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U.S. Bases in Thailand During the Vietnam War and Agent Orange

Over the years of this writer’s service at the Library of Congress, veterans and their families have sent me questions about maps that show the locations of U.S. forces in Thailand during the Vietnam War. Chief among the reasons that they have sought this information is because some American personnel were exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Thailand. Agent Orange is an herbicide that was used to defoliate the thick jungle in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, such as the Korean Demilitarized Zone. The intended result was to expose enemy forces who relied on the trees for cover. In Thailand, Agent Orange was used to clear the jungle around bases, as a means to enhance security. However, there was a terrible consequence: Exposure to Agent Orange resulted in cancer, birth defects, and other significant ailments. Public outcry and official investigations followed. In response to veterans and their families suffering from the effects of Agent Orange, the U.S. government makes a presumption of exposure for those who served on land in Vietnam for the purpose of filing a claim with the Veterans Administration. But in the case of veterans who served solely in Thailand, the Veterans Administration states: “To receive benefits for diseases associated with herbicide exposure, these Veterans must show on a factual basis that they were exposed to herbicides during their service as shown by evidence of daily work duties, performance evaluation reports, or other credible evidence.” This writer notes that the policy is source of debate, anger, and frustration for some American military veterans and their families. It should also be mentioned that the Veteran’s Administration outlines other situations where veterans may have been exposed to Agent Orange on their website.

Considering the amount of inquiry around this matter, finding official maps that offer highly-detailed depictions of the locations where Americans were based in Thailand and that were made during the Vietnam war has proven elusive, even at the Library of Congress. While trying to locate such materials, this author discovered an interesting map in the Geography and Map Division’s Titled Collection that shows the locations of U.S. military and civilian personnel located in Thailand during 1969. It includes, on its reverse, a map of American installations within the Thai capital of Bangkok. The division also holds a later edition of the map from 1972, which is not shown in this blog. Neither edition of the map appears to be widely distributed in libraries. Although this map does not provide enough detail to clearly illustrate the perimeter of any specific base, it does indicate how massive the American presence was in Thailand and helps to inform the scale of the related problem of Agent Orange exposure.

Another relevant source is a set of maps created by Army Map Service that is titled Thailand 1:50,000, Series L708, Edition-1. The set is held by the Geography and Map Division but does not appear in the library’s online catalog — a not so uncommon reality given the scope of the division’s some 5.5 million items. It has the call number of G8025 s50 .U5. The set, however, has a significant limitation: It was printed in 1960 and thus predates the arrival of most American military personnel to Thailand. While one can see the locations of Thai military facilities, absent are installations and perimeter defenses that may have been added later by American forces. Unlike the 1969 map mentioned above, the set is fairly distributed and is listed in twenty-one libraries, according to Worldcat.org. Information on the sheets is in both English and Thai. Cartographic information for the series was gathered from aerial photography conducted in the 1950s.

Before moving on to the 1969 map and example from the AMS 1:50,000 set, it is necessary to explain that the U.S. government viewed Thailand as a logical staging area for American forces because of its proximity to North and South Vietnam. Thailand also was buffered from the conflict zone by Laos and Cambodia, thereby making it safer for American personnel. With those factors in mind, the two governments reached a so-called gentleman’s agreement that permitted American forces to use Thai bases. A military map made in 1961 of Southeast Asia, which can be seen below, illustrates these points.

The 1969 map that was mentioned in the opening of the blog is titled U.S. Installations and Facilities in Thailand. The 652nd Topographic Engineer Battalion depicted the broad reach of American forces in Thailand, which can be seen below. This second edition was published by USARPAC (United States Army Pacific) on November 1, 1969. It is scaled at 1:1,562,500 and provides coverage for all of Thailand. The mapped data concerning American forces is broken down by color: Red symbols represent U.S Army installations and facilities that numbered 45; the blue U.S. Navy and Coast Guard installations that numbered 18; the green U.S. Air Force installations that numbered 28; and the brown “Joint and Others” locations that numbered 11. The latter group was composed of U.S. government civilian personnel, such as ambassadorial staff, intelligence analysts, contractors, and others. Of all the various branches of service, the USAF was the most active in combat operations. On the bottom of the map is a list of U.S. installations and facilities, broken down by service branch. The list also contains the UTM coordinates of the installations. On the reverse is a map titled U.S. Installations and Facilities, Bangkok, Thailand, 1 November, 1969. It shows that U.S. military and civilian personnel were located, largely, southwest of the Thai Royal Palace. Information is presented in a fashion similar to the front page.

The 652nd Topographic Engineers, U.S. Installations and Facilities in Thailand, 1972. From Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division Titled Collection, Thailand - Military (Subj.).

The 652nd Topographic Engineers, U.S. Installations and Facilities in Thailand, 1969. From Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division Titled Collection, Thailand – Military (Subj.).

From 1961 to 1975, the United States Air Force deployed aircraft throughout Thailand, and these planes were responsible for the majority of USAF air strikes over North Vietnam. The first base of operations for American forces was at Takhli Royal Thai Air force Base, which is located approximately 144 miles northwest of Bangkok. USAF fighter-bombers first arrived in late 1961. The base, predating the arrival of American forces, is depicted on the map Amphoe Ta Klhi, Sheet 5060 I, AMS Series L708, which is shown below. The base is situated in the upper left of the map. Facilities such as the control tower, headquarters, living quarters, and others are indicated, but the official perimeter of the base of is not clearly discernible. Other key bases for USAF operations included Korat, Ubon, U-Tapao, and Don Muang, and Udorn. Agent Orange was employed around many of these airfields and other U.S. installations in Thailand.

Army Map Service, Thailand 1:50,000 Series L708, Amphoe Ta Khli, Sheet 5061 I, 1960. From Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division Set Map Collection. G8025 s50 U5.

This writer hopes that these maps will help shed more light on this understudied facet of the Vietnam War; in addition, and no less important, raise awareness about American service personnel who were exposed to Agent Orange while in Thailand. Some stories about the impact of Agent Orange can be heard firsthand by way of the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project, which contains interviews with Vietnam War veterans.

More information on this topic can be found in a book series titled Veterans and Agent Orange.

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