originally published June 18, 2013
I enjoy a good creepy story, the kind that makes you want to crawl out of your skin and find something less goose-bumpy to slip into. Every so often I find one that’ll make you want to burn that skin you just wriggled free from, because the guts of the story have made you ashamed to be human.
This is one of those stories.
During times of war, a nation – in particular an underdog, up against most of the free world – can be driven to some grotesque and vile acts. And while most every combatant in World War II has their share of dark secrets and ugly acts, today I’m going to sink my claws into the horrors of Japan’s Unit 731.
First of all, if you have your SafeSearch turned off, do not do a Google Image search for Unit 731. Just… just take my word on this one.
The man pictured above is General Shiro Ishii, the chief medical officer of the Japanese Army in 1932. Around this time, Japan was taking deep breaths and flexing its muscle across the East China Sea at Chiang Kai-Shek’s China. Given Japan’s generally unpleasant relationship with much of the western world as well, General Ishii felt his side could use a tactical edge. He was placed in charge of the Army Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory, which was not as graciously motivated as its name indicated.
Ishii wanted to get Japan rolling on biological and chemical weapons research. When the war kicked off – and here I’m referring to the Second Sino-Japanese War, which cracked its christening bottle back in 1937 – Emperor Hirohito happily funneled more money into Ishii’s work. Ishii set up shop in a sweet facility in Pingfang, a region just outside of Harbin, China, where the Japanese had planted their invading flag.
If you’re already at war, and happen to be located on land you claimed from your enemy, why not take advantage of the available supply of disenfranchised locals for your research? Testing these new means of death delivery on monkeys or rats is such a silly peacetime notion – no, the Japanese swept the region for unwilling participants to act as their test subjects. It was the beginning of some dark doings in Pingfang.
The Kempeitai, the Japanese military police division, supplied prisoners to Ishii’s crew. Others were simply rounded up from nearby villages and towns, with the bogus charge of ‘suspicious activity’. A whopping 70% of those who perished at the facility were Chinese, with almost all the remaining 30% coming from the USSR. But here we’re only talking about the lives that were lost specifically within the installation at Pingfang; many of Ishii’s experiments were sent to other military units to use on prisoners. The total number killed by the grotesqueries that were born inside those walls is incalculable.
Any prisoner receiving an inoculation shot inside Unit 731, as the Pingfang facility was known, was most likely receiving something far more sinister. They shot heaps of syphilis and gonorrhea into men and women, just to see what would happen. They unleashed swarms of fleas on those they infected because Ishii wanted to see if diseased fleas might make for an effective weapon. Turns out they did – an estimated 400,000 Chinese civilians were killed by bombs containing anthrax, cholera and plague-infested fleas. Yes, bubonic plague. The Japanese Army was going retro with that one.
Grossed out by this? Wait, I’m just getting started. They weren’t just dropping plague-flea bombs. There were plenty of maladies the Japanese wanted to see if they could spread, including typhoid, smallpox, botulism and dysentery. And they weren’t merely utilizing hapless bugs to do their bidding either. Japanese planes would fly over Chinese land that they didn’t occupy and drop shipments of diseased clothes and food supplies. They’d bring in small children and hand them candy infected with some vile disease, just so they could observe the results.
I told you this was going to get ugly. And yes, there’s more.
Think of a horrific way to die. Chances are, Ishii’s squad thought of it first, and Unit 731 probably tried it out on someone. Vivisection – basically slicing open a living creature – was performed regularly, and without anesthesia. Limbs were cut off so they could learn about blood loss. Some limbs were frozen, others were attached to the other side of the body. I have no idea what they were hoping to learn from that.
Some prisoners had their stomachs surgically removed and their esophagus stitched right to their intestines. Scientists would position grenades at various distances from live prisoners just to witness their effects. Want to test out that new flame-thrower to see how it works? Talk to Ishii, he’ll set you up with a live test dummy.
Some patients were starved, others deprived of water. Other forms of experimentation included excessive x-ray exposure, being spun in a centrifuge to death, injection of animal blood, and of course burning people and burying them alive. Nobody was spared – not women, not the elderly, not even infants.
It’s true, the actual death toll racked up by the far-reaching fingers of Unit 731 and Ishii’s vile experiments will never be known. Even the body count within the 150-building compound in Pingfang is only granted a ballpark figure of 3000 to 12,000 over the course of 1937-1945.
Thankfully, when the Japanese signed their surrender at the end of the war, General Ishii and the Unit 731 madness was brought to a halt. I guess a pair of nukes beats a bomb-full of plague-fleas.
Of course, when the Japanese surrendered, the entire truth about Unit 731 was made public and General Ishii was made to suffer for his crimes against humanity.
Wow, that would have been a much better ending than the real one.
First off, most of the evidence was destroyed when the Russians invaded Manchukuo in August of ’45. Twelve of the top brass from the unit were taken to the Soviet Union and tried for war crimes. But not General Ishii. General Douglas MacArthur secretly granted immunity to Ishii and the physicians at the Pingfang facility in exchange for exclusive information about the biological warfare that took place there.
The USSR built a bio-weapons facility in Sverdlovsk using what they learned from Unit 731. There’s a rumor that General Ishii actually travelled to Maryland to help the Americans set up their own bio-weapons experiments. In the end, the monster responsible for all this madness simply begat more madness in the world. Oh, and he spent the rest of his life as a free man in Japan, working as a physician to small children.
The Japanese government still won’t acknowledge the existence of Unit 731, though they have said that if any information about it shows up, they promise to make it public.
At this point, I think we know enough.