Both the United States and Great Britain tested biological weapons during World War II, but for ethical reasons such tests were limited to animal subjects. Japanese medical officer Shiro Ishii had no such scruples, and he unleashed some of nature’s deadliest pathogens on helpless humans, with horrifying results.
Ishii was born in Japan in 1892 and became a doctor in 1920, graduating from Kyoto Imperial University. He had a reputation for being thoughtless towards colleagues but obsequious to superiors. Ishii married the daughter of the university’s president and joined the Army Medical Corps. When the 1925 Geneva Protocol banned the use of bacteriological and chemical weapons in war, he began to urge the creation of a Japanese bacteriological weapons program. Ishii reasoned that such weapons must be very effective, otherwise they wouldn’t have been prohibited. Ishii traveled through Europe and the United States for several years with an interest in the bacteriological weapons used in World War I. Upon his return he was appointed professor of immunology at the Tokyo Army Medical School and given the rank of major. While there Ishii quickly made a name for himself, inventing an effective water purification filter that he allegedly demonstrated before the Emperor. But the fame and riches that this invention brought were not enough for Ishii; he continued advocating that the Japanese army develop biological weapons. In 1932 the government put him in charge of a testing and production facility in the Chinese province of Manchuria, which the Japanese had invaded the previous year. As head of what would be euphemistically named the “Anti-Epidemic Water Supply and Purification Bureau,” Ishii eagerly got to work.
Ishii’s first facility was in the city of Harbin; however, the need for secrecy made it necessary for Ishii to relocate his group to a prison camp 60 miles away. After this camp was blown up by escapees, an installation called Ping Fan was constructed about 14 miles from Harbin. When completed in 1940, what became known as Unit 731 housed some 3,000 personnel. At a ceremony honoring the event, the now General Ishii made the facility’s purpose crystal clear. A doctor’s “god-given mission,” Ishii said, was to block and treat disease, but the work “upon which we are now about to embark is the complete opposite of these principles.” In the name of defeating Japan’s enemies, Ishii and his staff spent the next five years mixing witch’s brews of pathogens that cause some of the world’s most horrific diseases: anthrax, plague, gas gangrene, smallpox, and botulism, among others. They then used Chinese prisoners (dismissively termed maruta, or “logs”) as guinea pigs, forcing them to breathe, eat, and receive injections of deadly pathogens. Allied POWs were also allegedly targeted.
Reign of Horror
Japanese Unit 731 doctor stands with face covered in front of pile of Chinese prisoner bodies. Victims were often killed before the diseases had run their course, so autopsies could show their progress through the body. Ishii’s men also supplied the Japanese Army with typhoid, cholera, plague, and dysentery bacteria for battlefield use. In addition, they contaminated water sources, released disease-carrying fleas, and dropped contaminated wheat from airplanes. Although dissolution of Unit 731 in 1945 led to the destruction of many of its records, there is no doubt that Ishii and his men had caused the death of many thousands of Chinese, and possibly hundreds of Russian and Allied prisoners of war.
Older Shiro Ishii without mustache. No doubt aware that his activities constituted war crimes of the highest order, Ishii faked his own death in late 1945 and went into hiding. When American occupation forces learned that Ishii was still alive, they ordered the Japanese to hand him over and investigators from Camp Detrick began interrogations. At first Ishii denied any human testing had taken place but, aware that the Soviets also wanted to talk to him and their methods might not be so mild, he later offered to reveal all the details of his program in exchange for immunity from war crimes prosecution. Anxious to learn the results of experiments that they themselves had been unable to perform, the American military accepted Ishii’s offer, and approval was then given by the highest level of government. Ultimately Ishii’s materials proved to be of little value, but the United States kept its end of this dubious bargain. Biological weapons were never mentioned in the Japanese war crimes trials, and Ishii died a free man in 1959.
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