Thursday, January 05, 2012

AO on Navy Ships? [Updated and reposted]

 Warning: The following will contain a lot of information that will upset many of you who read it. Be advised. We have researched this quite extensively.

We periodically get claims and queries from folks who served in the Blue Water Navy off Vietnam during the Vietnam War. They claim exposure to tactical herbicides in several ways, the most frequent of which are from leaking barrels stored on a hangar deck, or in some space the crew regularly accessed, and the other route was in cleaning aircraft returned from low level missions over South Vietnam.

These folks actually believe this, and in some cases that belief is driven by a desperation forced upon them by Congressional inaction and DVA anti-Veteran policies. We don’t believe that any one of the folks making these claims are knowingly lying, but instead believe them to be seriously mistaken.

Here are some facts. All herbicides were shipped to Vietnam and turned over to the government of the Republic of Vietnam. The barrels were black and had bands painted around them near their middle or top, that were color coded to match the various rainbow herbicides. They got their common names from those bands. Barrels that were all orange did NOT contain Agent Orange. Black barrels with an orange band painted around the barrel did. Black barrels with a white band painted around them contained Agent White, and so on.

The barrels were shipped on merchant ships under short term contract to the Department of Defense, or on board USNS [US Naval Ships], which are merchant type vessels, usually for one type of cargo or another, contracted long term to the US Navy and some of their crew were Navy personnel. [USNS ships provide a much closer supporting role today than they did during the Vietnam War. Back then all they basically did was haul stuff, usually for the Navy, but sometimes for the Department of Defense, or if it was a smaller vessel it was used for research or spying.] USNS Ships were NOT commissioned Naval Vessels, as the Fleet vessels were. Hence the difference between USS [commissioned] and USNS [not commissioned].

On arrival in Vietnam, the barrels were turned over to the government of the Republic of Vietnam [RVN].

Each spray mission required approval from the RVN government, and requests for such missions went up the military chain of command, across DC to the State Department, back to the US Embassy in Saigon, to the Government of RVN and then back the same path. Approvals sometimes took many months to get back to where they originated. When they did, a requisition had to be made to the RVN government storage facility to get the appropriate barrels of tactical herbicides.

Think about it this way: What would the end use for these barrels be on smaller US Navy vessels? What were the Destroyers and Destroyer Escorts, and Mine Sweepers going to do with barrels of herbicides?

Ask yourself this question: How did Navy ships with herbicides on board take part in the spray process? What was their role?

The answers should be apparent. There was no Navy role in this.

Were there exceptions? It is possible. Anything is possible. But to claim they were carried on Aircraft Carriers and Cruisers and Destroyers, etc. just defies logic. Were there leaking barrels on those ships? Certainly, in all likelihood there were. Were they leaking tactical herbicides? No. Most likely it was light machine oil, dry cleaning fluid, or a chemical like Silvex that was used to clean the intake ports for the water desalinization system, or any of a myriad of other chemicals used in the day-to-day maintenance of US Navy warships. [Silvex is a nasty agent, almost as dirty as the tactical herbicides. But that is a story for another day.] The odds of contamination from barrels on board US Navy ships were astronomically higher for almost anything shipped in a barrel than they were for it to be tactical herbicides.

Let’s talk aircraft contamination. Our brave pilots, and they were extremely brave, would often risk their aircraft and themselves in performing their missions as precisely as possible. Delivering a weapon to the ground from an aircraft flying four or five hundred miles an hour requires a high degree of skill. Sometimes, when flying missions over dense jungle canopy, the pilots would fly so low their planes would come back with green stains on their bellies. That is really close air support. We are sure the grunts on the ground appreciated their efforts.

We have had folks tell us their aircraft came back with orange stains, apparent proof that their aircraft was contaminated by Agent Orange.

The tactical herbicides were colorless for the most part, and were mixed with oil to help the chemicals stick to the vegetation. We don’t know what caused the orange stains on their aircraft, but it wasn’t a tactical herbicide.

First, missions did not go where spraying was being done. There was no desire to draw attention to the spray missions and therefore draw fire from the ground. Enough ground fire occurred that several of the C-123’s were lost to enemy fire. Certainly, if a plane came under fire they would call for help from any available air assets nearby, and unless otherwise engaged, those air assets would respond, and would show up long after the spray aircraft beat a hasty retreat.

If a maintenance crewmember of an aircraft wants to tell us his aircraft came back to the Carrier with green stains on it, we have no problem with that. Orange stains are a different story. Perhaps the plane went too low over an orange grove. Perhaps any number of things happened. But coming back contaminated by tactical herbicides was not one of them. It might have been coolant, or hydraulic fluid, or any number of things -- but not Agent Orange.

In the Brown Water Navy, sometimes the small river vessels would spray directly from a barrel of herbicide on the deck of the patrol boat. There are photos of such on the Internet. But we are talking about Blue Water Navy here, not Brown Water Navy. Army personnel sprayed from helicopters, and from armored personnel carriers, and from trucks and jeeps. So did Naval personnel at the Naval Bases on both sides of the South China Sea. But such spraying was not conducted by fleet elements.

People send us photos of stacks of barrels on board Navy ships. The barrels are not the right color to contain tactical herbicides, nor are they marked correctly for that. Nevertheless, they insist the barrels contained Agent Orange. And they are wrong. We are sorry that we must be the bearer of bad tidings, but in our estimation, presenting a claim based on any of the above scenarios to the DVA would be ludicrous.

If someone has photographs, good quality photographs of barrels of tactical herbicides on board US Navy commissioned Blue Water vessels, send them to us using the “email me” link found near the top of the left column. We will gladly publish them here, and print a correction.

The best plan of action is to keep alive a general claim based on drinking water contamination via runoff as the Australians proved to happen. And join us [VASVW] in advocating for S.1629, the Senate version of the Agent Orange Equity Act, and its House version HR 3612. It is the best chance to gain benefits for Blue Water Sailors that exists today. Those two bills are far superior to the bill in the house, HR 812, which is the same bloated bill Bob Filner ran out two years ago, got plenty of support for, and then refused to take it out of the subcommittee where it was buried.

With bipartisan sponsors, both S.1629 and HR 3612 have a very good chance of passing and are far less expensive than the current House bill HR 812.

S.1629 and HR 3612 call for presumptive eligibility to be applied to crews on ships that were within the 12 mile limit to Vietnamese Territorial Waters. We believe that 90% or more of the ships in the Combat Zone approached the shore close enough to qualify at some point or another on their deployments.

So, join us at the Veterans Association of Sailors of the Vietnam War [VASVW] today and help us with our grassroots campaign to move the Senate Bill forward. Click the word “Join”.


”It is a stain on this nation's honor that the Department of Veterans Affairs has become a deadlier and more difficult adversary to the American veteran than any they have ever faced on a battlefield."-- VNVets

"The concept that Agent Orange, and its effects, stopped dead in its tracks at the shoreline is simply too illogical, and too ludicrous to accept. What does that say about the Obama Administration and his Department of Veterans Affairs?"--VNVets

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." --President Abraham Lincoln

"It follows then as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious."--President George Washington

Copyright © 2005-2011: VNVets Blog -- Now in our Seventh Year of Service to Veterans; All Rights Reserved. Reprinting or copying of the contents of this blog without the express permission of the author is unlawful.


  1. VNVets11:12

    Attn: Robert Crisp

    I received your comment and will not post it. I specifically asked if anyone had any proof that AO was shipped on commissioned US Navy ships they send that proof to me using the "email me" link at the top of the left column on this page.

    Sorry, but I will not fill up the comments page with unproven assertions.

    Send me the proof and the details.


  2. In response to your blog of 4-Oct-2011 in part. Your statement "...missions did not go where spraying was being done..." NOT SO!
    I can recall a time in 1970 when working in the western Que Son mountain range in I Corps, we had just topped a ridge line and were crossing a partially open area by "skirting" the clearing on one side. (rather than didy-bopping up the middle) The area was large enough for us to have 4 of the 6-man team in the open for a brief time. As a Recon team must rely on it's "hearing" as well as other senses,we stopped our advance when the loud drone of a large, slow, low-flying aircraft was passing overhead. We waited until the aircraft was moving away from our position and on our squad leaders signal, arose to only stop dead in our tracks, as a dense mist began to fall all around us. I held out my hand, palm down, and watched as hundreds of pin-head sized droplets formed on my Bush gloves and shirt sleeve. As we all checked each other out we saw we were all covered in this uniformly sized and spaced material. I had no idea what had just happened. We had never to our knowledge been exposed to anything like this before. Our newest team member was all agitated as he told us what he knew of herbicide use in Vietnam, as relayed to him when he was still "state-side". From what I could tell we had just been "defoliated", while on patrol. ie. mission.

  3. Thanks, Dan! Thank you for your service and welcome home!

    Our comment was specifically related to Navy Carrier Aircraft not generally going where spray missions were in operation.

    In terms of being sprayed while on the ground, it did happen all the time. We noted above that the spray missions were often planned many months in advance. Ground operations were often a matter of days in the planning, sometimes, as in a reaction movement, hours or less. So troops on the ground were often directly sprayed.

    Very sorry to hear of your direct spray incident.


  4. Anonymous12:20

    I think this was a very good and informative post. It had always puzzled me how people on DD's and the like could state they carried Agent Orange aboard...I also doubted the claims of Carrier sailors but had to admit they were a bit more plausable. If the bills currently in the works pass; will blue water vets have to prove somehow that their ships were inside the 12 mile limit? Looks like we could have a "in sight of land" rule replacing "boots on the ground". I looks like anyone who recalls being anchored at Danang or other ports had better get a handle on log entries to back it up.

  5. Anonymous12:53

    I was aboard the USS Hull DD945-we did NGFS for months and fired over 30,00 rounds while less than 2 mile from North Viet Nam shore line and the DMZ. Often the wind would carry something from shore and it would get on us. Smelled like herbicide and felt like hair conditioner.
    We also anchored in Da Nang Harbor many times for the night to provide cover for the bases. Within yards of the shoreline.

  6. It is our understanding that Veterans will have to prove exposure by providing dates and times when ships in which they were serving or were embarked went inside territorial waters. Now, the DVA has asked the National Archives and Records ADministration [NARA] to place copies of deck logs from ships that deployed to Vietnam online as quickly as possible.

    The Veteran will need to have a decent chart of the waters off shore and plot those times. That will be the proof required.

    However, the DVA may also ask for proof that the Veteran was on board during those dates and times. We have had to provide a "buddy statement" for similar proof for a shipmate, so it behooves the Veteran to find buddies to do that as well, but you need the deck log information first.

  7. If the Hull was firing off North Vietnam then what you describe was not one of our tactical herbicides. Tactical herbicides were not sprayed in North Vietnam.

    Thank you for your service and welcome home!

  8. Anonymous10:50

    You can bet the DVA will ask for proof that the veteran was on board during those dates and times: a change in the law will not stop them from clutching every straw. Also, don't be surprised if 'buddy statements' draw a response such as "Petty Officer Smiths letter, while respected, is not considered probitive" (That's a quote) Better something from your service record showing you served aboard during the dates shown.

  9. Well, you should explain where that quote comes from. There is a clear precedent ofusing 'buddy statements', and as to our service record, it only shows your duty assignments. Our buddy statement that we gave to a shipmate was to confirm his presence on the dates specific, even though his DD 214 clearly showed that he was assigned to the ship.

    But the trouble you cite is out there and there will be diehards in the DVA who persist in denying benefits even though they are enacted by Congress. Those cases, however, will be minimal, and have to be handled one by one.

    We cannot imagine this happening to many, although to those it happens to the number involved won't matter.

    It is times like these we wish Admiral Zumwalt was still alive.

  10. Anonymous23:41

    The quote comes from the DVA (Regional Office)in their answer to my original claim and, let me add, it was not really a 'letter' it was a court sworn affidavit attested before the clerk of a court in New Mexico. A 'letter' the originator swore to under oath; "...not probitive" The denial was overturned but it is an indicator or what some of the people at an R.O. will do and have done. Please note that this answer was given in spite of the same R.O. telling me TO use such 'buddy letters' prior to the submission of my claim. Different R.O.'s given different results for the same input; I KNOW you're aware of THAT.

  11. You bet. Between R.O.s there is no standardization.