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.