On the ground: Heroin smuggling and the coffins of Kadena Air Base

2022年7月23日 18:00

Between 1972 and 1974, US Air Force Staff Sergeant Robert Kirkconnell served at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, processing flight data for the United States Air Force. Sometimes the work entailed assisting the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) to track down illegal activities.

US Air Force Staff Sergeant Robert Kirkconnell at Kadena Air Base in 1972 where he served processing flight data for the United States Air Force (Photo courtesy of Robert Kirkconnell)
US Air Force Staff Sergeant Robert Kirkconnell at Kadena Air Base in 1972 where he served processing flight data for the United States Air Force (Photo courtesy of Robert Kirkconnell)

“I helped the OSI with 30 to 40 investigations into narcotics smuggling via Kadena Air Base. The suspects were active and retired service members trying to transport opium, heroin, and marijuana. During this period, tons of virtually pure heroin arrived at Kadena Air Base on military flights from Thailand and South Vietnam. Some shipments of narcotics stayed on Okinawa and were consumed on the island – but most of the large shipments continued to the United States.”

Kirkconnell recalls how individuals used to carry small amounts of drugs in their military duffel bags whereas larger volumes were smuggled by maintenance crews, hiding them inside the compartments of airplanes.

Kirkconnell says the most disturbing case occurred in December 1972 when he was asked by the OSI to investigate a flight from U-Tapao Air Base, Thailand, which was carrying the remains of GIs accompanied by two American couriers. Upon landing at Kadena Air Base, the aircraft was found to have a maintenance problem – so its onward flight to the United States was delayed for 24 hours. But, as the repairs took place, the couriers abandoned the bodies and departed Okinawa on other flights to the United States.

“My immediate supervisor explained to me why the two men had fled. Customs officials had discovered bags of heroin sewn into the cavities of the corpses,” says Kirkconnell.

His recollections might sound fantastical but US media reports from the era buttress the account. According to a 3 January 1973 article from The New York Times titled, “US Jury Indicts Heroin Suspect,” US government officials described a criminal group who, for eight years, had been smuggling heroin from Southeast Asia stashed in dead GIs’ coffins or sealed into plastic bags sewn into their corpses. According to the article, a superficial search of the airplane at Kadena Air Base had spooked the smugglers and so they had removed the drugs. An article from the same month in TIME magazine titled “Grisly Smuggling,” also detailed how the gang had imported millions of dollars of heroin into the United States hidden inside GI cadavers.

Kirkconnell says what unsettled him more than the gruesome modus operandi was the apparent collusion of the US authorities. After he submitted his paperwork about the December 1972 incident to the OSI, the officer later told him it went missing somewhere between Okinawa and the United States. Likewise, the initial burst of media attention quickly faded because the authorities refused to comment on the matter.

“I suspect the US government, including the US Air Force, did not want this case publicized because it would have revealed a repulsive and outrageous event. An investigation could have revealed criminality in high places of government, and it might have put high ranking dignitaries and politicians out of office and possibly in jail.”

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