View Full Version : Unit 731 - The Asian Auschwitz

08-20-2012, 07:58 AM
1932, Pingfang Northern China was the home of Unit 731, the world’s first biological war complex. Masterminded by army doctor General Shiro Ishii, who believed that biological weapons were so powerful, that the normal doctrine of medicine to save lives should be reversed. Today the world is still threatened by the technology pioneered by unit 731, one of this century’s most murderous collaborations between scientists and soldiers.

Imperial Japan in the 1930s was a nation mobilised for war. Finding increasingly efficient ways of killing people was of great interest to the Japanese high command. Japanese troops invading China had already overrun all resistance using conventional weapons. But Japan’s leaders saw that biological weapons might provide a cheap way to keep the Chinese under control, and further expand their new empire in the Far East.

Officially known as the Kempeitai Political Department and Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory, Unit 731 was set up to develop weapons of mass destruction for potential use against Chinese, and possibly Soviet forces. The complex was based in the Pingfang district of Harbin in the puppet state of Manchukuo. It covered six square kilometres, and consisted of more than 150 buildings. Complete with an aerodrome, railway line, barracks, dungeons, laboratories, operating rooms, crematoria, cinema, bar and Shinto temple, rivalling for size the largest of the Nazi death camps.

For Ishii and the generals that backed him, developing a biological weapon was considered both a scientific and patriotic adventure. Thousands of medics were secretly drafted to Pingfang, their mission to turn common illnesses like cholera, dysentery and anthrax into weapons of mass murder. Orders were issued that the research should include live human subjects, and throughout the 1930s and 40s the secret unit used Manchuria as a killing field.

Test subjects were selected from a wide cross section of the population, including infants, the elderly and pregnant, criminals, political prisoners, and those suspected of "suspicious activities". Thousands of people were brought to unit 731 in sealed wagons, and taken to research buildings at the centre of the complex in complete secrecy. The cover story for Pingfang was that it was a lumber yard, with the Japanese euphemistically referring to the prisoners as "logs" (maruta).

In addition to deliberately infecting prisoners with diseases like anthrax, cholera and the bubonic plague, a macabre litany of almost unimaginably cruel experiments were conducted on the prisoners.

* Vivisection without anaesthesia
* Limbs amputated in order to study blood loss, then reattached
* Limbs were frozen then thawed to observe untreated gangrene and rotting.
* Air injected into arteries to observe the onset of embolism.
* Food and water depravation to determine the length of time until death.
* Being exposed to extreme high or low pressures in chambers until death.
* Exposure to extreme temperatures until frostbite developed.
* Being placed into centrifuges and spun until dead.
* Having animal blood injected and the effects studied.
* Horse urine injected into kidneys.
* Being exposed to lethal doses of x-ray radiation.
* Prisoners were used as live target practice for grenades or flamethrowers.
* Live burial.

From 1936 to 1942, approximately 12,000 men women and children were tortured to death in Unit 731 facilities.

To test the newly developed germ weapons produced at Pingfang, small teams were sent into the country side to conduct field trials. Bacteria would be poured directly into a village well, before returning a few days later, and dissecting the infected inhabitants alive. The bodies were thrown down the well, and the villages torched to destroy any evidence. Infected food supplies and clothing were also airdropped into areas of China not occupied by Japanese forces, which by the end of the war had caused an estimated 400,000 Chinese casualties.

From a scientific point of view, the tests were a resounding success. The dead villages proved that mass produced germs could kill, and kill quickly. But despite these successes, it was still conventional weapons that held sway. If these new biological weapons were to be of any use on a modern battlefield, effective delivery systems needed to be developed.

Meteorologists were drafted in to help predict weather patterns, so that airdropped agents could be more accurately delivered. To test this technique, prisoners were tied to stakes and forced to look up with their mouths open to ensure they inhaled the bacteria being sprayed from delivery planes. As the prisoners sickened and died, Japanese doctors meticulously charted and documented their decline.

Bacteria are delicate organisms, easily destroyed by conventional methods of delivery like sprays or explosives. The scientists at Unit 731 used a low-tech solution to this problem, by breeding thousands of plague infected rats and collecting their fleas. Dropped by airplane the fleas could survive long enough to infect and kill the enemy.

The Chinese Nationalist held city of Ningbo was chosen as the target, and in 1940 a Japanese bomber rained down thousands of plague infected fleas upon the city. As panic spread, plague victims were taken to a temple outside the city and kept in isolation. The death toll was so great that people were reportedly buried two to a coffin. One load of infected fleas had killed hundreds and created utter terror, proving that germ weapons, however crude, could be extremely effective.

As Japanese forces swept though the Far East, news leaked out of secret biological warfare research in Manchuria, and soon Japan was not the only country looking into germ warfare. The Allies reasoned that if the Japanese could do it, then so could the Germans, and a greater understanding should be gained so that methods of protection could be developed.

Ultimately, the Japanese doctors at Ping Fang failed to produce a war winning super weapon. Something the Americans achieved successfully with the atomic bomb, which dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ended the war. However, Unit 731's research proved that biological warfare was many thousands of times more powerful than the chemical weapons used during WWI. Anthrax, for instance, if properly weaponised and delivered from the air, could also be capable of wiping out whole cites.

After Japan’s surrender, occupying American scientists attempted to recover as much scientific knowledge as possible. But retreating Japanese troops under Ishii's orders had destroyed most of the evidence. Ishii went into hiding, but unconfirmed reports suggested that all the test data had been surreptitiously shipped back to Tokyo.

The Americans faced conflicting pressures. Justice demanded that Japanese biologists be put on trial for war crimes. But they were terrified that the Soviets would get their hands on a decades worth of bio-warfare research. When Germany fell, the Soviets had shared the spoils of the V-2 rocket technology, history that America did not want repeated with biological weapons.

A secret deal was struck with the Allies, and when the Tokyo war trials opened in 1946, neither Ishii nor any of his scientists were among the accused. However, the Soviet Union later prosecuted twelve top military leaders and scientists from Unit 731 and its affiliated biological-war prisons during the Khabarovsk War Crime Trials. Many of the staff at Unit 731 went on to prominent careers in Japan’s medical establishment, Dr Shiro Ishii moved to Maryland in the U.S. to continue work on bio-weapons. He later died at home of throat cancer aged 67.

After the war, America and the Soviet Union continued the research that Unit 731 had started, and by the beginning of the 1960s a number highly effective biological weapons had been added to both of their Cold War arsenals. Despite their huge destructive capabilities, bio-weapons are actually of little military use in the context of a world power already armed with nuclear and chemical weapons. Even the most virulent agents take a number of days to take effect, limiting their tactical value. Also, as with nuclear weapons, the fear of retaliation in kind is another highly limiting factor.

By the early 1970s the U.S. had publicly abandoned its research into offensive weapons, destroyed all of its munitions and signed the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention. However the Soviet Union secretly continued research in a program called “Biopreparat”, despite having signed the convention, and are believed to still have huge stockpiles of bio-weapons to this day. Treaties outlawing bio-warfare had been signed, but the genie could not be put back in the bottle.

Because of their effectiveness and small price tag, the idea of a cheap super weapon remains extremely attractive to small nations vying for superpower status. One of the main reasons why weapons of mass destruction have rarely been used since WWII is the fear of retaliation. However, terrorist organisations do not share this restriction and the threat of their use by them remains part of the vicious legacy of unit 731.