Agent Orange
and Okinawa:
the story
so far

JON MITCHELL

Special to The Japan Times

© The Japan Times

Five years after The Japan Times first revealed the usage of toxic defoliants on Okinawa, new evidence comes to light.

In April 2011, The Japan Times Community section published the first accounts of U.S. service members who alleged that exposure to Agent Orange on Okinawa sickened themselves and their families. Five years and 30 articles on the issue later, military documents, photographs and testimonies from hundreds of veterans suggest Vietnam War defoliants were stored, sprayed and buried throughout the island.

In 2014, all the key components of Agent Orange were discovered at a former military dumpsite in Okinawa City; last June, nearby water was found to be contaminated with dioxin, the poison that makes defoliants so dangerous, at 21,000 times government safety levels.

Despite this apparently incontrovertible evidence, the Pentagon continues to deny there is any proof defoliants were ever present on Okinawa, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has awarded compensation to only a handful of those claiming exposure on the island.

This week, The Japan Times reveals new evidence of the usage of defoliants on Okinawa: interviews with the veterans who inventoried them; indications that missing supplies of Agent Pink, a defoliant more toxic than Agent Orange, ended up on the island; and the case of a U.S. airman whose death in 2014 suggests dioxin contamination remains a very current danger for Okinawa today.

A picture supplied by Kris Roberts, former maintenance chief at U.S. Marines Air Station Futenma, shows the worksite where he says he unearthed some 100 barrels, some containing Agent Orange, in 1981.

During the Vietnam War, Kadena Air Base was one of the busiest airports on the planet, as an estimated 1 million military flights shuttled troops and supplies to the conflict. Such a massive operation required a well-organized logistical workforce. Two of those involved were Allan Davis and his future wife, Eileen.

Allan was stationed at Kadena, which is situated in present-day Okinawa City, with the 824th Supply Squadron from 1968 to 1971.

“I was responsible for counting and inventorying Agent Orange,” he told The Japan Times. “It came to the ports at Naha and other locations on Okinawa. The barrels had federal stock numbers and were entered into the base computer system.”

Eileen, a U.S. Air Force computer specialist, worked at the base between 1969 and 1971. Her duties included making records of all assets on the installation, including Agent Orange.

“Agent Orange was sprayed as a weedkiller for vegetation control around the perimeter of the military base and I was subject to herbicide exposure,” she said.

Today both husband and wife are sick with illnesses they believe were caused by Agent Orange. Eileen suffered a miscarriage, their surviving son was born with a birth defect and she required a hysterectomy at the age of 25.

Corroborating the couple’s assertions about Agent Orange is a 1971 U.S. Army report about the defoliant that cites a stockpile of herbicides at Kadena Air Base.

Other veterans were exposed there, too. According to VA records, a U.S. Marine truck driver who transported barrels of Agent Orange from Okinawa’s ports for storage at Kadena Air Base between 1967 and ’68 developed prostate cancer as a result of his exposure. The VA awarded him compensation in 2013.

At other Okinawa bases, veterans have won their claims, too — including Kris Roberts, the marine involved in the discovery of a buried cache of barrels believed to have contained Agent Orange on Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in 1981.

However, the Davises are facing an uphill struggle to receive similar assistance because, according to VA regulations, prior decisions do not set a precedent for other cases.

Larry Carlson, one of the hundreds of U.S. veterans claiming exposure to Agent Orange on Okinawa, shows the scars from lung surgery at his home in Florida in 2012. | JON MITCHELL

So just how many veterans have claimed they are sick from Agent Orange exposure on Okinawa? The VA says it doesn’t keep records.

In response to a request under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Bertha Brown, Compensation Service FOIA officer at the Veterans Benefits Administration, stated in May 2015 that the Veterans Benefits Administration “does not track claims for Agent Orange exposure based on Okinawa service.”

But there is one way to get a glimpse of the scale of the issue. The Board of Veterans Appeals maintains a publicly accessible database of rulings. Detailed searches reveal that at least 250 service members have filed claims for compensation for exposure to Agent Orange on Okinawa.

However, these 250 are merely the tip of the iceberg. The database only lists cases that the VA initially rejected but which the veteran then chose to appeal — and where a ruling was reached. Unknown is the number of veterans who applied for help in the first place, those who were immediately awarded benefits, those who chose not to appeal their denials or those who died before they could do so.

Some claims can take up to a decade for a verdict to be reached. This has given rise to a saying among veterans: “The VA will delay and deny until all of us die.”

Ships offload supplies in 1969 during the Vietnam War at Naha Military Port. | COURTESY OF MICHAEL JONES

New information suggests that Agent Orange was not the only — or the worst — defoliant sprayed on Okinawa.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military used at least 12 different types of herbicides in Southeast Asia to kill crops and destroy jungle where enemies could hide. Many of these defoliants were stored in barrels painted with colored stripes that identified their formulae and lent them their nicknames — for example, Agent Orange, the most commonly used defoliant.

Another of these herbicides was Agent Pink. In 2003, the scientific journal Nature estimated that Agent Pink contained dioxin at an average of 65.5 parts per million,  a concentration up to 22 times higher than that of Agent Orange. Researchers also revealed the Pentagon had ordered at least 464,000 liters of Agent Pink but the U.S. Air Force only had records for spraying 50,000 liters; the remainder was missing.

It now appears that some of that Agent Pink found its way to Okinawa.

Between 1975 and ’76, U.S. Marine Daniel Glanz was stationed on Camp Foster, just south of Kadena Air Base. During this time, he witnessed marines and Okinawan base workers spraying herbicides around the barracks.

Glanz also saw the barrel from which they filled their equipment.

“None of us ever exchanged dialogue concerning the presence of the barrel, but the pink band around its middle stood out like a neon sign,” he told The Japan Times. “We understood its purpose but gave little thought as to its potential harm to us.”

Glanz only realized the significance of what he had seen many years later when he heard about Caethe Goetz.

Goetz, whose account was reported by The Japan Times in August 2011, was a marine stationed at Camp Foster at the same time as Glanz. Sprayed with herbicides while walking on the base, she developed multiple myeloma, which her doctors believed was a result of dioxin poisoning. Her children and grandchildren also developed illnesses associated with chemical exposure.

As with so many other veterans, Goetz’s claims were denied by the U.S. government. She continued to campaign for the military to come clean about its usage of defoliants on Okinawa until her death in November 2012.

Some of the 8,700 pages of documents concerning Kadena Air Base obtained under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

Throughout the mid-1970s, Okinawa was inundated with surplus supplies from the war in Vietnam, including herbicides, pesticides and solvents. According to documents released last year under the FOIA, careless storage of these chemicals at Machinato Service Area (today named Camp Kinser), just north of Naha, caused a series of fish kills and widespread contamination from dioxin, the toxic pesticide DDT and carcinogenic PCBs.

In 2015, wildlife trapped near Camp Kinser showed high levels of PCBs and DDT, suggesting the base is still contaminated today.

An 8,700-page cache of military reports also obtained under the FOIA reveal extensive ongoing contamination on Kadena Air Base, too. The documents from the mid-1990s to 2015 were the focus of a two-part investigation in The Japan Times. Part 1 — focusing on PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), asbestos, lead and fuel leaks — was published on April 9; Part 2 — focusing on PCBs and dioxin — ran on April 16.

Alarmingly obvious in these Kadena Air Base reports is the negligence with which the military acted on the installation throughout much of the 20th century. No records had been kept for the disposal of toxic PCBs — and possibly other hazardous substances — in the 1960s and ’70s. Moreover, checks of on-base drinking water supplies were only conducted from one tap once a year until at least 1999.

Children play outside their school at the Kadena Air Base in November near dioxin-contaminated land (foreground) that is off-limits to the public. | JON MITCHELL

Lax safety standards at Kadena Air Base might now be returning to haunt the 20,000 U.S. Air Force members and their families living and working on the installation.

“John loved the air force,” said Jennifer Agger. “He was a true hero and a patriot who gave his life for his country. But he has received no recognition for his sacrifice because the military won't acknowledge the cause of his disease.”

Agger’s husband, John, spent a total of six years on Kadena Air Base, with his final tour ending in 2006. In 2014, at the age of 36, he died of pancreatic cancer.

Since the disease was so unusual for a man of his age, postmortem tests were ordered. They revealed levels of dioxin in his tissue so high, Dr. Greg Nigh noted, that “if found in a food, would be 2-3 times above the acceptable safety limited for consumption.”

The same doctor surmised: “The evidence seems to me very strongly suggestive of a link between John’s pancreatic cancer and his exposure to dioxins.”

Determined to alert current service members stationed at Kadena Air Base of the risks, Jennifer took the postmortem results to her Congress member, who contacted the U.S. Air Force.

“I received essentially a canned statement from the USAF,” she says. “Even after reiterating my concerns, I received a second letter that was word for word the same.”

Such opacity seems sadly all too common. Among the veterans featured in five years of Japan Times coverage of this issue, three — including Goetz — have died waiting for the military to respond to their concerns and those of their  families. Scott Parton, the shirtless marine pictured in the now well-known photograph of a barrel of Agent Orange at Camp Schwab, died in April 2013. Gerald Mohler, a marine exposed to herbicides near Camp Courtney in present-day Uruma city, died in September 2013.

It seems Okinawan residents have also been exposed. In July 1968, 230 Okinawan children swimming at a beach in Gushikawa (also now part of Uruma) suffered chemical burns to their bodies. The shoreline had recently been sprayed with large volumes of Agent Orange to clear vegetation. At Camp Schwab, situated in Nago in the north, high rates of cancers among employees have been attributed to the defoliants they were ordered to spray in the 1960s and ’70s.

Given the persistence of dioxin below ground, it is unsurprising that the number of former military sites where it has been detected is rising: the soccer pitch in Okinawa City where 108 barrels were found, a residential area in Chatan, an old airfield in Yomitan, a shuttered military housing area at Nishi Futenma.

Because the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement does not allow checks within American bases, nobody knows the extent of dioxin contamination on currently operational U.S. installations. Likewise, the Okinawa prefectural authorities and Japanese government have never conducted any epidemiological surveys of local residents or former military employees.

Masami Kawamura, director of the Informed-Public Project, an Okinawa-based organization working on environmental issues, blames this on apathy at both the prefectural and national level. In 2012, prefectural officials indicated they would  consider running health checks if firm evidence of contamination was ever found, she explains, “but even after high levels of dioxin were discovered in Okinawa City, they did nothing. It is as if they don’t want to create extra work for themselves.

“Also, Okinawa Defense Bureau tries to downplay the severity of contamination,” she says. “They take the side of the U.S. government over the side of Okinawan residents. That’s why they hire scientific experts chosen to deny the presence of defoliants.”

Excavation of a former U.S. military dump under a soccer pitch in Okinawa City in January 2014 uncovered 61 barrels, some of which bore markings of Dow Chemical, one of the companies that manufactured Agent Orange and other defoliants. | NAOYA KUWAE

Five years have passed since The Japan Times began uncovering this issue. The investigations first reported here have gone on to top the front pages of Okinawa’s newspapers and nightly news; they have formed the basis of an award-winning TV documentary and an acclaimed Japanese book. Reports have also been picked up by newspapers, radio and TV networks in the U.K., France, Russia, Vietnam, China and Australia.

However, there has been silence from media in the one country whose citizens have seemingly been poisoned in their hundreds, if not thousands: the U.S.

At the same time, the military’s refusal to confront the problem threatens the health of current service members.

“It is shameful that this contamination has been allowed to happen,” says Jennifer Agger. “Our men and women in uniform deserve better. Their families need to be made aware of the risks involved with assignments to Okinawa.”

Jon Mitchell is a Welsh journalist based in Japan. He is the author of “Tsuiseki: Okinawa no Karehazai” (“Chasing Agent Orange on Okinawa”) (Koubunken 2014) and a visiting researcher at the International Peace Research Institute of Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. In 2015 he was awarded the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan Freedom of the Press Award for Lifetime Achievement for his coverage of human rights issues in Okinawa.

Jon Mitchell’s work on U.S. military contamination in Okinawa, in chronological order:


More of Mitchell’s articles about other aspects of Okinawa for The Japan Times:


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