orange on the island in 1970, and the nine other veterans have offered to travel to Washington to testify before Senators on the issue. The former service members were angered last year when the U.S. government and Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that veterans’ accounts of herbicides on Okinawa were dubious.11
“That is insulting to the credibility and integrity of the men and woman who served honorably, giving up years of our young lives to protect our great country of the United States of America and the island of Okinawa,” says Sipala’s letter.
Sipala said that he hopes the letter will convince the U.S. government to provide compensation to veterans who believe they were exposed to Agent Orange on Okinawa. At the moment, the government provides help to U.S. veterans who were exposed to military herbicides in Vietnam, Thailand and along the demilitarized zone in Korea. But Pentagon denials over the presence of these herbicides on Okinawa have prevented hundreds of these veterans from receiving aid.
John Olin, the Florida-based researcher who discovered the 2003 army report says he will keep investigating the military’s usage of Agent Orange on Okinawa. “Right now we have two governments – Japan and the U.S. – who were actively working together for many decades to lie to their citizens. There is an obvious disinformation campaign on this issue that only makes me want to look closer.”