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The Toxic Legacy of the US Military in the Pacific

In 1962, US commanders ordered a Marine named Don Heathcote to spray chemicals in the Okinawan jungle near his base as part of a series of biological warfare tests secretly carried out by the Pentagon during the Cold War.

Years later, Heathcote told a reporter that he did so without safety equipment and that while the herbicide killed the vegetation, it also damaged his health. “They diagnosed me with bronchitis and sinusitis connected to chemical exposure,” Heathcote said. Gerald Mohler, another Marine, was told to camp in the area, and said he later suffered from chronic breathing problems and neurological damage. “Were we Marines used as guinea pigs on Okinawa?” he asked the same reporter. “I think so.”

Jon Mitchell, the investigative reporter for the Okinawa Times who interviewed Heathcote and Mohler, has spent years documenting the Pentagon’s brazen use of the Pacific as a testing site and dumping ground for dangerous weapons. “Wherever the United States military goes, it contaminates and damages the environment and human health,” he told me.

He warns that the proposed US military expansion in the Asia-Pacific—its largest since the Vietnam War—will aggravate an environmental disaster caused by 75 years of American wars and intervention. “The Pacific islands have been militarized since World War II by the American military and are now the edge of the American Empire,” he said. “They suffered in the past and will inevitably suffer in the future.”

Mitchell’s recent book Poisoning the Pacific: The US Military’s Secret Dumping of Plutonium, Chemical Weapons, and Agent Orange, explores this largely unknown legacy. Based on hundreds of declassified US documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with US veterans and whistleblowers, it documents the Pentagon’s use, testing, and storage of chemical, nuclear, and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Pacific and the disastrous impact of its flawed handling and storage of such weapons.

Mitchell is originally from Wales and lives in Yokohama. At a time when think tanks are pressing for increased US military presence in the Pacific, his stories of the damage inflicted on Pacific islanders and US veterans should be required reading for every foreign policy wonk in Washington, D.C.

“For decades, US military operations have been contaminating the Pacific region with toxic substances, including plutonium, dioxin, and VX nerve agent,” Mitchell explains in his introduction. “Hundreds of thousands of service members, their families, and residents have been exposed—but the United States has hidden the damage and refused to help victims.”

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