On Sept. 26, Nago City Council became the first municipality on Okinawa to adopt an official resolution calling for the governments of Japan and the United States to conduct an investigation into the spraying and storage of Agent Orange on the island.
The councilors’ unanimous decision came in the wake of three months of extensive media coverage — including from The Japan Times — alleging the use of the toxic defoliant on more than a dozen bases during the 1960s and ’70s. Citing the potential threats posed to residents’ health and the environment, the resolution called for immediate action under a 1973 Japan-U.S. Joint Committee agreement which states that local authorities “may request the local base commander to make an investigation, the results of which should be made known . . . as promptly as possible.”
The demand is likely to cause consternation in both Tokyo and Washington. Nago is host to Camp Schwab, the U.S. Marine Corps installation on the Henoko Peninsula that the Japanese and American governments are pushing as the relocation site for Futenma Air Station. The issue of what to do about the air base, which at the moment sits in the center of Ginowan city, also on Okinawa, has been a thorn in the side of U.S.-Japanese relations for years.
Nago City Council’s announcement was spurred by the testimony of 59-year-old Scott Parton, a former U.S. Marine stationed on Camp Schwab between 1970 and 1971. Parton’s account came to light when he contacted The Japan Times after reading an article published on the Community Pages in April titled “Evidence for Agent Orange on Okinawa” (Zeit Gist, April 12). Accompanying his initial email was a photograph of a barrel Parton claims had contained defoliants before being used to burn garbage.
In a recent telephone interview, Parton described seeing dozens of barrels of Agent Orange on Camp Schwab. “They were stored in a big galvanized barn that was off-limits to most of us. Some of the barrels were marked with a single orange stripe. Others had a double orange stripe.”
Parton explained how teams of American work crews used the defoliants to clear unwanted vegetation within Camp Schwab — particularly from around a creek.
According to the former marine, the chemicals were sprayed in such large volumes that the health of service members was affected. “The officers’ quarters were located near the creek. Some of them fell ill from the spraying so the commander had to temporarily rehouse them elsewhere.”
Parton also described what happened when he and three fellow marines waded into the creek. “The water rotted the skin right off my feet. Not just me but all four of us had the same problem. We went to the sick bay but the medics told us it was just athlete’s foot. But I knew that wasn’t right. Even today, I still have trouble with my feet.”
Parton’s account is corroborated by a former marine sergeant who recalls seeing defoliated areas within Camp Schwab on a visit to the base in 1972. Since the veteran is currently seeking compensation for his own exposure to Agent Orange on Okinawa, he has asked that his name not be published.
Yoshitami Oshiro, the Nago city councilor who spearheaded the drive to adopt the resolution, says that he and local residents had suspected the use of hazardous chemicals — including defoliants — on the camp long before Parton came forward with his account.
“Many years ago, there was a place on Camp Schwab where garbage was brought from various U.S. bases throughout Okinawa and buried. I was told by a Henoko resident that small barrels containing PCB (a poisonous organic compound) had also been stored there. Mozuku sea weed used to be grown in the waters around the base but it was all wiped out. The fishermen had to abandon the farm.”
Given Camp Schwab’s proximity to the U.S. military’s Northern Training Area (NTA) in the Yambaru jungles roughly 20 km to the north, the use of Agent Orange in Nago is unsurprising. Founded in 1958 — one year before Camp Schwab’s inauguration — the NTA saw particularly heavy use during the 1960s and mid-’70s, when American troops were sent there to prepare them for the conflict in Vietnam. According to one high-ranking U.S. official, the Yambaru jungle also made an ideal testing ground for America’s defoliation program: The climate was similar to Southeast Asia’s, and since the whole of Okinawa was under U.S. military administration at the time, the Pentagon felt it could sidestep any restrictions that applied to chemical testing on civilian land.
The official, whose account made the front-page lead in the Okinawa Times on Sept. 6, claimed the chemicals had been used in the NTA between 1960 and 1962. “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,” he said in an interview with journalist Sumiyo Heianna.
The official stated that the results of these tests helped the U.S. military fine-tune the defoliation techniques that it would later use during the Vietnam War. Between 1962 and 1971, the Pentagon sprayed approximately 76 million liters of defoliants over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in an attempt to deprive the enemy of food and cover. Not only were these chemicals deposited by airplanes; they were also employed by GIs to kill weeds on U.S. installations. Despite learning in 1967 that the manufacturing process of these defoliants tainted them with dioxins, the military continued to use them in ever-larger volumes until it was forced by Congress and public opinion to end the project in 1971.
In Vietnam, the Red Cross estimates that over 3 million people are suffering from exposure to dioxin — resulting in cancers, fetal abnormalities and stillbirths. In the United States, the government recognizes the link between Agent Orange and 14 diseases, and provides compensation to veterans exposed to these chemicals while serving in Vietnam, Thailand and along the Korean Demilitarized Zone. However, since the Pentagon denies that these defoliants were ever present on Okinawa, it consistently refuses aid to veterans who claim exposure on the island.
Parton suffers from liver, prostate and colon problems that he believes are related to his contact with Agent Orange on Camp Schwab. Meanwhile, Oshiro is investigating a possible spike in cancer rates among Okinawans who worked on maintenance crews on the base during the 1960s and ’70s.
Compounding current residents’ worries that the land remains contaminated is Parton’s account of how the military handled defoliants at the time. “In the storage shed, some of the barrels were leaking. So the military had dug a foot-and-a-half-deep (45 cm) ditch around the palettes to catch the spills.”
Dioxins can remain in the soil for decades and former U.S. bases in Vietnam remain heavily poisoned more than 40 years after the defoliants were first brought there.
Furthermore, Parton claims to have seen numerous barrels buried within Camp Schwab. Although the drums were too rusty for him to be able to discern what they contained, such treatment is consistent with how the U.S. military dealt with unwanted Agent Orange at a time when its usage was being curtailed. One veteran — who recently claimed that Agent Orange had been disposed of on installations at Kadena and Futenma, and in the central Okinawa town of Chatan in 1969 — described the burial of defoliants as standard military practice. “They buried those barrels because it cost less than shipping them all back to the States. It was cheaper that way.”
This assertion is supported by a 2009 ruling from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs stating that government records “show herbicide agents were stored and then later disposed in Okinawa from August 1969 to March 1972.”
In spite of this admission from within its own ranks, Washington continues to maintain a policy of denial. When the Japanese government pushed the Pentagon to investigate the claims of U.S. veterans in August, it replied that its records contained no information on the issue.
Requests for comment on the questions raised in this article from Camp Schwab’s commander were referred to the United States Forces Japan headquarters in Tokyo. Asked for its reactions to Nago Council’s resolution and the 1973 Japan-U.S. Joint Committee agreement, USFJ HQ sent the following reply by email: “DOD (the Department of Defense) has searched and found no record of Herbicide Orange being sent to Okinawa, or that the aircraft or ships transporting Herbicide Orange to South Vietnam stopped at Okinawa on their way.”
This cookie-cutter response is a familiar one to Parton and the dozens of other veterans who claim to have been exposed to Agent Orange on Okinawa. “There are a lot of us still suffering,” said Parton, “but all the government does is keep us in limbo with denial after denial.”
However over the coming months — as the proposed relocation of the Futenma base to Camp Schwab comes increasingly under the spotlight — it seems likely that the Pentagon will face mounting pressure to come clean about its alleged use of toxic defoliants on the island.
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