By David Guyatt
For forty years the grisly activities of Japan’s Unit 731 and sister units, remained the best kept secret of World War two. The victorious Allies were desperate to secretly acquire the expertise and know how of the Japanese Biological Warfare research. Comprehensive records of the human experimentation undertaken, were especially sought. Hindered at home by social repulsion to such activities, human experimentation data was viewed as the jewel in the crown.
Scientists and medical experts from Fort Detrick, Maryland – the American top secret BW facility – raced to interview Japanese technicians. Barely one of them stopped to consider the ethical implications. Having assessed the facts, an intelligence cable coldly informed the War Department, Washington DC, that the “foregoing information warrants conclusion that Japanese BW Group, headed by Ishii did violate rules of land warfare.” The message added pragmatically: “this expression of opinion is not a recommendation that group be charged and tried as such.”
None of those implicated in Japanese BW research were ever brought to trial by the Allies.
Rivalling in size Germany’s notorious Auschwitz-Burkenau death camp, Unit 731’s facility was located at, Pingfan, Manchuria. This isolated location was chosen for secrecy and security. Pingfan’s compound was 6 square kilometres in size. It housed administrative buildings, laboratories, workers dormitories, barracks, an autopsy-dissecting building and a special prison to house human test subjects. Three giant furnaces handled “disposal” of human carcasses. Subjects chosen for human testing were humorously referred to as “logs” or “lumber.” A smaller camp at Mukden, Manchuria, housed American, British, Australian and New Zealand POW’s. Here too, hideous experiments were performed in secret.
Ishii Shiro was a brilliant and grandiose Army Microbiologist. Possessing a flamboyant personality, he soon attracted the attention of influential and senior officers, and was assured rapid promotion.
When Shiro wanted a human brain to experiment upon, guards were assigned to acquire the organ. Grabbing a prisoner, the guards held him down, while another cleaved open his skull with an axe. The organ was clumsily removed and rushed to Ishii’s laboratory. The remains of the “sacrificed” prisoner were then “disposed” of in the camp crematorium. Other prisoners could look forward to equally horrific experimentation. Live dissection was common-place.
By 1927 he was closely aligned to ultra-nationalists in the War Ministry and pushing hard for developments in Biological Weapons. Following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Ishii wangled an assignment to the Manchurian colony. He chose Harbin, capital of the Heilongjiang province, to begin his covert work involving human experimentation. Even though a junior officer, Major Ishii was given a large, secret annual budget. His first command was assigned the cover name, the “Togo Unit” and boasted 300 men. This unit rapidly evolved and grew, undergoing a number of “cover” identities along the way.
Constructed by forced labour, his first major BW facility was built at Beiyinhe, some 70km outside Harbin. Known locally as the “Zhong Ma Prison Camp,” the Chinese labour force were required to wear eye-shields, to prevent them from seeing what they were building. Conditions were harsh. At the centre of the compound a large building known as “Zhong Ma Castle” housed prisoners and a human experiment laboratory. Numbering 500-600, the “logs” were a mixed bunch. Ranging from “bandits,” “criminals” through to Orwellian “suspicious persons,” their regime was severe. Shackled hand and foot they were, non-the less, fed well and exercised regularly. Healthy specimens were vital for scientific experimentation.
Ishii and other members of the Togo unit would draw 500 cc of blood from selected prisoners every few days. Once they had grown too weak to be of further use, they were “sacrificed” by lethal injection. Prior to disposal in the Zhong Ma crematorium, it was usual for the cadaver to be dissected. Ishii’s first crude attempts on biological weapons focused on three contagious diseases: anthrax, glanders and plague. Plague infected fleas lured from mice were used to produce a bacterium that was injected in to prisoners. Within ten to twelve days the infected “logs” were writhing with temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius. One prisoner survived in these conditions for nineteen days. All were eventually dissected while alive.
In another experiment two “bandits” were subjected to Phosgene gas, injected in to a brick-lined room. Another was injected with 15 mg of Potassium cyanide. Others burned under 20,000 volts of electricity. Not a fatal dose, they were later disposed of by poison injections. Still others were slowly roasted to death by lower but continuos voltages. All experiments were subject to meticulous record keeping.
The Unit was also keenly interested in “frostbite” experimentation. This was a particularly important project. Frostbite degraded military efficiency during the bitter Manchurian winters. By the time Ishii’s research facility was relocated to the massive Ping Fan complex in 1939, frostbite tests were routine. Echoing similar work by the notorious Nazi, Dr. Josef Mengele, naked prisoners – males and females – were subjected to sub-freezing temperatures. Later they were “defrosted” by a range of experimental techniques. It was usual for these “logs” to have their limbs beaten with sticks until they resounded with a hard, hollow ring – signifying the freezing process was complete.
Other experiments involved “hanging material” (i.e. humans) upside down to determine how long it took for subjects to choke to death. Another involved injecting air into prisoners to test for the onset of embolisms. Almost indescribable was the practise of injecting horse urine into the kidneys of prisoners. A common practise was feeding “logs” with food and drink heavily laced with cholera, heroin and castor oil seeds and other pathogens.
A full and incisive account of the inhumane history of Unit 731, can found in Prof. Sheldon H. Harris’ excellent book “Factories of Death” (Routledge, London 1995).
Lacking any degree of guilt, Ishii produced scientific papers giving the results of these hideous experiments. Circulated throughout the Japanese medical and scientific community, the “logs” were referred to as “monkeys.” Despite this ploy, it was an open secret that humans were the real test subjects. In all, Ishii personally patented over two hundred discoveries, benefiting handsomely from his research.
By the close of WW11, Ishii – now ranked a Lt. General – bound his subordinates to an oath of secrecy. Thereafter members of Unit 731 made their way home, after first destroying the Pingfan facility and other sites, as best they could. Despite claims that all, or most of the – all important – records were destroyed in the clean-up exercise, it is thought that many were buried by Ishii, for later retrieval. Despite their precautions, Allied intelligence had sizeable dossiers on the leading Japanese microbiologists. The Americans, especially, believed they were way behind the Japanese in the field of Biological Warfare. US military strategists appreciated the tactical benefits of germ warfare. Biological agents could be introduced in to a war zone covertly. In fact, Ishii had done this on a number of occasions in China and elsewhere.
With the “cold war” beginning to hot up, senior US military officers were anxious to block the Soviets acquiring Ishii’s expertise and records. A secret deal was discussed at the highest levels. Yet, a major obstacle had to be overcome. It was the darkest “secret of secrets.” Returning Allied POW’s recounted harrowing tales of biological experimentation ruthlessly conducted upon them. If these stories were reported by the press, the public would bray for blood. Despite this a deal was struck. By 1948, immunity was offered to all members of Ishii’s Unit in exchange for data and co-operation. Prosecutors at the Tokyo War Crimes trials were warned off. Allied POW’s were sworn to secrecy, and cynically forgotten. The biggest cover-up of the war had commenced.
Forty years later, former servicemen began unburdening themselves of their ordeals. “Damn right I remember,” Joseph Gozzo snaps angrily. A former aviation engineer living in San Jose, California, Gozzo had glass rods inserted in his rectum during his internment. Gozzo is understandably resentful. “I can’t believe our government let them get away with it.” he says. Ex POW, Frank James, shared his memories with a US House of Representatives subcommittee in 1986. “We were just pawns,” he later reflected. “We always knew there was a cover-up.” Another prisoner, Max McClain, remembers lining up for injections with his bunk-mate, George Hayes. Forty eight hours later, Hayes complained, “Mac, I don’t know what those SOBs gave me, but I feel like crap.” That evening Hayes was dissected by the “boys at the morgue,” McClain remembers bitterly. The House of Representatives hearing lasted just half a day. Only one of 200 US survivors was permitted to testify. Incredibly, the chief archivist for the US Army testified, saying that most of the files and documents provided by Ishii, were returned to Japan in the 1950’s. They hadn’t bothered to make copies.
The US and Japanese governments routinely denied these events took place, despite an increasing body of available information. A file from Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters states that the investigation of Unit 731 was “under direct Joint Chiefs of Staff order.” The document continues, “The utmost secrecy is essential in order to protect the interests of the United States and to guard against embarrassment.” The secrecy finally wilted in 1993, when US Defense Secretary, William Perry, under pressure, promised to declassify records of WW11 experiments.
Many of those involved in the Japanese BW experiments, became successful after the war. A number held senior university posts in the field of medicine. Another headed up a leading Japanese pharmaceutical company. Still others gained positions ranging from President of the Japan Medical Association, through to Vice President of the renowned Green Cross Corporation. Unrepentant, Ishii died in 1959.
Before he was through, Shiro Ishii was to have an even more profound effect on the Allies. The taboo on involuntary human experimentation evaporated. US and British citizens once more became guinea pigs – this time at the cynical hands of their own governments, and on home soil. Meanwhile, history sneezed and repeated itself. In March 1992, members of the Aum Shinrikyo sect, including its charismatic guru, Shoko Asahara, flew to Moscow to sign a new Japanese-Soviet pact. At stake was a bounty of high-tech Russian nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
Ishii’s ghost lives on, however. Today it roams the subways of Tokyo, dripping the deadly Nazi nerve agent Sarin, in it’s wake. But even that story is not what it seems?
Shiro Ishii, The Father of Biological Warfare
Shiro Ishii was unlike most young officers destined for high rank. His backers included some of the biggest guns in the Japanese military establishment. He regularly went on night long drinking binges. A prolific womaniser, he was well known in Tokyo’s leading geisha houses. His ability to finance his “recreational” activities on junior officer’s pay remains mysterious. Later, however, he grew wealthy, insisting on kick-backs from contractors building his various “facilities.” Remembered as the “Father of Japan’s BW programme,” his most notable observation was that BW must be significant otherwise it wouldn’t have been “outlawed by the league of Nations.”
The secret reveals itself by chance
Kanda district, on the outskirts of Tokyo, is littered with second-hand bookshops, frequented by university students. In 1984, a student browsing through a box of old, discarded papers – belonging to a former military officer – first discovered the terrible secret of Unit 731. The documents revealed detailed medical reports on subjects suffering from tetanus – an agonising and usually fatal disease. Strangely, the reports detailed the inception of the disease, through to its excruciating conclusion. There was only one possible explanation, the student thought: involuntary human experimentation. World War two’s most enduring secret finally revealed itself by chance.
A former British POW remembers
Robert Peaty, a former Major in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, was the Senior British officer at Mukden. Asked what the camp was like, Peaty said, “I was reminded of Dante’s Inferno – abandon hope all ye who enter here…” Peaty kept a secret diary, recording the regular injections of infectious diseases – disguised as preventative vaccinations. His entry for 30 January 1943 records “Everyone received a 5 cc Typhoid-paratyphoid A inoculation.” On 23 February 1943 entry read “Funeral service for 142 dead. 186 have died in 5 days, all Americans.” Further “inoculations” followed. By 6 August 1942 the death toll reached 208.
A Former Unit 731 member speaks out
Tsuneji Shimada worked with the “Minato Group” (dysentery research) of Unit 731 from 1939 until the close of the war. Asked about his activities he was defensive “We did not experiment on soldiers, but we carried out dissections. Normally we gave them infected material to drink and carried out autopsies to ascertain the symptoms.” We had to observe the progress (of the diseases) and we had to ascertain the potency of the various viruses.” Dysentery was, Shimada said, studied “as a weapon.” Blood samples were regularly drawn from POW’s “for their research” value.
The Ministry of Defence denies the truth
Mukden inmate, Arthur Christie, a private in the Loyal’s Regiment, has no reason to think successive British governments lived up to his Regiment’s proud name. His many letters to the government, were met with an icy response.
… “we still have no evidence to support allegations that the Japanese experimented on Allied POW’s at Mukden, nor any evidence to support the allegations of a conspiracy to conceal the truth about what took place.” A year later a second letter admitted that Unit 731 was engaged in biological warfare at Pingfan, but that “is not proof that the same thing was happening at Mukden.” . Ministry of Defence, Whitehall, December 12, 1986: