A secret Japanese unit killed more than 600,000 people during World War II in experiments comparable only to the horrific crimes of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.
That department became known as Unit 731, in the midst of whose perverted experiments hundreds of thousands of people were killed by the war's end.
Japan And The Development Of Biological Weapons
At the end of the First World War in 1918, the Japanese army commissioned Major Terunobu Hasebe to conduct a study of biological warfare. He was replaced by doctor Ito, who led a team of 40 scientists. But there were no significant developments until the emergence of the young bacteriologist Shiro Ishii, who would take advantage of the growing tide of Japanese militarism.
Ishii, the bacteriologist, received his doctorate from the prestigious Kyoto University and spent two years in Europe and North America working on biological research in Western countries.
After returning to Japan, he dedicated himself to promoting research and the production of biological weapons. Ishii supported the idea that modern war can only be won through science and technology. The production of biological weapons was the most efficient solution for Japan, which was poor in natural resources. He found essential supporters in the army for his ideas.
With powerful protectors behind his back, Ishii did not hesitate to put his ideas into action. What he was ready for was already evident at the outbreak of the meningitis epidemic in Shikoku when he designed a water filter that was supposed to reduce the possibility of infection.
However, Ishii deliberately did just the opposite - the filter he devised helped spread the disease.
Ishii's questionable moral values were apparent, but this was not a problem for his superiors. On the contrary, young Ishii will soon become the main organizer of the Japanese biological warfare program. He would dedicate himself almost obsessively to its work and participate in all development levels of this program - from field research to work in academia.
He gathered around him associates and helpers with whom he wanted to realize his plan - establishing a medical facility in occupied Manchuria, which was to be under his absolute administration. Manchuria seemed almost ideal for achieving Ishii's goal because it offered a vast number of people over whom experiments could be performed.
The Rise Of Unit 731
Ishii was finally able to begin implementing his plan on a massive scale in 1936 when Japanese Emperor Hirohito approved the establishment of two biological warfare units. The first was called the Department of the Kwantush Army for the Prevention of Epidemics and Water Purification and was headed by Shiro Ishii. Harbin in Manchuria was designated as the headquarters of the unit. Five years later, the team will be renamed Unit 731. The second unit is called the Wakamatsu Unit (after the last name of its commander Yujiro Wakamatsu), and it will later change its name to Unit 100.
These units will be made up of Japanese medical personnel who will participate in the intimidating experiments in the occupied territory. The fact that 3,000 Japanese scientists worked at the headquarters of Unit 731 alone speaks volumes about what a serious project it was.
Unlike the number of scientists, the number of victims of these experiments has never been determined precisely. What can also be said with certainty is that the first victims of the medical experiments of these units were Chinese communists and their sympathizers and persons convicted as criminals. However, this will soon change, and it will be the turn of the local civilian population and prisoners of war. Most of them will be Chinese, but there will also be Russians who lived in China and captured allied soldiers and others (Koreans, Mongols…).
Since one of the primary tasks of this plan was to keep its existence a secret, a story was created that it was actually a sawmill. Namely, the construction of a large complex that ultimately stretched over about six square kilometers was challenging to cover up and therefore, it was necessary to design a disguise. Since the plant was declared a sawmill, Japanese scientists mockingly called their victims "logs" (Japanese: maruta). The conditions of forced labor for Chinese workers were harsh, and to reduce the possibility of talking about what exactly was being built here, Chinese workers often had to wear eye shields.
Unit 731: Vivisections Without Anesthesia
American journalist Nicholas D. Kristof found some of the surviving members of Unit 731 who witnessed the experiments and published an article in the New York Times on March 17, 1995. The issue was titled Japan Confronting Gruesome War Atrocity. Among other things, the article cites the testimony of medical technician Takoe Wan, who said he personally saw a man vertically cut in two and pickled in formalin.
But this was not the only such case because, at the headquarters of Unit 731, there were many samples in jars containing either internal human organs or severed human heads, legs, or other body parts. Experiments performed on detainees often surpassed even the most terrifying ideas. Prisoners, who served as experimental animals, were deliberately infected with deadly diseases and then imprisoned along with healthy prisoners to determine how much time should elapse from the moment of infection to death.
About 50 different experiments were performed on the "logs," which included intentional exposure to extremely low temperatures, after which they would be tried for dehydration. One of the experiments involved tying Chinese prisoners to wooden surfaces and then detonating a bomb that would injure the prisoners, after which surgeons opened the wounds of human guinea pigs without anesthesia to determine the degree of wounding.
Hundreds and possibly thousands of experiments were performed in the laboratories of Unit 731, headed by Shiro Ishii. The experiments were performed on everyone - men, women, and children, and after the end, if they did not die, they would be killed and burned. Detainees were also forced to eat food contaminated with anthrax or plague. They were also given various drinks (tea, coffee, milk, water, beer, brandy, etc.), and each individual drink contained a specific dose of germ.
The labs at Ping Fan had large panels that were prominently displayed on the wall. The medical technician on duty would record various data on the board every day, stating the numbers of "Maruti" subjected to experiments that day, how many injections were given daily compared to the needs of the human heart and liver, or other organs.
Japan's Auschwitz: Unit 731
Mitomo Kazuo, a technician at one of the laboratories in Ping Fan, testified that he put lethal doses of heroin in the detainees' food and experimented on some prisoners five or six times. Experiments covered any viable approach to the disease and its prevention. One such experiment was the one conducted during May and June 1940. Then 20 prisoners (all aged 20 to 30) were selected to perform the new test.
Eight detainees received a test cholera vaccine, and another eight detainees received a vaccine produced traditionally. The four remaining prisoners did not receive any vaccine. Twelve days later, all detainees were forced to drink copious amounts of milk infected with cholera. Four detainees who did not receive any immunization contracted cholera and died.
A few of those who received the vaccine produced by the traditional method also became ill and died. All eight who received the test vaccine showed no symptoms of cholera. A similar test that was repeated, but this time with the plague vaccine, showed similar results. But these were not the only experiments during which people were intentionally infected.
Vivisections in Unit 731 were also not uncommon. As a rule, detainees would be targeted by an infectious disease (e.g., plague, anthrax) before this procedure so that under various pretexts, the disease was given to them intravenously. When the detainees started to show the first signs of the disease (cramps, high temperature that reached up to 40 ° C), they were taken to vivisection without anesthesia. The usual procedure was to leave people alive with open wounds so that the progress of the disease could be monitored and so that the medical staff would not have to waste time constantly closing and opening the victims.
Vivisections on living people were just part of the astonishing experiments. Experiments with the human brain can be counted among the numerous cruel treatments of detainees. To get to that organ, the soldiers would grab the chosen detainee, and while holding him tightly, a Japanese soldier would split him by pounding with an ax. The brain was then removed from the victim's body and forwarded to the laboratory. Japanese scientists also wanted to discover the limits of endurance of the human body, so they performed procedures on the extremities of their victims.
During these investigations, detainees were targeted for exposure to cold weather outdoors (temperatures reached up to -40 ° C in winter. Once the freezing was complete, doctors would test the healing methods and then amputate the damaged part of the arm. The guards would then repeat the freezing procedure with the same victim, this time with the upper arm up to the shoulder.
After that, the doctors would re-test the healing methods and finally amputate the frozen part. When the entire procedure was completed with both hands, the experiment was continued with the victim's legs. After the detainee was left without arms and legs, the torso was used for experiments that involved infecting the detainee with various infectious diseases.
Spread Of Infectious Diseases
It also happened that the limbs after freezing were cut off and sewn on the other side of the body, and sometimes in a completely unnatural way. In several experiments, after limbs were amputated, researchers observed how blood loss affects victims. In the documents of Unit 731 that have been preserved, one can also find evidence of experimenting on a three-day-old baby. Japanese scientists tried to measure her temperature by inserting a needle into her middle finger.
In other experiments, it was common practice to inject horse urine into prisoners' kidneys and feed prisoners with food that was infected with cholera and that contained heroin or various pathogens.
As part of this process, blood samples were regularly taken from the bodies of prisoners of war for "research needs," and dysentery was studied by the Japanese military "as a type of weapon."
In addition to intentional poisoning and sampling, inmates were hanged upside down during treatment in Unit 731 to determine how long it took, from the time of hanging to the time of death. Exposing people to 20,000-volt electric shocks and continuously exposing them to electricity until they died was also part of the experiments.
Experiments were performed in high-pressure chambers, and the victims were exposed to toxic chemicals, centrifuges, burned alive or buried alive, given an infusion but given animal blood instead of human blood, and there were cases when victims were exposed to X-rays.
As part of the biological weapons development program, Unit 731 generated bombs that would spread anthrax and bubonic plague during the explosion. These tests were performed all over China by dropping bombs on these diseases over Chinese cities (Changde, Ningbo). The exact number of people who have undergone these tests is unknown, but according to estimates of the number of deaths in Ping Fang alone, that number ranges from 3,000 to 12,000.
As part of plans to spread the infection, Japanese troops across China deliberately infected water sources with typhus, cholera, and dysentery. The tests conducted by the Japanese were cleverly hidden. Between 1939 and 1940, about 1,000 wells in and around Harbin were contaminated with typhus bacilli.
When it came to devising a way to spread infectious diseases among the local population, Ishii showed great imagination. Thus, for example, in 1940, he caused the cholera outbreak in Changchun by informing local authorities that the cholera epidemic was moving towards Changchun and that vaccination of the population must be organized.
But the vaccine was actually a solution that contained cholera germs that infected the vaccinated people. Shortly after the cholera vaccination, it spread rapidly through this city. In July 1942, Ishii in the city of Nanking, in cooperation with local Japanese forces, poisoned wells and drinking water sources and infected a large number of residents with paratyphoid A, anthrax, and typhus.
To promote the spread of infectious diseases, Japanese soldiers received 300 to 400 chocolates infected with anthrax bacteria from Ishii's associates. Soldiers were ordered to leave chocolates near fences and trees intentionally. Namely, it was necessary to create the impression that the Japanese soldiers forgot to take them in a hurry. But that was not all.
During a trip to Nanking Ishii, he and his associates visited two nearby prison camps where 3,000 Chinese soldiers were detained. Everyone received dumplings in which typhus or paratyphoid was injected as a gift. They were then all released to homes where, after being infected, they acted as spreaders of the disease.
Operation Cherry Blossoms And The End Of Unit 731
As the war drew to a close, it became increasingly apparent that Japan and its allies would lose that war. Japanese military planners came up with a crazy plan - they wanted to attack the United States with balloons with biological weapons (anthrax, plague, etc.). Favorable winds were supposed to bring balloons to the shores of the United States.
The then Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Toyo (who would later be hanged by the Allies) strongly opposed the idea of sending balloons with biological weapons, arguing that in that case, identical American revenge was possible.
He managed to dissuade the military leadership from that idea, and instead, the balloons were filled with explosives. According to the United States, 9,000 balloons were released, but only about 200 reached their destination. Each balloon carried four incendiary and one anti-personnel bomb. The goal was for the balloons, launched on jet moons, to cause forest fires and panic in the western United States.
Just before the end of the war, Japan launched Operation Cherry Blossoms at night. It was a plan aimed at a kamikaze attack on California to spread the plague in this American federal state. Toshimi Mizobuchi, an instructor for new recruits in Unit 731, said the idea was to use 20 of the 500 new troops who arrived at Harbin in 1945.
A unique submarine was to take the selected soldiers to the Southern California Sea from where they were to take off and infect San Diego with flies that transmitted the plague.
In the end, it remains unclear whether Operation Cherry Blossom at night had a chance to be carried out at all, but according to what is known, the planned date of the first attack was September 22, 1945. But as Japan signed the capitulation before this date (in August 1945), the attack never occurred.
When the collapse of Japan was already apparent, Unit 731 was ordered on the night of August 10-11, 1945, to act "at its own discretion" to prevent the public from learning of the Unit 731 activities. Ishii ordered the withdrawal of Unit 731, but as much incriminating evidence as possible had to be destroyed before that.
The remaining detainees were poisoned or shot, and their bodies were burned, while explosives destroyed the facilities where the experiments were performed.
After all, members of Unit 731 had to swear not to divulge information about the experiments. Despite many efforts, some information remained - relatives of the victims, the perpetrators of the crimes and their notes on the experiments performed, and some information on the activities of Unit 731 that the Allied intelligence services managed to gather. In addition, some of the members of the Japanese biological warfare units eventually decided to speak out.