Harbin, Manchuria was once considered China’s “Paris of the East,” an Asian oasis of European culture in close proximity to Russia.
But in 1937, a cruel and despotic Japanese medical researcher named Shiro Ishii turned the Japanese -occupied Manchuria into a region of terror by constructing a top secret facility named Unit 731.
It was at Unit 731 that thousands of people were tortured and killed in grisly biological warfare, chemical warfare and weapon experiments.
Recently released documents show the U.S. spared Ishii and his “scientists” from war crimes trials in exchange for the horrific data they’d collected.
Ishii’s Harbin horror story first gained international attention in the mid-1980s.
A talented medical researcher in the Imperial Army, Ishii was born to a wealthy family who indulged his every whim.
Considered a thoughtful and dutiful husband and father, Ishii’s peers and colleagues described him as arrogant and selfish, with little regard for anyone he considered beneath him.
But there were two things everyone could agree on: That Ishii was brilliant and that he was obsessed with helping Japan develop a biological warfare program. A Plague Upon Humanity author Daniel Barrenblatt described Ishii as “a brash and flamboyantly corrupt man who considered himself a visionary”
No Sense of Humanity
Ishii’s biggest problem was the 1925 Geneva Protocol, an international agreement created after gas warfare killed thousands in World War I.
The agreement, which prohibited the use of gas, poison and biological weaponry, was signed by countries across the globe – including Japan. But Ishii convinced Japanese officials that biological warfare must be successful if the international community was seeking its ban.
The unscrupulous doctor wasn’t about to let something like a pesky international treaty stand in his way.
“The man had no sense of humanity,” said Sheldon Harris, author of Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare 1932-1945 and the American Cover-up.
By 1936, Shiro Ishii had gained Emperor Hirohito’s approval to construct Unit 731. Hirohito’s blessing was Ishii’s dream come true.
Soon the arrogant military doctor was busy recruiting Japan’s top scientists, doctors, veterinarians and medical specialists.
While there’s been some debate regarding how much Hirohito knew about the project, most historians claim there was no way Ishii’s plan could have been hatched without Hirohito’s full knowledge.
Harbin’s “Lumber Mill”
In addition to building the facility, Ishii also needed to construct his cover stories.
When speaking with Japanese and international officials, Unit 731 was an “Anti-Epidemic Water Supply and Purification Bureau.”
But the story for Harbin’s residents was even more benign. The tale they were told was that the building was just a lumber mill. Using dehumanizing language that served the dual purpose of duping Harbin’s residents, facility researchers nicknamed their subjects “logs”.
Unit 731’s employees euphemistically chatted about cutting, chopping, carrying, stacking, burying and burning their “logs”. And if more “logs” were needed, Japanese secret police would sweep the streets for political protestors, scofflaws and random passersby, and send them off by train to suffer and die in Harbin.
Ishii’s Unit 731 had two goals: To efficiently develop biological weapons to use against Japan’s enemies, and to help Japanese soldiers felled by an enemy’s biological weaponry.
Some research subjects were deliberately infected so that scientists could track the effects of disease as it ravaged its victims.
Chinese nationals, Russian expats and prisoners of war were all collected for experimentation. Men, women and children – no one was spared.
War Crimes: Loosened Lips for Immunity
But once the war ended and Japan was under U.S. control, the victor became the vanquished.
To avoid prosecution as war criminals, Ishii and his cohorts offered to share their data with U.S. officials in exchange for protection.
Ft. Detrick scientists Edwin Hill and Joseph Victor agreed the Unit 731 scientists’ lips would loosen if an immunity deal was on the table.
Colonel Murray Saunders, a Ft. Detrick military officer tasked to uncover information about Japan’s biological warfare program concurred, recommending that General Macarthur offer Unit 731’s perpetrators immunity.
While only a limited number of U.S. documents mention Unit 731, a documented link can be made from Saunders and Macarthur all the way up to President Truman.
A 2006 document released by the National Archives entitled “Researching Japanese War Crimes: Introductory Essays” details a 1950 memo describing clemency issues related to the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.
The memo revealed that the U.S., at the time, was seeking ways to dismiss any new evidence against Japan that the Soviets might produce.
According to the Virginia-based nonprofit World Future Fund, Ishii’s Unit 731 “research” was meant to give the Japanese military an upper hand on the battlefield, but wound up benefiting the U.S. military instead.
The U.S. was secretly delighted to gain such information derived from experiments that they themselves were forbidden to perform, and even happier that the Soviets wouldn’t have access to Ishii’s results.
Protecting War Criminals for Scientific Secrets
A shroud of secrecy kept Japanese scientists safe from prosecution and gave the U.S. valuable information about biological weapons that they could potentially use against the Soviets, if needed.
In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Japanese Imperial Government Disclosure Act requiring that all Japanese documents seized by the U.S. Army be released. But these records, currently kept by the National Archives, have yet to see the light of day.
While other war criminals are typically brought to trial and then executed or imprisoned if convicted, most of Unit 731’s employees went on to lead normal lives and careers.
“By virtue, ostensibly, of their cooperation with their American conquerors, the former leadership of Unit 731 lived relatively quietly and undisturbed in the postwar period. The freedom they enjoyed stands in stark contrast to the fates of other, better known, ‘Class A’ war criminals,” writes Unit 731: Testimony author Hal Gold.
There’s speculation that Ishii’s “medical expertise” was briefly used to help the U.S. during the Korean War. But the tide turned, and alienated colleagues who couldn’t stand Ishii’s abrasive personality rejected him each time he applied for a job.
He eventually died from throat cancer in 1959 at the age of 67.
And then there were Unit 731’s victims. The World Future Fund wrote in their paper:
“Japanese Biological Warfare Atrocities and the U.S. Cover-Up” that “To this day, the victims of biological and chemical experiments in Manchuria have received neither compensation nor an apology for Japanese wrong-doing.”