Question for Smoke Boat Sailors from the Vietnam Era

I don’t often do this, but thought it was worth asking this question for a new follower of the blog.

As a long time Submariner, I am sure that many of the environmental factors we were exposed to have long term effects. You should see my medical history. But I know that the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam created many more issues that any of us could have been aware of at the time.

So here we go… I will collect any inputs and pass them to our shipmate who has asked to remain anonymous for the time being. You can also ask for anonymity since I don’t want you to end up getting a million spam emails as well from lawyers and hacks.

Mister Mac 

Mister Mac,

I recently joined your blog and would appreciate your thoughts about a health issue potentially effecting old diesel boat sailors.

I, as well as several thousand other submariners sailed on at least 46 diesel boats during Westpac trips between the early 60’s and early 70’s.   During much of these trips we’re submerged, snorkeling during nighttime  hours, performing “special operations”.   I did two Westpac trips in 1965 and 1966, including one continuous submerged period of 93 days, because our relief didn’t arrive.  At the time, the normal special operations snorkeling period was about 6 weeks.

List of submarines that served in Vietnam

Last year, I was diagnosed with a rare Leukemia that effects about 500 older people, mainly men, each year and fortunately with a high survival rate. 

After chemo I’m now in remission.  Because of its rarity doctors were interested in my past life to determine, why me.   

I’ve learned my Leukemia is one of 14 determined by the VA that can be caused by Agent Orange exposure.   How much Agent Orange could have been ingested from the air and distilled water consumed by diesel boat sailors while snorkeling?  Who knows, as no public information is available because boat locations are not listed in Deck Logs during special operations.  Apparently, after 50 plus years, these old Westpac operations are still classified. Without locations, the VA cannot determine whether any submarine qualifies or not for inclusion in the Blue Water ship list.   Congress has granted Agent Orange presumed contamination benefits to the Blue Water ships.

I’ve not been involved in any Navy or submarine related activities since I left the Navy in 1967 except for remaining in touch with some of my old shipmates.   My local VA representative has been excellent but all his leads and recommendations have accomplished little.   
I’ve got lots more stuff but I don’t want to beat a dead horse if no one else is interested.  

  • How many of these old guys were exposed to Agent Orange?
  • How many of these old guys have become sick from one of the 14 illnesses on the VA Agent Orange list?  
  • Did they tell their medical provider of potential Agent Orange exposure?
  • Did anyone file a claim with the VA to obtain medical help and care?
  • How many of these old guys would like to know about this issue so they could discuss their medical history with their health care provider, VA, and family?   

So what do you think shipmates? Anyone have any similar stories?

Here is a link to some additional interesting information on Blue Water Navy cases :

25 thoughts on “Question for Smoke Boat Sailors from the Vietnam Era

  1. USS Bream [SS 243] Westpac in 1967. Outboard boat in the picture above in Yokosuka. I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002. It has not spread but I see the Dr. every 6 months. Our county veterans affair officer told me I was eligible for benefits under the Blue Water Navy program. Have submitted paperwork but have not heard back yet. We spent our time in the Hainan Straits off North Vietnam.

    1. Pete,
      You and I have the same problem with the VA. I was diagnosed and treated last year for one of the rare leukemia’s listed, as is you’re prostate cancer, in the 14 illnesses attributed to Agent Orange by the VA. To qualify, you have to demonstrate your boat was inside the 12 nautical mile zone along the coast of Vietnam. The VA looks at the Blue Water ship list to find your boat but no diesel boat will be found. The list is compiled from public available Deck Logs that show very specific locations by date and time. The Navy through its OPNAVINST 3100.7c, instructs ship captains not to list locations in Deck Logs during times of Special Operations. Apparently, we did most of our Westpac long weeks of snorkeling under special operations orders, and have no idea if we were within the presumptive Agent Orange contamination zone. At the end of a Westpac trip the Captain had to submit a classified detailed report but if it still exists is in question.
      Following advise from my VA rep, I took the Agent Orange Registry exam, provided at no cost, whether or not you’re signed up for VA benefits. Great exam, but unclear how it will determine if we were exposed to Agent Orange.
      Are you finding other old shipmates, like you, that have become ill from one of these illnesses?
      Stay safe, John, ex old ETR3 (SS)(DV)

  2. I have a similar story. I was on an SSBN that started making runs out of Guam in (I’m guessing) 1975. During turnover periods, I would snorkel (mask and fins type snorkeling!) in the waters of Guam. In my mid-forties (circa 1995) I developed diabetes. I was immediately insulin dependent. Then in probably 2010 (guessing again but could confirm date if requested) I developed Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL). I have VA healthcare because I have a service-related disability – not related to either of the above conditions. My Oncologist (for the CLL) told me, “SOMETHING has changed your DNA.” I read something about all the “agents” that were stored in Guam. (Evidently they were “staged” there to head to Vietnam). Sounds like “Orange” was just one of many. I heard “purple” was the worst herbicide. And, they had leaks. Heard that a couple of guys – that actually handled them – got disability, never having set foot in Vietnam (horrible cancers or something). I have had a lawyer for years trying to help me wade through the VA disability jungle. He told me about the “blue water ships” but, at that point, couldn’t get the actual ship identifications – doubt my submarine would be among them, anyway. He was in a group that filed a FOIA request to get the specific ships. We did file a claim for my diabetes to be considered service-related (years ago) – but it was denied, of course. Look forward to hearing others’ experiences.

    1. Thanks Chip. I was in and out of Guam from 73-75 on the GW. Same experiences. Also some of the same diagnoses. My story included a run to Thailand in 1975 just before Vietnam fell. Rode AF craft all the way from Guam to Thailand and back to Hawaii. One of the planes was a C130 with a very large tank in the bay. We were the only riders in the back. The guys up front were in very strange uniforms and we weren’t allowed to talk to them. Saigon fell about a month after we left. Always wondered what was in the big tank.

  3. Capt. Harry M. Yockey (USN ret — 31 years of service.) He died of brain cancer in 2004 at the age 73 . I’ve always thought his cancer was caused by asbestos on smokeboats, both at-sea and in drydock for maintenance. (We don’t have cancer deaths in our immediate family.) During the Vietnam War, my brother commanded diesel boat, USS Salmon (SS 573), in WestPac, 1971-1972. Salmon’s mission was to lay mines in enemy waters, gather intelligence. His previous submarines, both in the 1960s: XO, USS Runner; twice an officer, USS Sirago. In 1976, he joined the Tomahawk cruise missile program under RADM Walter Locke. As the prog. mgr., Yockey oversaw the testing, development and successful Tomahawk launches from submerged submarines, and from surface ships. During this time, he was aboard several 688 boats. Do hope that this information is helpful. QUESTION: Does anyone know if cancer stats for submariners have been gathered, submitted to the powers-to-be in Washington, DC?

    1. Nancy,

      From your bio and submarine family background this Agent Orange dilemma could be a challenge, looking for you to help find a solution.
      Several of my old shipmates, some guys on this posting, and myself can’t determine whether we’ve been exposed to Agent Orange during our time in Westpac snorkeling around the coast of Vietnam in the 60’s and early 70’s. We have become ill from one of the 14 illnesses attributed by the VA to Agent Orange contamination. However, we can’t determine if our boats snorkeled within the 12 nautical mile zone to qualify for presumptive exposure. Looking at the Blue Water ship list, you can’t find any diesel boats because Deck Logs, used by the spreadsheet to determine locations are blank because of the special operations rule. Each Captain was required to submit a detailed classified report at trips end, but we have not been able to locate where they went or if they still exist. COMSUBPAC in Pearl Harbor can’t or won’t tell us. FOIA Archives and Navy History don’t have them and Special Operations Command at MacDill AFB, Florida doesn’t have any records older than 1987. They suggest asking the Secretary of Defense Joint Staff.
      Law firms out there don’t seem interested as they are focused on Mesothelioma and representing people that can demonstrate being aboard a Blue Water ship. USSVI expect the VA to handle it when a claim is submitted to them and the VA reviews each claim submitted. So far, I have not heard of anyone receiving a favorable result. At this point, I don’t think the VA has found any submarine location files either.
      I have not seen or heard of any effort by VA to ask submarine veterans about their cancer history.
      Is this a challenge, or what?
      John, ex old ETR3 (SS)(DV)

      1. Thanks so much for more details. Have been thinking of sharing this topic, responses with my late brother’s two sons. Just pondering….

  4. Just pursued the website for the Blue Water Navy for Vietnam Veterans; sent an email asking why there’s no category for submarines among those for surface ships. Also, it’s confusing as to which of the organizations I should join, pay dues.

    1. You can see the latest Blue Water list at and open the BWNA Master Ship List Spreadsheet. You can download it so it will up-date each time it’s opened. No need to be a member.
      Submarines are not on this list because it’s populated using Deck Logs obtained from FOIA archives. Navy did not allow submarines on Special Operations to log locations. If you obtain a boat Deck Log through FOIA it will be blank during the Special Operations portion of their Westpac trip. Even though 46 diesel boats received the VSM and others the AFEM, no public records show they were within the 12 nautical mile area designated as receiving presumptive exposure to Agent Orange.

  5. I got on board the Grayback LPSS574 in SanDiego two months later on our way to Subic our new home port. Qualified on her striking for engineman . Yes we did did some spooky shit with every special force group there is but when we surfaced off the coast of wherever I was on topside sail watch and and we would only surface enough for the sail to stick out of the water. when we looked toward the shore line as for as we could see there was nothing green, it looked like a science fiction movie. Needless to say we couldn’t launch special forces , no where to hide. But I loved every day on that boat! Sad day when they sank her in China sea.

  6. Not in the silent service but I remember watching a video on U tube (I think) that dealt w/ water distillation & agent orange. I think he was a tin can sailor & he did a lot of scientific research on the subject & found that distillation (of the sea water) actually caused the dioxin in the agent orange to
    concentrate. I was on a carrier & remember that the drinking water sometimes had the hint of JP fuel. On a few occasions there was another unfamiliar flavor along w/ the JP fuel taste. I was an aircraft engine mechanic & very well know what JP smells & tastes like but the other flavor was a mystery. After the Navy I went to school w/ an AF guy who flew in those cargo planes that sprayed the defoliant. He said that they mixed it w/ jet fuel to make it disperse better. The Navy not keeping records or keeping them secret has been a problem for a lot of us. Several airmen in our squadron had to go to Da Nang for emergency repairs & there is absolutely no record of that happening & I was one of them. You might spend some time looking for that video, it’s educational. Sorry but I cannot remember the title. Good luck w/ your search.

  7. Checked the website for the Blue Water Navy Veterans of Vietnam War. (must pay yearly dues $25) Sent an email to the head honcho asking why there was no category for Submarines. (there is a category for surface ships of several kinds.) This is what he emailed back.

    Michael Yates, National Commander. On Tuesday, April 21, 2020, 07:48:58 PM EDT, Michael A. Yates wrote:

    Thank you for contacting me. There is a simpler reason we don’t have a section for Submarines, No one has either asked or admitted they were Submariners. I will be more than happy to add a Section for Submariners.
    As far as we are concerned they are Blue Water Navy Veterans and are welcome to join us.

  8. I was a Radioman on a 594 class boat. SSN 621. The radio shack was just forward of the Reactor compartment. The main recalculation fan room and diesel fuel tank with an unknown amount of fuel was the only thing between me and the reactor. As a Radioman I spent much of 1968 and 1969 in that little room. We wore film badges but I have no idea of the qualifications of the people who collected our film badges and “read” them. I had a small “benign” tumor removed from my thyroid gland. If you have heard what might I have to watch our for?

    1. Glad the tumor was benign and hope no complications Shipmate. Most Radio Shack locations on Nuc SSN classes (possibly all – less Boomers that were port side forward of control) were a hold over from the Diesel Boats Port Side Aft of the Control Room. Then most reactor compartments/tunnels were directly aft of the control room/radio room with pretty good shielding in between from what I’ve learned. Ergo I suspect little or no radiation was leaked.
      Re film badges. I believe film badges were collected and read by the Boat’s Corps-man (yes, that’s a political shot); same with dosimeters. I have the highest respect for Submarine Corpsmen.

  9. Served honorably diesel boats and FBM’s for 7 years with 3 years Salmon SS-573 and five patrols Ethan Allen SSBN-608 (B) STS-2 (SS) Mostly training with the Permit for the first subroc’s and used as ASW against the 1st fleet and one unforgettable North Pac to Adak Island for fuel … we were 10 miles off the Russian coast when President Kennedy died and we thought we were going to war, but about your particular health problems very few of us die healthy at an old age. Agent Orange was dropped on Vietnam to deny the Viet Cong a place to hide unless you were snorkeling close to shore I doubt if Agent Orange could cause you any harm. Now drinking coffee with diesel fuel in it might be a claim. I joined the submarine service April 6th 1963 and qualified on the Salmon SS-573 November 63. I was only 19 years old and it was the first time I had coffee. The coffee had rainbows in it from the diesel fuel and that’s the way I learned to drink it. So when I went on the beach I was too young to drink alcohol and I usually would visit a cafe/dinner on Broadway in San Diego, but the coffee tasted horrible without the diesel fuel. True story I stopped drinking coffee for 42 years till it got so cold up here in Northern California, 12 years ago, that I started again. Wish I could help you with your health questions, but I have my own of heart disease and overweight, but at 76 who doesn’t have problems. The VA fixed my eyes for me and they give me meds even though it takes three (3) months to get an appointment I still love my country and my service to the US Navy and I miss all of the great boat sailors that I served with. You just don’t meet those type of men in the civilian world anymore.

    1. BZ, Ray, a “Salmonite,” others for sharing your experiences. As asked earlier, has there been a collection of cancer rates among submariners and, then, given to the powers-to-be in Washington, D.C.?

    2. Ray,
      Your experience on the Salmon looks similar to mine on the Tiru (SS416) in 1965 and 1966. As a non-qual I spent several months as a mess cook learning how to wash dishes, load and operate the GDU, find food supplies tucked around the boat and make coffee. I too had never drank coffee, let alone know how to make it. We had to find and retrieve a large metal can from the foreword engine room (why there?) bilge area, clean and open it without slicing our hand. Complaints stopped when I finished my mess cook duties.

      Mister Macs list of boats shows the Salmon receiving the VSM 6 times and the AFEM twice. If you made a Westpac trip and received the VSM you probably participated in special operations sometime during the trip. If your experience was similar to mine, your boat snorkeled many hours, days and weeks, sucking in lots of air for the engines and your lungs and if the boat was close to the coast, maybe Agent Orange. Boat fresh water was distilled from the surrounding sea water, and that may account for some of the our coffee unique taste. Who knows. Agent Orange was dispersed everywhere between 1962 and 1975.
      Don’t take Agent Orange exposure lightly. Look at the VA’s list of 14 bad news illnesses attributed to Agent Orange.

      The VA provides an Agent Orange Registry Exam for anyone that believes they may have had Agent Orange exposure. I had never seen the VA before but found the doctors and exam at San Francisco VA very well done.

      Old guy, John

  10. I was on the Perch APSS313 home port was Subic Bay PI. Left the Perch to get discharged one week before the crew swap with the Grayback when it relieved the Perch in Sept. 1966.. Doc Bass (E7 Corpman). Doc eventually left the Perch and went to UDT/Seal Team (I do not remember which group). I and Neal Signorelli met with Doc Bass near Vancouver Wa. not long before he died. He said his cancer was caused by agent orange but could have been from ground operations when he was with UDT/Seal team. Said he got rained on several times during night operations inland. He said he always thought it was agent orange. Do not know of any others on the boat that got cancer attributable to agent orange. Gerry Darnell – Beans

  11. Too many San Magoos in Subic after 54 years have slowed down just a couple of my brain cells as I made an error in my previous post. I left the Perch APSS 313 one week before we swapped crews with the Tunny that came to relieve us in Sept 1964 in Subic Bay PI, and not the Grayback. I think the Grayback came after the Tunny.
    Sorry about that – have a good evening to all.

  12. Sc Jackson here. O turned up with cll leukemia about 5 s ago. Went to Ohio st medical and I am now in remission. I was only on nuke boats- 616 and 619,two patrols each.

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