Every time I ask my college students if they are familiar with Nazi atrocities, the collective reply is “Of course.” Nearly all of them have also heard of Dr. Josef Mengele and his horrific medical experiments conducted at Auschwitz. The “Angel of Death” has been the subject of countless lectures, articles, books, movies, and documentaries. And well should his inhumanity and bestial cruelty in the name of science be remembered and condemned. Yet, it is a rare day when I find a student who can identify Japan’s Unit 731, which made Mengele look like a piker.
During World War II, Unit 731 conducted the most atrocious medical experiments imaginable on thousands of Chinese and Koreans and hundreds of Russians, British, and Americans. The late Sheldon Harris, the author of Factories of Death, said, “My calculation, which is very conservative, and based on incomplete sources as the major archives are still closed, is that 10,000 to 12,000 human beings were exterminated in lab experiments.” Long before his book was published, Harris told me that the number of deaths that he could verify was probably only a small portion of the real total.
Japan’s Kwantung Army, which controlled Manchuria and anticipated a war with the Soviet Union and fighting in subzero temperatures, was especially interested in the effects of frostbite. Unit 731 conducted frostbite research using prisoners. The hapless victims had parts of their bodies frozen, then thawed, and then refrozen. The progress of the frostbite was carefully recorded. Some men were chained outside in the snow with a leg or an arm exposed. When fully frozen, the limb was then beaten with a club to see how the bone and flesh would react in its frozen state. There were dozens of varieties of these experiments. Many of the experiments were filmed so greater numbers of Japanese doctors could study the prisoners’ agonies.
Unit 731 researchers also studied the effects of high-altitude flying and G-forces. Wired with several measuring devices, prisoners were locked in pressure chambers. With cameras rolling, the pressure was increased until the test subjects collapsed in convulsions and slowly and agonizingly died. They were the lucky ones. Hundreds of prisoners were repeatedly shot, but not fatally, so Japanese doctors could gain experience removing bullets. The surgeries were performed without the benefit of anesthesia. Also without anesthesia and to gain more experience for battlefield surgeries, the doctors amputated prisoners’ limbs. Most horrific of all, though, were the autopsies performed on live prisoners without anesthesia. After being infected with various diseases, the prisoners had their body cavities surgically opened to study their internal organs. “I cut him open from the chest to the stomach,” said a Japanese doctor of a prisoner, “and he screamed terribly and his face twisted in agony—made this unimaginable sound, he was screaming so horribly. 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.”
When a B-29 was heavily damaged while bombing Kyushu, the flight crew was forced to bail out. Nine of the Americans survived the parachute ride to the ground, only to be captured. Taken to Kyushu University, they were used for medical experiments. The first American taken into the operating room assumed he was about to be treated for a bayonet wound he had suffered when captured. Instead, he was used to study the effects of wounds that caused the loss of a body part. A doctor cut open his chest and removed a lung. At the same time, he was given intravenous injections of seawater to determine if the ocean brine could be used as a substitute for a sterile saline solution. The experiment failed. Another member of the B-29 crew had a portion of his liver removed; another, a portion of his brain. And so it went until the supply of subjects was exhausted. None survived the ordeal.
Hundreds of American prisoners at Mukden in Manchuria were, said prisoner Frank James, “guinea pigs for the biological research Unit 731.” James said that, while they were being transported to the prison camp, they had glass rods inserted in their rectums and that, upon arrival, they were met by masked medical personnel who sprayed an unidentified liquid in their faces and gave them injections. Many men quickly sickened and died. James was one of those given the job of stacking the corpses in an old warehouse where the subzero winter temperatures preserved them in good condition. When the bodies began to thaw in the spring, a team of doctors selected dozens for autopsies. James and another prisoner lifted the corpses onto tables and then, said James, “the Japanese opened the bodies . . . and took out the desired specimens, which were placed in containers and marked with the POW’s number.”
One would assume that the doctors of Unit 731 were among those standing in the dock at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. Such was not their fate, however. Although the full story is long and complex, essentially a bargain was struck between the commander of Unit 731, Lt. Gen. Shiro Ishii, an army doctor who had risen through the ranks to lead the horrific experiments, and the United States. Ishii would share all Japan’s biological and chemical research in return for immunity from prosecution for him and his fellow doctors. Ishii lived well, benefiting from dozens of medical patents—the result of his wartime research—and died in 1959, unrepentant to the end. Several of his fellow doctors became professors of medicine at Japanese universities. One became the CEO of a Japanese pharmaceutical company; another, the president of the Japan Medical Association.
While the Japanese regularly hold memorial services for those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there is no mention of the B-29 crewmembers who were the subjects of medical experiments at Kyushu University, midway between the two cities. Nor is there mention of the thousands of others who suffered agonizing deaths at the hands of Japanese doctors. Worst, by far, though, is the silence on the horror in American schools.