Unit 731: How Leaders of Japan’s WWII Germ Warfare Unit Ended Up Working for the US

Unit 731, the notorious germ warfare unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that conducted horrific lethal experiments on Chinese civilians and Allied prisoners of war before and during World War II, is back in the news again after the Japanese government released the names of more than 3,000 of its former members. The unit is little known in either Japan or the United States; what’s even less known is that rather than punish its members, US authorities during the postwar occupation of Japan paid them millions of dollars to share knowledge gained from, among other crimes, dissecting live POWs and killing hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians by aerial spraying of bubonic plague and other deadly diseases.

Formed in 1935 in Japanese-occupied Harbin, China, Unit 731 was led by Gen. Shiro Ishii, a surgeon and microbiologist. Between the local population and captured Chinese, Soviet and some Western prisoners of war, Unit 731 and affiliated outfits had plenty of human guinea pigs, or "logs," as they were euphemistically called, for experimentation. Japanese doctors and scientists were drawn to the unit for the rare opportunity to perform human experiments; some even published their research in peer-reviewed journals, referring to victims as "Manchurian monkeys" to avoid backlash – although body temperatures recorded in their research left no doubt that the doomed test subjects were no monkeys.

No, they were men, women and children of all ages, thousands of whom were dissected alive, often without anesthesia. Victims were infected with deadly diseases, had limbs amputated and sometimes reattached to the wrong side of their bodies, were exposed to lethally cold temperatures and subjected to flamethrower and bomb testing. Others were injected with animal blood, spun to death in centrifuges, killed in pressure chambers, exposed to lethal radiation doses and burned or buried alive. Many women and girls were raped and forced to become pregnant so researchers could vivisect them and their unborn fetuses. Unit 731 members contaminated a thousand wells in Harbin with typhoid, sprayed plague-infested fleas from airplanes and fed anthrax-dosed chocolates to hungry children.

Western POWs, including American airmen shot down during or after bombing runs over Japan and territories it occupied, were also subjected to vivisection and other horrific experiments. In one of the last such atrocities of the war, nine captured US airmen had various organs removed and were pumped full of salt water by members of Unit 100, which was affiliated with Unit 731, at Kyushu University in May 1945.

"The prisoners thought we were doctors," recalled Dr. Toshio Tono, then a medical assistant who helped kill the Americans. "They could see our white smocks so they didn’t struggle. They never dreamed they would be dissected."

Some of the airmen had their lungs removed to study the effects of surgery on the respiratory system. Another had his skull drilled and partially removed to determine if epilepsy could be treated by excising part of the brain. Not only were the prisoners dissected, it was alleged at a later war crimes trial that Japanese officers had eaten the livers of some of the Americans – something that had already happened at Chichi Jima island a year earlier, where at least four downed US pilots were cannibalized and future president George H.W. Bush narrowly escaped becoming dinner himself.

As Japanese commanders realized defeat was imminent, Unit 731 members went to great lengths to cover their crimes, including the attempted destruction of facilities and evidence and the extermination of all surviving prisoners. Although Ishii ordered members "to take the secret to the grave," his outlook changed when he and others found themselves facing war crimes charges after the war. Not only did Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur secretly grant immunity to Unit 731 members, including Ishii, the US also paid them millions of dollars in exchange for their knowledge and cooperation. Immunity was justified on national security grounds; US officials feared the Soviet Union – which actually tried 12 captured members of Unit 731 but also apparently traded leniency for data – would gain a dangerous edge in biowarfare capability if it had access to Japanese personnel or research results.

US treatment of Unit 731 members mirrored the leniency shown to leading Nazi war criminals, including doctors and scientists who performed on Jews and others experiments every bit as horrific as their Japanese counterparts. Too "moral" to conduct such ghastly research on its own, the United States embraced defeated German and Japanese doctors who intentionally drowned, gassed, suffocated, froze, burned, poisoned, infected, shot, stabbed and dissected living men, women and children to death to advance its own weapons of mass destruction programs. Sleeping with such enemies certainly birthed such great successes as better jet fighters and the Apollo moon landings, however, within a few short years it also produced more sinister offspring such as the mind control experiments of projects Bluebird, Artichoke and MK-ULTRA, and the aerial spraying of chemical and biowarfare agents over both America’s enemies as well as its own cities, military personnel and even its children.

Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. His work, which has recently appeared in thx, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, and Daily Kos, focuses on issues of war and peace, human rights and social justice.