Ironically, wartime sometimes brings out the best in human ingenuity while simultaneously bringing out the worst in the limits of our cruelty.
War is sometimes the source of some of most important inventions in human history. World War II-era inventions that still impact our everyday lives include the jet engine, radar, some of the first computers, synthetic rubber and penicillin.
Another World War II-era invention doesn’t seem to be as widely known in the United States, but it had quite an impact among civilians in other parts of the world. Before and during the war, Imperial Japanese Army Unit 731 developed biological warfare agents and not only tested them civilians, including Allied prisoners of war, but released them into the general Chinese public, killing between as many as 1 million people. Compounding the shame, most of the perpetrators of these crimes not only went unpunished, but some even ended up sharing their discoveries with the United States in return for immunity.
The whole story is outlined in “A Plague Upon Humanity: The Hidden History of Japan's Biological Warfare Program,” a 304-page by Daniel Barenblatt. While I knew the facts of the program and what it produced, I was unprepared for the utter dehumanization that went along with the development process. As Barenblatt outlines in the book, prisoners were not only infected with diseases like bubonic plague, they were often dissected alive so scientists would have the freshest results to view.
“When I picked up the scalpel, that’s when he began screaming,” a 72-year-old former medical assistant told the New York Time’s Nicholas Kristof. “I cut him open from the chest to the stomach and he screamed terribly and his face was all twisted in agony. He made this unimaginable sound, he was screaming so horribly. But then finally he stopped. This was all in a day’s work for the surgeons, but it really left an impression on me because it was my first time.”
Not only did these scientists develop bubonic plague, typhoid, anthrax and cholera, they bred fleas and rats to spread them along with specialized bomb cases for germ warfare attacks. Japanese soldiers would poison village wells, or distribute candy laced with germs to children. Barenblatt asserts that rats in China still test positive for antibodies to the Japanese-developed plague germs nearly 65 years after the end of the war.
Japan didn’t limit the scope of its bio-weapons attacks to the Chinese mainland. The Imperial Japanese Navy developed some of the largest submarines in the world during the war, equipping some with hangars to launch several aircraft on a one-way mission. Another excerpt from the Kristof piece:
“Toshimi Mizobuchi, who was an instructor for new recruits in Unit 731, said the idea was to use 20 of the 500 new troops who arrived in Harbin in July 1945. A submarine was to take a few of them to the seas off Southern California, and then they were to fly in a plane carried on board the submarine and contaminate San Diego with plague-infected fleas. The target date was to be Sept. 22, 1945.”
Sept. 22. Slightly more than one month after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
According to ww2pacific.com, an Allied War Crimes Tribunal brought 30 people to trial in March 1948. Charges included vivisection and wrongful removal of body parts. Twenty-three were found guilty of various charges, and five were sentenced to death. None of the death sentences was carried out, and by 1958, all the convicted were set free.
When the war ended, Gen. Douglas MacArthur himself requested that the Japanese scientists be exempted from prosecution.
“Information about vivisection useful," he allegedly explained in a 1947 radio message.
So, as it did in Nazi Germany, the U.S. made another deal with the devil, sparing punishment in exchange for information. Shiro Ishii, the mastermind behind Japan’s bio-weapons program, allegedly worked on bio weapons in Maryland. Another, Dr. Masaji Kitano, led Japan's largest pharmaceutical company.
While Japan wasn’t the only country to develop bio weapons during the period, it stands out not only from the extensive use of human subjects, but also because the products were actually used on a pretty widespread basis.
Barenblatt’s book wasn’t an easy read. It was a mixture of dry historical facts and incredibly disturbing passages about incomprehensible human suffering. But knowing about what Unit 731 did is important, if only to give perspective.
Japan seems more than willing to play to victim when it comes to the suffering of the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but remains mute when it comes to the suffering its own forces inflicted on civilians in the territories it occupied and the civilians it would have attacked in the U.S. if given the chance. Books like the one Barenblatt wrote remind us that there are both victims and perpetrators on every side involved in a world war – something Japan itself seems loathe to officially admit.