For decades, US military operations have been contaminating the Pacific region with toxic substances, including plutonium, dioxin, and VX nerve agent. 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.
After World War II, the United States granted immunity to Japanese military scientists in exchange for their data on biological weapons tests conducted in China; in the following years, nuclear detonations in the Pacific obliterated entire islands and exposed Americans, Marshallese, Chamorros, and Japanese fishing crews to radioactive fallout. At the same time, the United States experimented with biological weapons on Okinawa and stockpiled the island with nuclear and chemical munitions, causing numerous accidents. Meanwhile, the CIA orchestrated a campaign to introduce nuclear power to Japan—the folly of which became horrifyingly clear in the 2011 meltdowns in Fukushima Prefecture.
Caught in a geopolitical grey zone, US territories have been among the worst affected by military contamination, including Guam, Saipan, and Johnston Island, the final disposal site of apocalyptic volumes of chemical weapons and Agent Orange.
Accompanying this damage, US authorities have waged a campaign of cover-ups, lies, and attacks on the media, which the author has experienced firsthand in the form of military surveillance and attempts by the State Department to impede his work. Now, for the first time, this explosive book reveals the horrific extent of contamination in the Pacific and the lengths the Pentagon will go to conceal it.
JPRI Occasional Paper No. 58
Toxic Territory: U.S. Military Contamination of Guam
by Jon Mitchell
For many Americans, the word colony is anathema. The United States was born out of its revolution against imperialist Britain, and the constitution enshrines the rights to independence, equality, and liberty for all. Few Americans are willing to admit that today, the United States possesses an empire—and perhaps even fewer could list its overseas possessions or how it came to own them.
Following the defeat of Spain in 1898, the United States took over its colonies—the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam—and then a series of Supreme Court rulings known as the Insular Cases established the basis for how these islands would be governed. The judges decided the constitution did not fully apply there, and because they were “inhabited by alien races,” ruling “according to Anglo-Saxon principles may for a time be impossible.” Upon these racist foundations, the United States founded its overseas empire, whereby such residents would be treated as second-class citizens. Accompanying this decision, in the early twentieth century, the United States adopted a semantic sleight of hand to conceal its imperialism—instead of referring to its overseas possessions as colonies, it would use a word free from such negative connotations: territories. 
Today, the United States owns sixteen territories, five of which are inhabited by a combined population of approximately 4 million people. These residents exist in geopolitical limbo, bearing American passports but lacking full constitutional rights. They can elect a member of Congress, but that delegate cannot vote, only make suggestions. Residents of territories have no representative in the Senate and no right to vote in presidential elections, even though, in Guam’s case, they serve and die in the U.S. military at the highest rate per capita. 
Territories’ lack of democratic rights allows the federal government to operate without accountability to residents, a particularly serious abuse when it comes to Department of Defense operations. In Puerto Rico, the military used Vieques Island as a bombing range, contaminating it with dioxin, depleted uranium, and lead; cancer levels there are the highest in the territory, and other serious illnesses are rife. In the Pacific, the Pentagon has taken advantage of geographical isolation and lack of oversight to pollute this region’s territories with zero regard for the environment or human health. The Marshall Islands, a U.S.-administered territory until the late 1970s were pummeled by nuclear detonations and fallout for twelve years; Wake Island, still a territory today, was used as dump for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) brought from U.S. bases in Japan when they had been barred from import to North America, and it continues to serve as a missile test site. Three other Pacific territories—Guam, the Commonwealth of the North Mariana Islands (CNMI), and Johnston Atoll—have been impacted by military contamination, but the U.S. government has either been slow to react or not acted at all. Johnston Atoll has suffered the worst; poisoned with plutonium, Agent Orange, and chemical weapons, today it sits as an abandoned sacrifice zone in the North Pacific, a testimony to military hubris. 
The Mariana islands—today politically divided into Guam and CNMI—were first settled by the Chamorro people in approximately 2000 BCE. A matriarchal society, they lived off farming, fishing, and interisland trade. In 1521, the first European explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, arrived in the Marianas, followed some forty years later by a delegation that declared the islands a colony for Spain, the first of four foreign nations that would lay claim to the region. In the coming years, Chamorros suffered a fate familiar to most indigenous peoples after European encounters—massacres, epidemics, and forced relocation to villages where they could be more tightly controlled; from 200,000 Chamorros at the start of the Spanish rule, the population dropped to 5,000.
After the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States took control of most of Spain’s colonies: Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. Spain sold its other Micronesia possessions—the Northern Marianas, the Marshall Islands, and the Carolinas—to Germany. This set the region on two divergent trajectories in the early twentieth century that would briefly merge in the horror of World War II before separating again.
On Guam, following the U.S. takeover from Spain, residents expected to receive American constitutional rights, but instead martial law was imposed on the island under the administration of the U.S. Navy, which ran it with military discipline, punishing petty infractions and banning the Chamorro language in government offices and schools. Residents’ repeated appeals for citizenship and the ability to vote for president were denied as a potential threat to military dominance. In 1936, the U.S. Navy cited the “racial problems of that locality” to assert that “these people have not yet reached a state of development commensurate with the personal independence, obligations, and responsibilities of United States citizenship.” 
On December 8, 1941, just hours after attacking Pearl Harbor, the Japanese military struck—and soon overran—Guam. Renaming it Omiya Jima, “the Great Shrine Island,” the Japanese military ruled with brutality, locking islanders into prison camps, forcing them to build airfields, and slaughtering them in droves. More than eleven hundred islanders died during the Japanese occupation.
On July 21, 1944, the United States began a 13-day bombardment of Guam, followed by a land battle, which, by its end on August 10, had killed 18,000 Japanese and 1,700 U.S. troops. The Japanese had so strongly indoctrinated its forces not to surrender that the final Japanese soldier, hidden in the island’s jungles, did not give himself up until 1972.
Following the liberation of Guam, residents felt immense gratitude toward U.S. forces—tinged with apprehension, as the military occupied most of the island and developed it into a launchpad for the invasion of Japan. Just as on Okinawa, the military housed residents in internment camps while it seized their land, including some of Guam’s best arable and fishing areas, to build bases. In the north, the military constructed North Field, later called Andersen Air Force Base atop the Northern Guam Lens Aquifer, the island’s main source of fresh water. In the south, the military took over the island’s only deep-water harbor at Apra, building Naval Supply Depot, a refueling facility that, by July 1, 1945, had dispensed more than 1.5 billion liters of oil and fuel for the war effort. At the same time, electricity was largely restricted to military use, a situation that continued into the mid-1950s. 
After the August 1945 surrender of Japan, the military retained approximately 55 percent of the land it had occupied on Guam and began to consolidate its infrastructure, for example, relocating residents of Sumay Village. Apra Harbor was strengthened, and Navy Supply Depot stored material for both the U.S. Navy and Air Force, while the U.S. Naval Magazine Guam stretched more than sixty-two hundred acres, the “westernmost ammunition supply point on U.S. soil.”
Congressman F. Edward Hebert, who later became the head of the House Armed Services Committee, justified the military’s dominance in the region, stating, “We fought for them, we’ve got them, we should keep them.”  In many ways, postwar Guam resembled Okinawa. One journalist described Guam as a “vast junk yard and a one-time battlefield where the scars of combat still offend the eye everywhere.”  The military dumped hundreds of tons of munitions in the seas throughout the region, while many residents of Guam and other islands relied on collecting scrap metal to earn money; following the war, its sale was the region’s second largest export. 
In addition to contamination from unexploded ordnance (UXO), lead, fuel spills, and solvents, residents had to contend with another hazard brought about by the military: brown tree snakes. Accidentally imported aboard boats and flights from the South Pacific, the snakes proliferated on Guam, today numbering more than 1 million. They have wiped out ten of the island’s twelve native bird species, causing an inverse explosion in the spider population, plus deforestation, as trees, once sown by seed-dispersing birds, can no longer spread. 
The Cold War’s Hot Wars, Contamination, and Nuclear Weapons
In 1950, Congress passed the Organic Act of Guam, making the island an unincorporated territory; however, the military continued to dominate the island, owning approximately half of its land, and the act allowed the United States to use its powers of eminent domain to legally own the properties taken for the Department of Defense. These bases experienced heavy use during the Cold War. Between 1965 and 1973, B-52 bombers from Andersen Air Force Base flew tens of thousands of missions over Southeast Asia. At its peak in 1972, there were 155 B-52s at Andersen Air Force Base, the highest number in history. These aircraft required constant maintenance, including 120 jet engine overhauls a month; the volumes of oils, solvents, and fuels is incalculable, and these substances still contaminate Guam today. 
While the U.S. government claimed its wars in Korea and Vietnam were fought to secure human rights and democracy, on Guam, the rights of residents were trampled beneath military priorities. A naval security clearance was imposed on the region until 1962, restricting civilian visits, including shipping in Apra Harbor; these controls hobbled imports, exports, and economic growth.
In 1961, the United Nations (UN) criticized the United States for failing to compensate residents whose land the military had seized. When Peace Corps legal teams attempted to teach islanders about property rights, they were criticized by the military, and their work was subsequently phased out by President Richard Nixon. 
Beginning with the August 1945 launch of atomic bombers from Tinian Island—today part of CNMI—U.S. nuclear operations have dominated the Micronesia region. For much of the Cold War, Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base was a Strategic Command installations, a key element for waging nuclear war. “Guam’s strategic location was an ideal potential launching site for atomic weapons under military operations in the Far East,” according to the Department of Defense’s official history of the region. 
In 1951, the military first brought nuclear weapons to Guam for possible use in Korea; in the following two decades, at least twelve different nuclear weapons were stored on the island, for example, Regulus cruise missiles armed with two-megaton warheads that could be launched from ships or submarines. Between 1964 and 1981, Apra Harbor was the homeport for attack submarines armed with Polaris nuclear missiles. The military also designed an extensive network of nuclear shelters for its personnel on Guam, including two large bunkers built in expanded Japanese World War II shelters on the navy base. 
U.S. military operations have contaminated Guam with radiation in numerous ways. Following the 1946 CROSSROAD Able and Baker tests, approximately eighteen vessels from the guinea pig fleet were brought to Guam for attempted decontamination. The work was experimental, unsuccessful, and contaminated the environment; at least one of the vessels was sold for scrap on Guam, potentially spreading radiation to its new owners. Recognizing the dangers of such work, today, the military personnel who took part in decontamination attempts on Guam are eligible for VA support—but no such help is available for civilian workers or local communities. 
In November 1952, the United States detonated its first hydrogen bomb, the building-sized IVY Mike, which exploded with a yield of 10.4 megatons, blowing 80 million tons of soil into the atmosphere. On Guam, nineteen hundred kilometers away, U.S. Navy lieutenant Charles Bert Schreiber, an atomic, biological, and chemical warfare defense officer, recorded significant radiation levels on the islands following the blast—but when he reported his findings to the military, he was ordered to remain quiet. 
As a result, the contamination of Guam remained largely unknown for decades; however, following campaigns by veterans and residents, in 2005, a report by the National Research Council concluded, “Guam did receive measurable fallout from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific. Residents of Guam during that period should be eligible for compensation under RECA (Radiation Exposure Compensation Act) in a way similar to that of persons considered downwinders.”  Supporting the decision was a blue-ribbon panel formed by Congress in 2010, which stated the military had “put the population of Guam in harm’s way knowingly and with total disregard for their well-being.”  Despite these findings, as of 2019, residents of Guam had still not been awarded help for their exposure. 
Radioactive contamination from nuclear-powered vessels has also leaked into Guam’s sea. In 1975, coolant water spilled from the submarine tender USS Proteus into Apra Harbor. The leak reportedly caused Geiger counters to spike at 100 millirems per hour, fifty times the safe limits. The USS Houston, the submarine that contaminated Okinawa and Japan, was homeported at Apra Harbor. Between 2006 and 2008, it was on Guam for 366 days, during which it leaked radiation. In 2014, the USS Jefferson City was stranded in Guam for five months following a leak of coolant water in its nuclear propulsion system. The military admitted the coolant contained “trace amounts of radioactivity” but said there was no risk to human health or the environment. 
Today, the United States Air Force (USAF) maintains what it calls a continuous bomber presence on Guam, consisting of B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s, all of which are capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Their presence is no secret. On Guam’s Channel 32 military TV station, one USAF TV spot showed nuclear devices on several air bases with the following commentary:
We serve in the middle of nowhere on the edge of history…. We are not out here babysitting metal, twiddling thumbs, or flying in circles…. We are here to scare the living hell out of our enemies. Scare them with our power, our resolve, our dedication, our vigilance. We will not be the ones to blink. 
Sometimes, however, their presence threatens those on the ground.
In February 2008, a B-2 crashed during takeoff form Andersen Air Force Base. The two pilots safely ejected, and the USAF announced the aircraft had not been carrying nuclear weapons at the time. A subsequent investigation blamed the crash on moisture in the aircraft’s sensors, and it has been dubbed the most expensive aviation accident in the world: an estimated $1.2 billion. Two years later, another B-2 on Guam experienced a major fire, but the USAF downplayed its severity to the public; the truth about the incident, which almost destroyed the aircraft, only emerged the following year. 
Agent Orange and Military Herbicides on Guam
According to the Department of Defense, large volumes of defoliants were brought to Guam. “In 1952, roughly five thousand drums of Herbicide Purple were transported to Guam and stored there in anticipation of use on the Korean Peninsula,” the undersecretary of defense wrote to Senator Lane Evans in 2003.  Consisting of the two herbicides 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4-5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T), Agent Purple was a forerunner to Agent Orange. Approximately 2 million liters were sprayed over Vietnam from 1962 to 1965, and experts believe it was more contaminated with dioxin than defoliants produced in later years.
The Department of Defense claims Guam’s Herbicide Purple stockpile was never used and sent back to the United States; it had also stated it has no records of other defoliants on Guam. However, service members stationed there during the 1960s and 1970s claim large stockpiles of defoliants, including Agent Orange, were stored on Guam, particularly at Andersen Air Force Base. These veterans say they sprayed defoliants along the fuel pipeline that ran from Apra Harbor to the air base, and they also sprayed the runways’ edges to keep them clear of vegetation. 
Edward Jackson, a sergeant with the 43rd Transportation Squadron, assigned to Guam in the early 1970s, recalled, “Andersen Air Force Base had a huge stockpile of Agent Orange and other herbicides. There were many, many thousands of drums. I used to make trips with them to the navy base for shipment by sea.” Jackson remembered dumping military waste, including damaged barrels of defoliants, over cliffs. 
Leroy Foster, a master sergeant in the USAF, described the “vegetation control duties” he performed following assignment to Andersen Air Force Base in 1968. “I mixed diesel fuel with Agent Orange, then I sprayed it by truck all over the base to kill the jungle overgrowth,” he said. “None of the older service members wanted to do the work, so because I was the low man on the totem pole, it was left to me.” Soon after starting this work, Foster suffered serious skin complaints, and in the following years, he fell sick with Parkinson’s and ischemic heart disease. His daughter developed cancer as a teenager, and his grandchild was born with twelve fingers, twelve toes, and a heart murmur. 
In 2015, researchers, including those form the Guam Department of Public Health and Social Services, discovered the communities where deforestation may have been sprayed had suffered high incidences of infant deaths from birth defects.  Although U.S. authorities have repeatedly denied defoliants were sprayed on Guam, the VA has awarded help to at least twelve veterans exposed on the island, one whom was Foster. He died in 2018. 
The similarities to the use of defoliants on Okinawa are appalling—service members sickened following orders but today denied help by their own government. Nonetheless, because Guam is a U.S. territory, the government has had to make perfunctory efforts to respond to public concerns. In 2017, U.S. authorities launched an investigation into U.S. defoliant use on Guam, but it has come under fire. For example, critics grew suspicious when the Department of Defense announced that tests on soil did not contain herbicides but Environmental Protection Agency checks revealed their presence.
Guam senators have backed bills in Congress for the territory’s inclusion on the VA’s list of places where Agent Orange was used. In March 2019, a bill named after Lonnie Kilpatrick, a service member sickened on Guam who died in 2018, aimed to extend compensation to fifty-two thousand veterans exposed to defoliants in three U.S. territories—Guam, American Samoa, and Johnston Atoll—between 1962 and 1980. 
The Toxic Tip of the Spear
For decades following the end of World War II, the military on Guam disposed of its waste without any understanding or concern about its harmful effects on the environment, service members, and residents. Many of its worst practices took place atop the island’s drinking water aquifer at Andersen Air Force Base.
In 1978, there was the first major revelation about military contamination when the solvent trichloroethylene (TCE) was detected in wells supplying drinking water on the base. One well peaked at 29.9 parts per billion (ppb), whereas the other ten wells were contaminated “on a sporadic basis” above the EPA’s guideline of 5 ppb. No tests had been conducted prior to 1978, so service members must have been consuming tainted water for many years. 
According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), TCE had likely entered the water system via approximately twenty abandoned dump sites at Andersen Air Force Base or through the disposal of hazardous chemicals into its storm drainage system. Following the discovery of the contamination, the military tried to lower TCE levels by diluting the highly contaminated water with water that was less polluted; however, a miscalculation resulted in more than twelve hundred service members and their dependents receiving water that was still severely contaminated. Furthermore, after the initial discovery of TCE contamination in 1978, the base failed to perform regular checks on the wells, and even when it did so, test containers broke on the way to the laboratory, rendering analysis impossible.
In later years, the military and the EPA conducted surveys on Guam to investigate the extent of contamination from other substances, but the military repeatedly attempted to conceal or downplay the damage. For example, in the 1980s, surveys conducted by the U.S. Navy and USAF did not consult the EPA, and the military failed to check diligently for contamination.
Despite these tactics, by the mid-1990s, a clearer picture had begun to emerge of how military operations were impacting Guam’s environment. On the bases, there were 155 suspected contaminated sites, and outside the bases there were forty-seven.  In 1992, Andersen Air Force Base was added to the EPA’s Superfund list. It had almost fifty contaminants of concern, including fuel, PCBs, pesticides, and heavy metals. For decades, hazardous waste had been tipped over cliffs around the perimeter of the facility onto the land or sea below. 
In 1999, approximately thirty-five chemical weapon test kits, containing small volumes of mustard gas agent and phosgene, were unearthed on private land. The discovery sparked another GAO investigation in which residents expressed their dissatisfaction with the way the military handled off-base contamination. Three main concerns were highlighted: an opaque system of how the military added new sites to its list of those to be cleaned up, failure to remediate nonhazardous waste, and the slow pace of funding cleanups.
Accusations that the military was shirking its financial responsibilities arose again in the 2000s, concerning the cleanup of Ordot dump in central Guam. Before and after World War II, the military had used the area to dispose of waste, and then it passed along the site for civilian use. By 1986, the dump was leaching pollutants into a nearby river, leading the federal government to demand its closure. In 2011, the government of Guam finally shut down the dump, capped it, and opened a new site at a cost of more than $160 million, but the military refused to pay for any of the remediation costs. In March 2017, the Guam attorney general took the unprecedented step of suing the U.S. Navy. 
On Guam, the military has caused widespread PCB contamination throughout the island. In 2012, the EPA removed approximately 320 tons of PCB-contaminated soil from a former military pump station at Agana Springs after the Department of Defense refused to take responsibility for the cleanup.  Worse PCB problems have impacted the village of Merizo on the southern shore of Guam, where, in 1944, the Coast Guard began operating a long-range navigation station from the island of Islan Dåno’, known in English as Cocos Island. In 1962, a typhoon wrecked the facility, strewing debris, including transformers filled with PCB-laden oil, across the land and adjacent lagoon. The station closed in 1965, and for decades, contamination seeped from the abandoned transformers, covering a wide area. 
Residents were largely unaware of the problem until 2005, when tests revealed high levels of pollution from PCBs, lead, and cadmium. Moreover, eleven of the twelve most commonly consumed fish also registered PCBs as high as 250 times the recommended levels. In 2006, authorities placed an advisory on Cocos Lagoon, warning people not to eat fish caught there. In 2007, some contaminated soil was removed from the island; however, in the following years, PCB contamination persisted, and, in 2015, a new contaminant was detected: dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). As of 2019, the fishing ban was still in place. 
Research conducted by the University of Hawaii suggested Merizo villagers’ health may have been impacted by the contamination in Cocos Lagoon. The 2011 report revealed that cancer deaths between 1978 and 1997 were almost double those of other villages on the island. The authors concluded that although their investigation “does not conclusively link PCB contamination of Cocos Lagoon to an increase in cancer mortality among the residents of Merizo, the temporal relationship is intriguing and certainly justified public health concerns and the effort to mitigate this environmental hazard.” 
Guam: From Trailer Park to the Center of the Radar Screen
More than twenty-five years after cleanup work began on Andersen Air Force Base, it has still not been completed. As of 2017, there were approximately one hundred contaminated sites, eleven of them off-limits. In 2019, elsewhere on the island, there were twenty-three formerly used defense sites (FUDS) where surveys were taking place to ascertain contamination; almost weekly, UXO continues to be discovered both inside and outside military facilities. 
In 2016, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination was discovered in three water wells at levels as high as 410 parts per trillion (ppt)—the EPA advisory is 70 ppt—forcing their closure. Also at sea, military operations are causing concern, as the navy has doubled the size of its training zone. Whales have started to beach on Guam—a phenomenon almost unheard-of in the past—leading experts to suspect the blame might lie with the navy’s use of sonar near the island. 
Many Guam residents fear that exposure to military contamination during a span of many years has damaged their health. Between 2003 and 2007, rates of mouth, nasopharynx, and liver cancers were higher than in the United States, and the diabetes rate is about five times that of the United States. Worsening the problem is the diet of many residents. With the military dominating the best arable land and shorelines occupied by bases and naval training, disrupting fishing areas, people are almost entirely dependent on imported, often processed, food. 
In the coming years, the military is set to bring more environmental problems to the island. In 2004, the commander of the naval station on Guam, Rear Admiral Arthur J. Johnson, said, “Guam is no longer the trailer park of the Pacific. Guam has emerged from backwater status to the center of the radar screen.”  Johnson was referring to the military’s buildup on Guam and the Mariana region, one of the largest shifts ever attempted by the Department of Defense, involving the expansion of Andersen Air Force Base and U.S. Naval Base, plus the relocation of eight thousand Marines from Okinawa.
In preparation for the buildup, in 2009 the military released an 11,000-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement and gave the public just ninety days to comment on it. For the first time, the report revealed the true extent of the Pentagon’s plans: a live-fire range would be built on the ancient village of Pagat; 22 more wells would be sunk into the aquifer; a further 2,200 acres would be acquired for operations; and there would be an 80,000-person increase in the island’s population, a rise of almost 50 percent. 
Chamorro anger was unprecedented. Ten thousand public comments were lodged criticizing the plans, and the EPA slammed the report as “environmentally unsatisfactory” and gave it the worse grade possible. The agency was particularly concerned by the military’s failure to take into consideration the impact on water supplies and the need for wastewater treatment. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the civic group We Are Guahan sued the Department of Defense concerning its plans to train at Pagat.
As a result of the outrage, the Department of Defense was forced to reassess the buildup. It decided to move forty-eight hundred marines to Guam, with others sent to Australia and Hawaii. The plan to destroy Pagat was also dropped, but in its place a new range would be built on Ritidian Point, a pristine beach and jungle. The shooting range will fire 6.7 million shells a year, threatening the aquifer below with contamination from lead and other heavy metals. Likewise, the core of the buildup remained unchanged, albeit spread out over a longer time frame; the first marines area expected to arrive at their new base in the mid-2020s. The military is keen to emphasize its attempts to mitigate future environmental damage, but residents remember such broken promises in the past, and visiting Okinawan civic groups have made them aware of the United States Marine Corps (USMC) abuses at Tori Shima, Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma, and Camp Kinser.
In an interview in 2019, Senator Therese Terlaje encapsulated the opinion of many Guam residents when she said, “If we can’t trust the DoD to tell the truth about past activities, then it’s difficult for us to trust them now and in the future.”