Who is Agent Orange?
Agent Orange is not a code name and it’s not the name of any secret agent either. Agent Orange is a chemical and a rather nasty one at that.
You probably heard about AO being used as a defoliant in South Vietnam. It wasn’t the only chemical sprayed on the country, there was also Agent Pink, Agent Green, Agent Purple, Agent Blue and Agent White. They were given these names due to the colour of the stripe on the 55 gallon drum they were stored in.
Agent Orange was by far the deadliest. It was deadly because of the bi-product of mixing two relatively ‘harmless’ herbicides, (2,4,5–T and 2,4–D), together. That bi-product was called dioxin.
Agent Orange was widely used in Vietnam as a defoliant. Approximately 45 million litres of Agent Orange alone, was sprayed on the jungles and countryside of South Vietnam during Operation Ranch Hand. It was hoped this would eliminate the enemy hiding places and give the allied forces a higher chance of staying alive. (Of course this could be debated as the North Vietnamese forces spent much of their time under ground and so didn’t need the jungles to hide in.)
Agent Orange was also sprayed from trucks and by backpack sprayers in and around camps and bases to clear foliage and give a good line of sight around the camp for security.
I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but those who had to handle the chemical (or were exposed to it), were told it was harmless, consequently protective clothing was not issued or requested. Out on patrol thousands of soldiers were exposed to Agent Orange via the 24 big C-123’s assigned to Operation Ranch Hand. Again, they were told it was harmless and therefore no need to take precautions.
Soldiers walked through contaminated foliage, wore the same contaminated clothes for days and sometimes weeks on end, proceeded to drink water contaminated by the spray, and in some cases also ate fruit picked from sprayed trees. The herbicide was also used on the Vietnamese food crops and along river banks.
Vietnamese families harvested the food and gathered the dead timber for firewood. On occasion areas were burnt off after trees and shrubs had died. The resulting smoke was toxic. In many cases, insecticides were sprayed too, to eliminate mosquitoes and other pests.
Dioxin manifested itself in a number of ways. Most notably through the birth defects and stillborn children born to soldiers who served in Vietnam. The second biggest health problem was cancers of all descriptions.
The sad fact is, that once you have been exposed to dioxin, it lurks in your body, undetected and is passed from serviceman to child to grandchild. It is understandable that a serviceman would put his life on the line for his country. It’s expected of him, but they certainly didn’t expect their service would have such traumatic effect on their wives, children and in many cases, their grandchildren too.
What is even sadder, is that hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians were exposed and had to live with the chemical and are still living with it today. They had no choice.
a little bit of light reading
New Zealand isn’t innocent either. Ivan Watkins Dow in New Plymouth was making 2,4,5–T and 2,4–D in huge quantities and selling it to the United States cheaper than what they could make it for. The States then mixed the two chemicals and shipped it on to Vietnam as Agent Orange.
As a matter of interest Ivan Watkins Dow also manufactured polystyrene (amongst many other horrible products). At the time, one of the major uses for polystyrene was in the production of Napalm. Yep. I kid you not. Dow Chemicals, (IWD’s US parent company in the States), were major producers of Napalm and they made it by mixing 50% petrol with 50% polystyrene. Why? Because the polystyrene made the burning petrol sticky. It was dropped from the air in canisters that exploded on impact with the ground, covering an area of roughly 2500 square yards and it stuck to everything. Including humans. It was equally nasty stuff.
But getting back to Agent Orange, back in New Zealand, farmers were using Agent orange with gay abandon. Between 1962 and 1987 it was made here in New Plymouth. It’s estimated 20 million litres of the chemical was used right across NZ to kill gorse and other unwanted plants on farms and agricultural land. It was cheap and it was effective. But using it had serious consequences.
Fred Wilcox, author of Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam said, “the US government refuses to compensate Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange because to do so would mean admitting that the US committed war crimes in Vietnam.”
In 2004 Prime Minister, Helen Clark, on behalf of the New Zealand government, apologised to the New Zealand Vietnam Veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange or other toxic defoliants. In 2005, the government finally confirmed that it had, in fact, supplied the United States military with Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. You can read then Prime Minister Clark’s apology to veterans on behalf of the NZ Government in the back of my novel The Nam Shadow.
If you would like to learn more about Agent Orange in relation to Vietnam, or about the people who lived in the vicinity of the Ivan Watkins Dow plant in New Plymouth below are two videos.
Both of them are powerful, will open your eyes to some major cover-ups, injustices and corruption. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
Let Us Spray https://youtu.be/9HZOkp2jDwg The New Zealand story (Warning: This story is graphic in parts)
Jungle Rain https://youtu.be/yc3Uhn6m8tw The Vietnam/New Zealand story (Warning: this story is graphic in parts)
Well, that’s all from me. Feel free to leave a comment about anything you’ve read here.