Faustian Deals, 'Factories of Death' in WWII

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A few months after Japan surrendered in World War II, a funeral was held in a village outside Tokyo marking the death of a wealthy general who had supervised gruesome human experiments as part of the Japanese army's germ-warfare program.

But Lt. Gen. Shiro Ishii wasn't dead. The funeral--complete with mourners, priests and burnt incense--was a ruse aimed at throwing American war-crimes investigators off his trail.

Ishii eventually was found and provided American authorities with details of Japanese biological-warfare tests in Manchuria that killed large numbers of Chinese. In exchange, U.S. officials agreed not to prosecute him for crimes against humanity.

Wary of the political uproar that might have ensued if the deal became publicly known, the U.S. government covered it up for decades and even today continues to withhold information, according to a new book by retired Cal State Northridge history professor Sheldon H. Harris.

In "Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare 1932-45 and the American Cover Up," Harris writes that American officials struck their Faustian bargain with Ishii to avoid a public trial that would have revealed details of Japanese germ experiments to the Soviets as the Cold War dawned.

Although American scientists at first thought there was much to learn from the Japanese, they later concluded that the U.S. Army's biological-warfare program was far more advanced, according to Harris. The Japanese never produced a practical germ-warfare weapon of mass destruction, but U.S. forces were ready to manufacture enough bacteria bombs for large-scale attacks on Japan by the time the war ended, he writes.

"The data Ishii and the others furnished the United States with were--at best--of minor significance," he writes. "The cost to the United States in terms of honor and integrity appears to be high in comparison to the worth of the material" it received from Ishii and the remaining biological-warfare specialists.

In recent years, U.S. officials have reluctantly confirmed giving Ishii immunity from war-crimes prosecution. But the Japanese government has never acknowledged that his dreaded Unit 731 carried out experiments on live humans in Harbin and other Chinese cities during the 1930s and 1940s.

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An emeritus professor of American and film history at CSUN, Harris spent more than four years researching and writing his book. Peppering U.S. government agencies with requests under the Freedom of Information Act, he obtained more than 1,000 pages of documents--many formerly classified--on U.S. handling of Japanese germ-warfare specialists.

The book focuses on the brilliant but ruthless Ishii, a wealthy landowner's son who became a doctor before joining the army in 1920.

Possessed of a booming voice and almost superhuman energy, Ishii was a relentless womanizer who often went on all-night drinking binges and prowled local geisha houses after a hard day's work at an army hospital.

In the late 1920s, he became convinced that biological weapons offered Japan a particularly cheap and effective battlefield weapon, and set out to convince his army superiors. In the prewar years, his efforts helped make Japan the world's leader in germ-warfare research.

In 1932, after Japan had brutally occupied Manchuria in northern China, Ishii, then a major, erected a biological-warfare station in the village of Beiyinhe, south of the bustling Manchurian metropolis of Harbin, according to Harris.

In later years, Ishii and his cohorts--many of whom became prominent scientists, academics and businessmen after the war--built several more germ-warfare facilities throughout Manchuria, turning the region "into one huge biological warfare laboratory," Harris writes.

By far the biggest was the Ping Fan complex, also south of Harbin. Its 76 buildings included laboratories, dormitories for civilian workers, barns for test animals, greenhouses and a special prison for human test subjects. Built on six square kilometers, it employed 3,000 Japanese doctors, technicians and soldiers and rivaled Auschwitz in size.

For pure grisliness, Ishii's experiments were on a par with those of the infamous Nazi doctors, who performed horrific medical "tests" on Jews and other concentration-camp inmates, according to Harris.

Ping Fan prisoners--often Chinese guerrillas, criminals or ordinary citizens snatched off the streets of Harbin--were injected with plague, typhus, smallpox, cholera and other deadly diseases. They died in slow, feverish agony, with Japanese scientists observing them closely to see what doses were needed to kill humans.

Prisoners were staked to the ground and exposed to germ bombs dropped from airplanes. Their heads were split with axes and their brains removed for "study." Some were dissected while still alive.

To gauge their reaction to frostbite, prisoners' limbs were repeatedly frozen and thawed, until their flesh rotted and bones protruded. After being autopsied, the dead were disposed of in crematories.

Worried that local Chinese would discover the compound's true purposes, the Japanese operated Ping Fan in strictest secrecy. Train passengers were required to draw their curtains as they passed. Pilots were told they would be shot down without warning if they strayed over the area.

The local population was told the vast death complex was actually a lumber mill. Among themselves, the Japanese mockingly referred to human test subjects as marutas , or logs.

While prisoners lived in terror, Ishii and his colleagues lived in relative luxury. They enjoyed swimming pools, a bar, gardens, a 1,000-seat auditorium, a Shinto temple, even a brothel. Ishii lived in a Harbin mansion, commuting to his death lab in a chauffeured limousine heavy with armor plate.

Besides killing captives at Ping Fan, the Japanese conducted "field tests" against both Chinese troops and civilian populations. Ishii and his operatives slipped into towns and villages, poisoning water wells and even fed chocolates laced with anthrax to local children, Harris writes.

Because many records were destroyed during and after the war, there is no reliable count of how many people died in Japanese germ-warfare operations. But Harris estimates that the total runs into the hundreds of thousands.

Ishii and his underlings killed at least 12,000 prisoners at Ping Fan and other death factories, and probably far more, Harris writes. Tens of thousands more died in the field tests and in epidemics that erupted in Manchuria during and after the war.

Harris writes that Unit 731's victims included Han Chinese, White Russian exiles, Harbin Jews and Soviet prisoners of war. But he casts doubt on the persistent rumor that Ishii experimented on American POWs, saying no U.S. servicemen interned at the big Mukden prison camp reported such treatment.

But how could the well-educated scientists and technicians of Unit 731 conduct their nightmarish experiments and still sleep at night? How could they inure themselves to the monstrous cruelty and suffering they inflicted?

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Harris attributes their indifference to prewar Japan's chilling credo of racial superiority, fostered in large part by the fanatical militarists who then dominated Japanese life.

Ishii and others were able to freely kill human test subjects because "they knew their victims were inferior beings who were being sacrificed to a higher cause," writes Harris. "The superior Japanese race would benefit immeasurably from the sacrifices of people who were, in general, of little value to mankind."

Although the Allies tried and executed 23 Nazi doctors, and the Soviets tried a dozen Unit 731 members they captured, U.S. authorities--including Gen. Douglas MacArthur--did not want Ishii or his collaborators prosecuted.

After he came out of hiding, Ishii played a clever game with U.S. authorities, receiving them at his home dressed in his best kimono, releasing tantalizing bits of information as he held out for a written guarantee that he would not be prosecuted.

He eventually received a pension from the Japanese government and died of cancer in 1956.

The U.S. was convinced that a war-crimes trial would expose volumes of precious data that could give the Soviets a leg up on biological warfare, just as the two former allies plunged into the Cold War.

Harris says that ironically, the American biological-warfare program, begun only in 1943, was far superior to the Japanese. By 1945, the United States was preparing to produce 1 million small bombs laden with anthrax that could have been dropped on Japan.

Why were American scientists so willing to gloss over Ishii's crimes for the sake of getting their hands on his data?

Harris suggests that they hungered to compare their information--derived only from animal tests--with the "forbidden fruit" of the Japanese data, the byproduct of human experimentation that was ethically off limits for American researchers.

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