Photo/IllutrationPhotojournalist Goro Nakamura speaks on Oct. 2 in front of a photo of destroyed mangroves he took in southern Vietnam in 1976. The image has been displayed at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. (Akiko Suzuki)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

CA MAU, Vietnam--A 78-year-old Japanese photojournalist who documented the vast and ongoing suffering caused by the use of Agent Orange by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War returned to the jungle here where his life's work began.

What Goro Nakamura saw, now one of the world's largest mangrove wetlands, bore little resemblance to how the area looked 43 years ago, when it was devastated by chemicals sprayed by the U.S. military to remove cover for the opposing side.

The trip to southern Vietnam in October only reinforced his commitment to continue calling for accountability and capturing the scars and aftereffects on younger generations of the years-long operation.

NOT EVEN A BIRD CHIRPING

Nakamura started covering the Vietnam War in 1970. The conflict ended in 1975, and reunification of the country divided for nearly two decades was formally completed in 1976.

That year, he arrived at Ca Mau, the country's southernmost region, having heard about forests dying there and wanting to see it for himself.

It is believed that the U.S. military sprayed more than 70 million liters of Agent Orange between 1961 and 1971 as part of a sweep operation to uncover Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces hiding in the jungle. Ca Mau was one of the targets of the operation.

Nakamura traveled by boat in the waterways of the Cape Ca Mau jungle. What he discovered took his breath away, something he had only heard about until then and was now in front of him.

It was dead silent, with not so much as a bird chirping, he recalled. Nothing but a field of thousands of mangrove trees destroyed by the chemical attacks.

Nakamura was discouraged from getting off the boat by a local person, who said venturing into the area was too dangerous because of heavy contamination.

However, the journalist disembarked and clambered up the embankment. In the middle of the dead trees, he met a 7-year-old boy named Nguyen Van Hung.

"I'm just playing here," the local child, barefooted, said.

Nakamura took photos of the boy, including one of him standing in the middle of the devastated mangrove forest. The image would later grace the cover of a photo book by Nakamura and has become one of the most iconic and compelling images of chemical weapons use during the Vietnam War.

"You can tell chemical agents were used as a weapon just by looking at the photo," Nakamura recalled.

REUNION AND DEATH

Nakamura returned to Ca Mau in 1995 and met Hung, whose appearance had completely changed.

Hung, 26 years old at the time, suffered from cerebral palsy and was unable to stand on his own.

Hung had married and was father to four children, but his wife disappeared and his health deteriorated quickly until he was bedridden.

Nakamura continued visiting Hung and documented these years, capturing many moments, including Hung lying down on a boat and crossing the river to go to a hospital for treatment in 2007.

Hung died the following year from kidney disease. He was 39.

'NO END TO THE SUFFERING'

This past October, a Tokyo-based tour operator conducted a group trip to Vietnam, joined by Nakamura, visiting the locations where he took his photos.

One of the stops was Ca Mau, where Nakamura was reunited with Hung's surviving family members for the first time in five years.

Hung's oldest son, Hao, 25, who was married with two children, welcomed back the old friend from Japan with a smile.

Nakamura saw much of Hung in the young man, who has been engaged in aqua-farming, among other types of work, to support the family since his father's death.

A few years ago, Hao started feeling pain in his right leg. When Nakamura saw him, he was limping slightly, a condition that made it hard for him to work.

He has asked the Vietnamese government to provide him with an allowance for victims of Agent Orange--modest as it is--to help support his family.

Hao sometimes thinks about the final years of his father, saying, "It makes me scared."

The Nam Can district where Nakamura took the iconic image with Hung in 1976 has become a lush mangrove again. But it doesn't shake Nakamura's determination to record the lingering effects of the spraying operation.

"There are many people who fear that their health may decline over time (due to exposure or gene mutations)," Nakamura said. "There is no end to the suffering."

GENE MUTATIONS

These days, the Nam Can district is known as a major crab producing area of Vietnam.

Tu Thai, who works at the Ca Mau and Nam Can branch of government-backed body called the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA), said the Agent Orange dispersed over local mangrove forests has been washed away by currents and rains over the years.

Dioxin, one of the chemical weapon’s contaminants, is no longer detected in water in the area, according to Thai.

Still, it has been well documented that Vietnamese and American soldiers in the area targeted in the attacks have developed cancer and other illnesses. Their children have also developed symptoms believed to be caused by dioxin-induced gene mutations.

In Nam Can, many residents continue to suffer from symptoms believed to be aftereffects of Agent Orange, with one survey showing that there were 1,000 such patients when the local population was about 68,000.

The survey used place of residence and health exams for analysis, as the causal link between Agent Orange and such symptoms remained unclear.

'WHITE POISON’

Nearly half a century has passed since the U.S. military ended its Agent Orange operation, much of which remains shrouded in mystery.

But for the older generation in Nam Can who endured the war, the attack has left an indelible mark.

Vo Thi Be, 80, a resident of Nam Can, vividly remembers the day she saw what locals referred to as "white poison."

"I didn't know what it was," she said, recalling the sight of U.S. aircraft spraying a substance and everything turning white around her.

The chemical was, in fact, transparent, but it appeared white in the sunlight.

Be and her husband, Doan Van Kien, 84, a former soldier, have four children, two of whom have developed intellectual disabilities.

A female resident in her 60s also recalled the chemical attacks, saying: "As soon as the U.S. military aircraft sprayed (Agent Orange), my eyes felt strange. Children started crying. We spent days with plastic bags over our heads. Within about 10 days, all of the mangrove trees along the river died."

A 71-year-old male resident recalled that after the attack he saw, "Bananas on the trees growing bigger than normal, and then the trees died."

It is believed that one of the chemical effects of Agent Orange was spurring the growth of plants.

"I'm worried that the aftereffects may continue in the future and that young generations will keep suffering from related symptoms," Thai of the VAVA said.