By Nam Sang-so
With a group of surveyors and soil engineers I participated with the initial topographic survey, soil investigation and establishment of the metes and bounds for a future U.S. Army logistics base in Oegwan, north of Daegu, in 1959.
A tract of gentle hill land of apple and pear orchards was ideally located off Route No. 1 and the Oegwan Railroad Station overlooking sleepy farming villages. There were hundreds of earth mound graves. Deep blue water was flowing silently in the west on the Nakdong River.
A year later, I supervised, under a contract with the U.S. Army Engineers District Far East, the construction of roads, utilities systems, and warehouses at the same site now mysteriously named after Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s fairyland of Alice in Wonderland, Camp Carroll. I’d never heard of a spy-like name like Agent Orange then.
In October 1965 I, as a civilian, arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) for the performance of architectural/engineering services for the Office in Charge of Construction (OICC) of the United States Navy. Supervising some 40 Koreans, Filipinos, and Vietnamese surveyors I visited the Mekong Delta, Qui Nhon and Nah Trang Bases, Bien Hoa and Ankhe Air Bases, Long Binh, Bin Thy, Tuy Hoa and Chulai for hydrographic, topographic and triangulation surveys and field airbase designs. I met heavily-armored Korean army soldiers in their camouflage fatigues, lots of green shrubs stuck on their helmets on the routes in remote Vietnamese farming villages. My throat choked. I was reunited with my cousin, too, who was a major of a Korean army detachment in Vietnam.
The Department of the Defense of the United States issued us a special noncombatant’s certificate in a waterproof plastic card that said in the event we were detained by America’s enemy we are entitled to be given the same treatment and afforded the same privileges of those in the military service with the rank of Chief Petty Officer of the United States Navy.
The OICC suggested that we carry small machine guns or pistols with extra ammunitions in the field. I advised our Korean friends not to carry weapons. The Filipino boys were delighted to strap the machine guns over their shoulders, shoved guns in their waistband and dressed like rebels in the Philippine jungles. I stayed there until October 1968 without knowing the Operation Ranch Hand, the herbicidal warfare of spraying Agent Orange over Vietnamese forest and agricultural land was at its peak.
Agent Orange is the code name of a herbicide and it was so named as the 55-gallon (about 200 liters) drums are striped with orange paint. During the Vietnam War, between 1962 and 1971, it’s been reported that the United States military sprayed 20 million gallons (about 80 million liters) of the chemical herbicides and defoliants over Vietnam covering field sites and jungles I’d been working on.
The operation’s goal was to defoliate forest and rural land, depriving guerrillas from hiding and to stop Vietnamese farmers from supporting the communist warriors in the field. An estimated 10 million hectares of agricultural land was ultimately destroyed, reports show.
Chemically, Agent Orange is a mixture of two phenoxy (C6H5O) herbicides and has been known as the most toxic molecule ever synthesized by man, mostly produced by Dow Chemical Company of Michigan, and Monsanto Company, an agricultural biotechnology corporation of Missouri. The Vietnam Red Cross reported as many as 3 million Vietnamese people have been affected by Agent Orange. At least 150,000 children were born with birth defects.
Some 68,000 Korean Vietnam veterans are being registered as Agent Orange victims at the Office of Patriots and Veterans of Korea. My Vietnam veteran cousin died of cancer years ago at the Korea Veterans Hospital. So far my body doesn’t show signs of cancer or nerve, digestive, skin or respiratory disorders typical of the Agent Orange syndrome.
Yet I feel I should keep my ears and eyes wide open to the ongoing Agent Orange row at Camp Carroll.
The writer is a retired architect-specifications writer, who shuttles back and forth between Seoul and New Jersey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.