“The fellow knew that it was over for him, and so he didn’t struggle when they led him into the room and tied him down. But when I picked up the scalpel, that’s when he began screaming. 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”
This is a quote taken from one of the worker’s at Unit 731. Let me be straight here: this post will contain descriptions of graphic violence in its barest form, sans the humour of my usual posts. I lived and worked in China for two years, I have studied the language for longer than I care to recount here, and I currently work for a Chinese company. The country is very close to my heart and the atrocities that took place in Unit 731 disgust me to the very core of my being. This is why I am determined to write about them now, and why I have warned you here.
Unit 731 was an undercover operation led by the Imperial Japanese Army to conduct research into biological and chemical warfare. Throughout the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), the unit was used to perform lethal human experiments on POWs and civilians. Behind the walls of this compound, some of the world’s most notorious war crimes took place.
The complex was established in 1934 and based in Harbin, a city at the very northernmost and iciest expanse of China’s borders. It was officially known as the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army; an alias that would serve it well for several years. The site was the brainchild of General Shiro Ishii, a decorated medical officer in the Imperial Japanese Army who proposed the idea for the facility in 1930.
Its predecessor, Unit Tōgō, was also masterminded by Ishii but was shut down not long after a prison break overran the facility. His new compound, however, far outranked its ancestor; it covered six square kilometres and was made up of more than 150 buildings. The walls were reinforced, making the buildings incredibly difficult to destroy, and overall they contained over 4,500 vessels used to breed fleas and approximately 1,800 used to produce biological agents.
It is estimated that anywhere from 3,000 to 12,000 men, women, and children were subjected to horrific human experiments in the base camp alone; about 600 people every year. About 70% of these victims were Chinese, while the remaining 30% was made up predominantly of Russian POWs as well as a few Southeast Asians and POWs from Allied countries. Right up until the end of the war in 1945, the unit received generous support from the Japanese government.
Workers within the compound would refer to human subjects as maruta or “logs” in an effort to dehumanise them and hide their presence from outside forces. This euphemism was treated as a joke, as the cover story given to the local authorities was that the facility was a lumber mill. Victims routinely rounded up for use in experiments ranged from POWs and criminals to infants, pregnant women, and elderly civilians.
Many of the victims were forcibly infected with diseases before being subjected to live vivisection without anaesthesia. Doctors would perform invasive surgery on these inmates and remove vital organs, such as the brain, liver, and lungs, to see what effect certain diseases had on the body. They felt that victims must be alive for these experiments, lest decomposition took place and damaged the organs. During some experiments, victims would have their stomachs removed and their intestines connected directly to their oesophaguses.
In 2007, a military surgeon named Ken Yuasa, who had worked in Unit 731, was quoted by the Japan Times as saying: “I was afraid during my first vivisection, but the second time around, it was much easier. By the third time, I was willing to do it”. Based on his testimony, it was estimated that at least 1,000 medical staff were involved in these horrific surgeries.
Prisoners would have limbs amputated, again under no anaesthesia, to see the effect of blood loss. In some cases, the limbs would be re-attached to the other side of their body so that researchers could determine whether this was a viable way of keeping the limbs alive. Sometimes they would be frozen and amputated, or allowed to thaw to see the subsequent effects of rotting and gangrene.
Frostbite was a particular concern, as Japan wanted to be prepared in the event that they had to invade Russia and deal with its unforgiving climate. A physiologist named Yoshimura Hisato pioneered frostbite research by taking prisoners out into the sub-zero temperatures, dipping their limbs into water, and then allowing them to freeze. Once the area was completely frozen, they would experiment in a number of ways to try and “treat” the frostbite, including bludgeoning the limb and chipping away the ice.
Even if they were spared surgery, the vast majority of prisoners were intentionally injected with venereal diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhoea under the guise of “vaccinations”. Some prisoners were repeatedly raped by guards, who had contracted the disease after having raped civilian women or shared unwilling sex slaves. In an attempt to find a cure, many civilian women were forcibly injected with syphilis, and some of them were even forced to get pregnant before being vivisected to further examine the vertical transmission of the disease.
Those who were “lucky” enough to escape surgery, forced infection, and frostbite were tied to stakes outside of the facility and subjected to grenades, flamethrowers, germ-releasing bombs, chemical weapons, and explosive bombs. Other experiments involved depriving prisoners of food and water to see how long they would last; placing prisoners into pressure chambers to determine how much pressure the human body could take before the eyeballs popped out; spinning prisoners in centrifuges until they died; injecting prisoners with animal blood; exposing them to lethal doses of x-rays; gassing them; injecting them with sea water; and burning them alive.
Unit 731 and an affiliated site, known as Unit 1644, continuously bred plague infected fleas while another satellite complex, Unit 8604, was used to breed rats. Outside of the facility, plague fleas, infected clothing, and infected supplies were packaged into bombs and dropped on various targets throughout China. The resultant effects, including widespread cholera, tularemia, and plague, were estimated to have killed over 400,000 Chinese civilians.
They were known to have spread plague infected fleas over the coastal city of Ningbo in 1940 and Hunan’s Changde City in 1941 using low-flying planes. On September 22nd 1945, the Imperial Japanese Army had prepared and scheduled to drop one of these patented plague bombs on San Diego, California. However, they surrendered five weeks before the bomb was due to launch.
When Russians finally invaded the Harbin area in 1945, the researchers in Unit 731 abandoned their work and fled to Japan. General Ishii ordered them to take their secret to the grave and issued all of them with vials of potassium cyanide in the event that they were captured. Japanese troops were sent to blow up the compound and destroy all of the evidence, but it was so well built that it survived somewhat intact.
After continuing pressure from the American military, a microbiologist known as Lieutenant Colonel Murray Sanders was provided with a manuscript by the Japanese government detailing their involvement in biological warfare. He took it directly to the then Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces; Douglas MacArthur. Yet, when evidence of the unit was finally discovered, rather than punish the perpetrators, the Americans decided to grant the researchers immunity in exchange for their data on biological and chemical warfare.
On the 6th of May 1947, MacArthur wrote to the Pentagon stating that “possibly some statements from Ishii probably can be obtained by informing Japanese involved that information will be retained in intelligence channels and will not be employed as ‘War Crimes’ evidence”. They managed to dismiss victims’ testimonies as “Communist Propaganda”.
The physicians provided the U.S. government with details of their research, agreed to withhold this evidence from other Allied countries, and in exchange were granted immunity. One member of Unit 1644, Masami Kitaoka, went on to perform experiments on unwilling Japanese subjects. He infected prisoners with rickettsia and mental health patients with typhus while working for Japan’s National Institute of Health Sciences.
To this day, none of the known perpetrators who carried out such inhumane experimentation have been tried, nor has Japan acknowledged the presence of the unit or apologised formally for the atrocities committed there. While many of these war criminals went on to enjoy high-ranking medical positions and normal lives, they have left behind only devastation in their wake.