Unit 731

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Unit 731

As many conspiracy theorists have pointed out, in 1940 the U.S. government seemed primarily concerned with entering the war in Europe against the Nazis; consequently, little attention was paid to the atrocities that the Japanese Imperial Army had committed with the biological warfare corps known as Unit 731 beginning in Manchuria as early as 1932.

In 1925 Japan refused to sign the Geneva Convention ban on biological weapons. Japanese officials reasoned that if such weapons were considered so horrible that all other nations had voted to ban them, then they might be just perfect for use by the Japanese military.

In 1932, accompanying Japanese troops invading Manchuria, Dr. Shiro Ishii, a physician as well as an army officer, began preliminary experiments with biological weapons. Dr. Ishii had gained fame by designing a water filter that had helped stop the spread of meningitis in Shikoku, Japan, so he was the best-known bacteriologist in Japan. The invasion of Manchuria was part of a long-range plan in which the Soviet Union would become the enemy—and the victim of Japan’s biological weapons program. Because he had an almost unlimited supply of Chinese prisoners on whom to experiment, Ishii decided to expand the program to include the effects on living human subjects of burns, freezing cold, high pressure, and bullets.

Harbin, Manchuria, was the headquarters of Unit 731, which was officially identified to the outside world as the “Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kuantung Army.” Dr. Ishii was promoted to full colonel and provided with three thousand troops to carry out his orders. In 1936 the research was expanded to include Unit 100, under the direction of Yujiro Wakamatsu and located in Mengchiatun, near Changchun; the new unit was known officially as the “Department of Veterinary Disease Prevention of the Kuantung Army.” In June 1938 Unit 731 relocated to Pingfang and expanded to an area of nineteen square miles. Former Unit 731 members later testified that at least nine thousand people were killed in the biological experiments conducted by Dr. Ishii. There were no survivors.

In 1942 Unit 731 ordered field tests to evaluate the effectiveness of biological weapons outside of the laboratory. Chinese prisoners were forced to march amidst clouds of poison gas so that their reactions could be filmed for study in the safety of the laboratory. Japanese planes dropped plague-infected fleas over Ningbo in eastern China and over Changde in north-central China, and the experimenters had cause for celebration when plague broke out in both cities and tens of thousands died. Premier Shideki Tojo personally awarded Dr. Ishii military honors for his expertise in developing biological weapons.

On occasion the Japanese experiments backfired on their own troops. In 1942 germ warfare scientists distributed dysentery, cholera, and typhoid in the wells and ponds in the Zhejiang Province in China, but the occupying Japanese soldiers also became ill, and 1,700 died from the trio of deadly germ colonies that had been dropped in the water.

In the summer of 1945, Japanese generals suggested the use of kamikaze (suicide) pilots to drop bombs of plague-infected fleas on San Diego. Although no biological weapons were utilized, nine thousand balloons, each carrying four incendiary and one antipersonnel bomb, were launched across the Pacific on the jet stream. Some of these “Fugo” balloons actually made it across the ocean and caused a few fires and very few deaths along the West Coast.

In July 1945 an attack team was assigned to board a submarine that was to carry a plane to the coast of Southern California. The plane’s crew had orders to drop plague-infested fleas over San Diego on September 22. Plans were changed to make a last-ditch attack against the U.S. fleet at the Micronesian island of Ulith, just as the war ended.

In the final days of World War II, Japanese troops blew up the headquarters of Unit 731. Ishii gave the order to kill the remaining 150 subjects in order to cover up the evidence of the experiments that were being conducted on them. It was said by some of his associates that Ishii’s greatest personality trait in achieving success was his lack of morality. In determining the internal effects of certain of the experimental diseases on its subjects, Ishii conducted many autopsies when the subjects were still alive. Vivisections were performed without giving anesthetic to the subjects, and experiments were even conducted on babies as young as three weeks. As Unit 731 retreated from China, they released plague-infected animals, causing an outbreak of disease that killed thirty thousand people in the area of Harbin from 1946 through 1948.

In 1946 Ishii and his colleagues received immunity from war-crimes prosecution in exchange for their data on biological warfare effects on humans. The statement of the Committee for the Far East, a subcommittee of the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee in Washington, was that the value “to the U.S. of Japanese biological warfare data is of such importance to national security as to far outweigh the value accruing from war crimes prosecution.” General MacArthur added that the biological warfare information obtained from Japanese sources should be retained in top-secret intelligence channels.