Discover more from World War II Today
Half a Million "Logs" - part 1
The Story of Unit 731 - and Japanese biological warfare
This week’s excerpt is slightly different, as it comes as a guest post from another Substack newsletter publication.
‘The Dive’ is a series of history investigations by Clay Huston - ‘a U.S. Army Aviation Combat Brigade plans officer, unit historian, and Blackhawk pilot.’
Extremes of the human experience fascinate (and terrify) me. From perilous 20th-century steel mills to the muddy trenches of the Western Front, history brings us endless accounts of those extremes.
So he ranges far and wide!
For this excerpt I have chosen to stay with World War II, although this story certainly falls within the remit of the extremes of human experience. The following excerpt is Part 1 of a 3 part series:
Half a Million "Logs" - part 1
[HEADS UP: Parts of this story are Rated R]
Among the many atrocious war crimes from the WWII era are stories of biological warfare. Even though the Geneva Convention banned chemical and biological weapons in 1925, several countries commissioned covert experiments to pursue such technology.
Here's the story of just one...
The Man Behind the Crimes
The history of Unit 731 begins in 1892 with the birth of Shiro Ishii, the son of a wealthy Japanese feudal lord. At an early age, Ishii's parents and teachers recognized his great academic potential.
Sources speculate Shiro had a photographic memory showcased through an ability to recite an entire book, cover to cover, after just one reading. Shiro's classmates, however, regarded him as arrogant. Ishii went on to become Japan's Surgeon General and a premier physician.
He earned a medical Ph.D. in 1927 during a time when Japanese universities did not administer Hippocratic oaths.
It was in his young adulthood that Dr. Ishii became fascinated with the development of Biological weapons. He strongly advocated for this pursuit within his sphere of influence. His arguments did not go unheard. His circle consisted of many heads of state and military officials who were sympathetic to his rationale, including small figures such as Major-General Tetsuzan Nagata, who was just the General of the Japanese Army.
Ishii's rationale was made available for the history books in 1949. During the Soviet Khabarovsk War Crime Trials, a member of Unit 731 spelled out Ishii's justification for the research and use of biological weapons.
While on the stand, the member recalled a 1941 meeting when Ishii explained:
Japan did not possess sufficient natural resources of metals and other raw materials required for the manufacture of weapons
which meant that
Japan had to develop new types of weapon
all the great powers were carrying on corresponding work in [the sphere of bacteriological warfare] and that Japan must not lag behind in this field.
Dr. Ishii was given a chance to explore this unseemly passion in 1928, when, with permission from both the Japanese Army and Navy, he began researching biological warfare.He traveled throughout Europe during his research, collecting data from several countries including Germany, France, and Italy. He'd have a chance to apply what he learned in 1931 with the Japanese invasion of China.
The Second Sino-Japanese War
With the help of Ishii, the Japanese Empire dispersed biological warfare research facilities as far north as Manchuria and as far south as Indonesia. Historians estimate Japan established over 18 of these facilities by 1939.
The Japanese built the first facility in 1932 inside Zhong Ma Prison camp. There, Ishii's research focused on anthrax, plagues, glanders, and included live dissections of prisoners. Other experiments included poison injections, high voltage tolerance tests, frostbite remedies, and live organ removal.
Unit 731 conducted experiments on Soviet, Mongolian, and Korean prisoners, but the Chinese were especially targeted. This was a theme in many aspects of Japanese warfare at the time. For whatever reason, WWII era Japanese hated the Chinese and viewed them as inhuman.
Both the Chinese and test subjects of other ethnicities were commonly referred to by Dr. Ishii as "logs".
Perhaps a combination of their patients' prisoner/inhuman status and the lack of ethical training (remember, Ishii didn't take a Hippocratic oath) gave the Unit 731 researchers moral coverage to conduct their cruel experiments.
How else could someone internally justify cutting open a live person?
There is a cold, utilitarian factor to it as well. Many patients of Unit 731 were arrested as spies or resistors to the Empire and were scheduled for execution without trial. Ishii felt their lives would be better used for experimentation rather than wasted on an execution.
This utilitarian approach carried over into how Unit 731 treated its patients.
It was because of fear of tainting an experiment's result, that 731 physicians did not use anesthetics on their live patients. One account from a Unit 731 researcher details a particularly gruesome day at the office:
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.
The patient in this researcher's account was intentionally infected with the plague and vivisected while conscious to observe how the disease affects a man's insides.
Unit 731 got their logs from prisons, death row, and at times, the streets of neighboring cities. One elderly resident of Harbin told the Japan Times:
They would catch people surreptitiously and bring them to their laboratory. Local residents were afraid every day that they might be kidnapped by the Japanese. Before going outside, I had to stop and think: Are there Japanese around?
All this was part of a project to develop a plague bomb for use during WWII.
These bombs were "field-tested" on the Chinese. Plague-loaded munitions were dropped on Chinese cities near the eastern province of Zhejiang and central Hunan province from 1940 to 1942.
It's estimated that between 3,000 and 12,000 logs died of Unit 731 experimentation. How many died from plague bombs and other field tests is unknown, but estimates climb as high as 500,000.
A guest excerpt from ‘The Dive’, courtesy of Clay Huston.