The Background: Okinawa and the Vietnam War
Between 1945 and 1972, Okinawa was governed by the United States and the island served as a prime staging post for wars in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. US troops were trained on Okinawa, supplies passed through its ports and airports, and the CIA ran covert operations from its base at Camp Chinen, Nanjo City. The island was so important to the US military that, in 1965, the top of US Pacific Command, Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, said, “Without Okinawa, we couldn’t continue fighting the Vietnam war.”
Such intense usage of the island impacted those who lived there in countless ways. The environment was damaged by live-fire exercises, and spills of oil and fuel. Service members were sickened by exposure to toxic substances, including a leak of nerve agent in 1969. Residents were killed in aircraft crashes, hit-and-runs and murders for which the military perpetrators often evaded punishment because they could not be tried in Okinawan courts.
Largely unrecognized until now, though, has been the island’s role in the global drugs trade: The Okinawa System.
“The Okinawa System” – US government reports reveal island was key conduit for drug smuggling in early 1970s
Prior to the 1972 Reversion of Okinawa, the island was a major route for heroin smuggling in operations dubbed by US lawmakers “The Okinawa System.” Americans and Okinawans were involved in the trade, and other drugs, such as marijuana and LSD, were also readily available on the island. The revelations are contained in US government reports recently reviewed by The Okinawa Times.
One of the documents, titled “The World Heroin Problem” was based upon a global factfinding tour by members of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs. Published in May 1971, the report explains how US service members and veterans “allied with a few Okinawans” smuggled heroin from Thailand to the United States via Okinawa. The authors called the activities the “most despicable crime of modern times” and denounced the Americans involved in the smuggling as “enemies of the American people.” Attempts to clamp down on the smuggling were hindered by inadequate customs checks at Okinawa’s airports, states the report.
Describing heroin smuggling in South Vietnam, the Committee on Foreign Affairs report states that the drug had been carried on aircraft operated by Air America, the CIA-run airline – but the authors do not mention whether this had occurred on Okinawa, too. At this time, Air America operated a network of freight and passenger services on Okinawa and neighboring islands.
Okinawa features prominently in another report titled "Alleged Drug Abuse in the Armed Services" transcribed from hearings by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Armed Services held in 1970 and 1971. According to testimony given by a head of the Department of Defense task force investigating narcotics, drug abuse on Okinawa was “quite extensive.” The problem first surfaced in the second half of 1968, primarily involving marijuana which had been grown near an unidentified US Marine Corps training area in northern Okinawa and smuggled onto the island from Thailand. Three days prior to a visit by task force members, a box containing more than 100 kg of highly refined marijuana had fallen from an aircraft; meanwhile another 90 kg of the drug had been discovered at a military post office. According to the hearings, from mid-1970 onwards, LSD and heroin also became more prevalent.
“[D]eserters, a.w.o.l.s, et cetera, working as passport civilians,” smuggled the drugs onto Okinawa; the importation was easy due to a lack of customs inspections. The army, for example, only possessed one detection dog team, insufficient to inspect all the airports at Kadena, Futenma, and Naha, post offices and Department of Defense schools.
Although the report primarily focuses on the activities of the military, it also describes Okinawans’ role in the drugs trade: “well organized Ryukyuan smuggling rings” brought heroin, LSD, and marijuana onto the island, and LSD was produced there, too.