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Truth Emerging on Ailing POWs, Japan Germ Unit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With every wheeze, he thinks of the mysterious prodding with needles and waving of feathers under his nose and wonders: When will his government come clean?

No sooner had Charley Wilson and scores of other American servicemen been freed from a World War II Japanese concentration camp than the symptoms began--the unexplained fevers, tremors, night sweats, reptilian-like skin peeling, numbness, heart afflictions.

First came the revelation that they had been experimented upon by Japan’s infamous germ warfare specialists, Unit 731. Then came the charge that has left the bitterest of residues in Wilson’s mouth and those of the other once-patriotic ex-captives: that the U.S. military knew American POWs in Mukden, Manchuria, had been subjected to biological testing and--to this day--has refused to admit it.

Half a century later, the release of a new tell-all book by six aging former members of Unit 731 and the declassifying of government documents have helped pry open one of the great secrets of World War II and salt a very old, painful wound. For the Mukden survivors who have fought for years for an apology, acknowledgment of their maladies and remuneration from the U.S. and Japanese governments, President Clinton’s recently announced investigation of the Persian Gulf War Syndrome also has rubbed a nerve.

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While pleased that Gulf War veterans suffering from inexplicable ailments are receiving attention so quickly, they believe their decades-old plight has been caught up in the stiff winds of international politics for too long. They fear--and rightfully so, since most of them have reached their 70s and 80s--that their time has just about run out.

As they approach death’s doorstep, they would prefer to put aside what has become 50 years worth of anger and resentment. Going to the grave with a bad heart is one thing, they say; going to it with an embittered one is another. Although they once swelled with pride for the United States and willingly surrendered their youths on its behalf, they now feel betrayed, wrung out, played for fools.

“I’ve just resigned myself that I’ll never get anything,” Wilson, 75, of Vincennes, Ind., said. “They told me once that one way to prove this was to let them do an autopsy on me. I said, ‘Well, I’d rather hold off on that.’ ”

As many as 1,500 Americans were believed to have been sent to Mukden in Japanese-occupied Manchuria after the fall of the Philippines in 1942, but as few as half emerged alive. About 200 are believed to be alive today, and it’s unclear how many of those may have been used as guinea pigs.

Although the U.S. government’s official posture on the Mukden imprisonments is that there are no known records to substantiate experimentation on Americans or a cover-up, some officials steadfastly believe the Mukdenites represent a little-known and awful wrong that, unlike other World War II atrocities, has never been formally acknowledged, let alone rectified.

“We are convinced that a number of American POWs in that prison camp were part of a methodical germ-warfare experiment,” said legislative staffer David Roach, who has researched the issue for years for U.S. Rep. Pat Williams (D-Montana). “Many of them have been the victims of recurring maladies over the years.

“But this issue is so sensitive,” Roach said, “our government and the Japanese won’t own up. I wish they would do like the Department of Energy did with the radiation experiments and say, ‘Yes, this happened and here are the documents.’ ”

The Japanese and U.S. governments maintain that many of the official records on the Mukden camp and its inmates were destroyed in fires or lost, a contention that only adds to the veterans’ charges of a postwar conspiracy, especially as more and more documents appear.

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“Not only should these guys be compensated, not only should our government admit what records it has . . . but we should tell these guys before they die, look, you were in a camp where you were experimented upon for these nine diseases, and that’s why you’ve been sick for 50 years,” Roach said. “It’s a moral issue.”

A Paper Trail of Cruelty

It has long been known that Japan’s experiments claimed the lives of hundreds, if not thousands or more Chinese. But evidence also has surfaced over the last 10 years--some in just the past three months--that Americans also were subjected to immoral treatment at Mukden and the U.S. government chose not to prosecute the guilty parties in exchange for data.

Not long ago the diary of an ex-member of Unit 731 was discovered in a bookstore in Japan. It contained detailed drawings and passages about what kind of experimentation took place at Mukden--anthrax, typhoid, tetanus, beriberi, dysentery, plague and numerous other germs were deliberately given to prisoners in varying doses to measure effects.

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Several years ago, Dr. Murray Sanders, a key germ-warfare assistant to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, acknowledged before his death that the United States had, in fact, granted amnesty to Unit 731 members in exchange for test results.

Mukden vets and their families have used the Freedom of Information Act to extract from the Pentagon formerly top secret documents on Mukden.

The documents reveal that Unit 731, led by Gen. Shiro Ishii, cultured germs for numerous diseases and forced prisoners to ingest them by using injection, inhalation and contaminated fleas. The details, as disclosed in the records, are vivid and disturbing.

One document, for example, recounts the time 20 Manchurians were tied to poles or forced to sit on the ground near a bomb filled with bacteria. The subsequent explosion sent plague bacilli and anthrax bacilli into their bodies through wounds.

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“The wounded,” the document stated, “were kept in the laboratory until the symptoms of the disease appeared and when they were taken ill, they were given medical treatment and their cases were studied, but most of them died in agony.”

Two U.S. scientists who examined Ishii’s experimentation records declared them a gold mine--medical data that “could not be obtained in our laboratories because of scruples attached to human experimentation,” they wrote in 1948--and they expressed hope that immunity could be granted.

Although U.S. officials apparently believed Japanese postwar claims that they did not experiment on American POWs, they remained mindful of the potential embarrassment of such a revelation if they didn’t prosecute Ishii or his subordinates, especially since the Soviets did plan to prosecute Unit 731 members for war crimes.

One now-declassified memo, dated March, 1948, cautioned: “Independent investigation conducted by the Soviets in the Mukden Area may have disclosed that American prisoners of war were used for experimental purposes of a BW (biological warfare) nature and that they lost their lives as a result of these experiments.

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“There is a strong possibility,” the unsigned document noted, “that the Soviet prosecutors will . . . introduce evidence of experiments conducted on human beings by the Ishii BW (biological warfare) group, which experiments do not differ greatly from those for which this government is now prosecuting German scientists and medical doctors at Nuremberg.”

Yet another document--the transcript of a Soviet war crimes tribunal--also supports the experimentation claims of American survivors of Mukden:

Prosecutor: “Did Detachment 731 study the immunity of Americans to infectious diseases?”

Unit 731 officer named Karasawa: “One of the researchers of the detachment . . . told me . . . that he had come to Mukden to study immunity among American war prisoners.”

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Prosecutor: “And for this purpose tests were made of the blood of American war prisoners?”

Karasawa: “That is so.”

Injections, Contaminated Feathers and the ‘Zero Ward’

Max McClain says he knows it is so; wishes it were not.

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Assigned to Barracks 2 at the camp, McClain left behind the comfort of his hometown in America’s heartland, Franklin, Ind., and became a member of the Army’s 59th Coast Artillery. At Mukden, he remembers, he and his fellow POWs got injections nearly every other week during one three-month period. Shortly after the shots, some would die. Some would get very sick. And others seemed unaffected.

The sickest were admitted to the camp’s “Zero Ward,” where those who went in rarely came out, McClain, 72, of Orlando, Fla., said.

When prisoners died, the Japanese doctors took a keen interest, giving each a toe-tag with a number scrawled on it, McClain said.

McClain can recall getting an injection the same day as bunkmate George W. Hayes. “I think I was two or three guys ahead of him in line to get a shot. He got a ‘hot one.’ I didn’t,” said McClain, who has been medically disabled since 1983. “We got it on Monday. . . . On Wednesday morning he said, ‘Hey, Mac, come here. I don’t know what they gave me, but I feel like s---.’

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“When I got back that night, the boys at the morgue were cutting him up.”

Almost overnight, McClain’s experience at Mukden mysteriously transformed him from a strong and spirited young soldier to a man hobbled by endless illnesses and scared by the emotional destruction of it all.

Not long after the war ended in 1945 and McClain was liberated, he looked up from a table of friends, saw the faces of his Japanese tormentors and lunged at them. “They had to subdue him,” said his son, Richard, 48, who said his father never received counseling from the U.S. Veterans Administration, which denied that Americans were experimented upon at Mukden.

Richard McClain believes that his father--"a very peaceful man by nature"--would have led a richer life if not for Mukden. He said that his father was the youngest of a Depression-era family of 11 who spent his youth in an orphanage and that it is no small thing that the rest of his life was all but taken from him too. “I think he’d have been much more social, a lot less isolated. He really suffered because of this.”

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Gregory Rodriquez Sr. also has a psyche seared with images from the camp. There was the time he was lying on his bunk one night suffering from fever and chills and a Japanese doctor sidled up and “stuck a mirror under my nostrils. Then he came back later and stuck a feather under my nose. I thought he was checking my breathing or something.”

Years later, his son, while researching biological warfare, discovered that waving a contaminated feather in front of a test subject’s nostrils was a common way to transmit germs.

“That jogged my memory,” said Rodriguez Sr., 73, of Henryetta, Okla., who has been afflicted ever since with unexplained 104-degree fevers.

He cannot count the number of times he has been fine one minute and burning up the next. Through the months, which turned into years, which slipped into decades, he has been tested and retested and tested and retested and always the result is the same: His doctors can identify no cause for his sickness.

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Worse perhaps, as a father of six, he has remained wracked with guilt and angst over whether what happened to him at the camp was somehow passed on to his children, weakening their bodies. From infancy, two of his daughters suffered serious thyroid problems and one of his sons suffered from arthritis starting at an early age.

“The thing that affects me is that they could do that in the callous fashion that they did,” the soft-spoken Rodriguez said of the U.S. government’s information-for-immunity pact. “They more or less traded our futures for some information.”

In all too-vivid detail, Frank James can recall going to a shed where bodies of fellow American prisoners were stored--subzero temperatures prevented burial in the wintertime--and being asked to retrieve corpses for dissection, but only certain ones.

“I was one of two men who used to pick up the bodies,” recalled James, 73, of Redwood City, Calif. “I’d check the serial number to see if it was one they wanted.”

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Stricken with wet and dry beriberi during his three-year internment at Mukden, James has had severe skin, scalp and heart problems since he left Mukden, with his health precipitously declining when he reached his 40s. Every so often, he said, his arms and legs would go numb, preventing him from enjoying even the simplest of pleasures, like playing with his two daughters as they grew up. As if the injections in the camp were not enough, his limbs had to be pricked with pins time and again as doctors tried to diagnose the source of the numbness.

So severe was the numbness that James said he would sometimes accidentally burn himself and not know it. “I wouldn’t feel a thing,” he said.

Frail and raspy-voiced now, he is hardly the gung-ho youth who began working at a service station at age 8 and fled Kokomo, Ind., at 18 for the Army “to see the world.” He speaks amid the ever-present hiss of an oxygen machine. He estimated he has been to the doctor about 1,000 times in the past 50 years. That said, he argues that he is lucky to have lived this long.

Mukden vet Warren W. (Pappy) Whelchel struggled for decades with sky-high fevers and more than a dozen other illnesses before he died in the fall of 1985.

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Then there was Felix Kozakevitch, a soldier from New York forced to stand at attention in subzero weather in frostbite experiments at Mukden. He, too, died in late 1985.

“They told us at a debriefing in the Philippines that if we ever talked about what happened inside the camp we’d be court-martialed,” James said. “But when it all started coming out, to hell with them.”

A Plea for Compassion and Justice

Despite the tragedies of Mukden vets, their journey for justice has been a lonely one. Until now.

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Just last month, half a dozen former members of Unit 731 broke their 50-year silence in a booklet called “The Truth About Unit 731.” Published amid a burgeoning movement in Japan among students, academicians, politicians and journalists to come to grips with its half-century-old war crimes, the book is being translated into English.

Rodriguez Jr., whose persistent efforts on behalf of his father have single-handedly resulted in the release of many of the Mukden-related records, recently returned from Japan where he met with a member of the Japanese Diet and former members of Unit 731. He said the infamous unit’s members were coming forward now because “they’re older, and I think they’ve begun to feel some remorse.”

“There are sympathetic portions of the (Japanese) government who want to expose this thing, to get it out in the open,” added Paul Reuter, national adjutant of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, which is pursuing a lawsuit against Japan in the United Nations’ World Court on behalf of the Mukden vets.

At the urging of Rep. Williams from Montana--who has referred to the Mukden veterans’ plight as the “longest and best-kept secret of World War II"--a subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee in 1986 did convene a little-publicized half-day hearing, but legislators concluded that there was insufficient evidence.

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Although U.S. lawmakers acknowledged the vets’ longstanding chronic health problems, they say most were not unlike those of other prisoners of war or the problems of other veterans who smoke or drink.

“It’s hard after 40 years to make that causal link,” one congressional staffer said.

Numerous other factors have conspired to hinder the Mukden issue from getting a full airing: a reluctance to sully the legend of the late Gen. MacArthur, the “POW syndrome” that makes many vets ashamed to admit they were captured, the ever-sensitive nature of U.S.-Japanese relations and the relatively small number of Mukden survivors.

But those who have stepped forward, convinced they were robbed of a lifetime of health in the service of their country, say their requests are just: They want the U.S. government to acknowledge its complicity in a cover-up, make public whatever further records it has, and give, in their words, “an appropriate amount” of compensation to them and their families.

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“Let us know what’s wrong with us,” said Sam Castrianni, 71, of Sanford, Fla., who was in Mukden from 1942 to 1945. “Our government had no business working a deal like that.”

They want the Japanese government to do likewise. They strongly believe the Japanese should pay them, because the United States did just that for Japanese families placed in internment camps during World War II.

Despite the increased attention, the Mukden vets’ hopes that the country they once fought for will act on their behalf have been dissolved by the gathering years.

“There were so few of us to begin with,” said Wilson, “I think they decided long ago they would just wait till we all died.

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“Won’t be long now.”


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