Ben Hills

Jing fuhe peers through the gloom at a blurry black-and-white picture showing a pile of partly burnt bodies, one of them quite clearly that of a small child. “We had never seen that sort of sickness in this district,” he declares. “The village healers were powerless to stop it – all we could do was burn incense and fall to our knees and pray to heaven as our families died.” It was the autumn of 1945, and the doctors who rushed to Jing’s mud-walled hamlet identified the disease as bubonic plague – the dreaded “black death” which wiped out a third of the population of Europe during the Middle Ages.

They were too late, with their inoculations and fumigations, to save many of the villagers from an agonising death. More than 100 perished, including most of Jing Fuhe’s extended family: an uncle, an aunt, cousins, finally his father, who died while the family was at the aunt’s funeral. In 12 days, 12 of the 19 members of his family were dead.

But how had this ancient scourge come to devastate the population here on the alluvial flatlands of the northern province of Heilongjiang, named after the mighty Black Dragon River which forms the modern border between China and Russia? A few kilometres away from Jing Fuhe’s village, surrounded by a fivemetre wall topped with barbed and electrified wire, stood the most secret installation in the Japanese empire.

The surrounding town is still called Ping Fan – “one storey” – because the Japanese occupiers would allow no structure to be built from which anyone might catch a glimpse of the horrors being perpetrated inside.

For seven years, within the walls of what the Japanese high command innocuously named the No. 731 Water Purification Unit, the world’s most immense experiment in biological warfare was carried out. It was a Manhattan Project of germs, aimed (as a surviving Japanese researcher puts it) at producing “a poor man’s atomic bomb”.

Within those forbidding walls, more than 3,000 human guineapigs were put to death in the most frightful ways. Germs, distributed at random around the landscape, killed at the very least 250,000 more – a greater toll than Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together.

Unit No. 731, established on the express orders of Emperor Hirohito, violated the 1925 Geneva Armament Convention, and every internationally understood principle of human rights.

Germ warfare was too revolting even for Adolf Hitler; he issued orders that no research was to be conducted in the Third Reich.

This, and much more, is now known. And yet, as the 50th anniversary of the war’s end approaches, unlike many Nazis, those responsible for the atrocities at Ping Fan have escaped prosecution for war crimes; no compensation or apology has ever been offered to survivors such as Jing; and the Japanese Government still officially denies that Unit 731 ever existed.

“Here,” says Han Xiao, rugged up against the sub-zero wind, his teeth tightly clenched. “Here is where the main building used to be.” He kicks some broken bricks. “The Japanese tried to destroy everything.” They very nearly succeeded. In the dying days of the war, the sound of explosions and pillars of smoke could be heard and seen from kilometres around as Japanese soldiers frantically dynamited the evidence ahead of the advancing Soviet Red Army. The surviving prisoners were killed with poison gas.

In the end, the Japanese were frustrated by the sheer scale of the task. Unit 731 was enormous. Maps show 76 different structures on a site of four square kilometres – laboratories, dissection rooms, barns for experimental animals, dormitories for the 3,000 staff – serviced by its own airport and railway spur.

Today, little is left, just a few ruins scattered through the lumberyard and the aluminium factory which now occupy the site. The red-brick army garrison is now a school, which also houses a dingy museum.

Han Xiao, a local official who has spent eight of his 57 years researching the history of Unit 731, points out the chimney of the crematorium where thousands of bodies were incinerated, pens where squirrels were bred, a cool room where prisoners were taken to have their limbs frozen, the towering hulk of the boiler room.

“None of the people around here had any idea what the real purpose of the facility was,” he says. “It was the secret of all secrets – trains could only pass with their curtains drawn; the Air Force would shoot down any plane that came too close.” It has taken almost half a century for scholars like Han to prise open the secret. Most of the documentary evidence came, not from Japan where the archives are still mostly concealed, but from the United States, where records which were handed over by Unit 731’s commanders in exchange for immunity from prosecution are stored at the US Army’s chemical and biological warfare branch in Dugway, Utah.

They document the enormous effort Japan put into developing biological weapons, dating back to 1932 when the Imperial Army arrived in what it proclaimed the puppet State of Manchukuo in northern China. Unit 731 was, in fact, just one of 18 “death factories” throughout China, and in Thailand, Burma, Singapore, and possibly the Philippines and Indonesia.

Dr Death, the absolute ruler of all this, was one Shiro Ishii, the son of a landowner from a village not far from where Tokyo’s Narita airport stands today. A famous surgeon, boozer, womaniser, and ultra-nationalist, Ishii arrived in the Heilongjiang capital of Harbin not long after the occupation forces and proceeded to build his empire.

“He was a very charismatic man,” says Yoshio Shinozuka, a farmer’s son from a village not far from Ishii’s home town who, as a teenager, served in a paramedical unit at Ping Fan. “But he could not have done it on his own – they knew about his hell-like atrocities right to the top.” Shinozuka opens a photo album and points to a picture of Ishii, in his general’s uniform, proudly bearing on his breast the Golden Kite (Third Order) and Rising Sun (Middle Chord) medals personally presented to him by Hirohito. Indeed, on one famous occasion, Ishii urinated through a waterfilter he had designed and offered a glass to the Emperor to drink.

With this sort of patronage, nothing was denied Ishii. His budget ran to what, at today’s values, would be $15 million to $20 million a year. The shrieks and moans of his victims began to echo through the central cell block where the maruta, the “logs of wood” as Ishii called them, were experimented on.

Plague and cholera were the two most promising germs. But almost anything else that could kill was tried at one time or another – anthrax, typhoid, dysentery, tuberculosis, syphilis, salmonella, tetanus, gas gangrene, meningitis, yellow fever, glanders (a horse disease), as well as electrocution, freezing to death, fugu fish poison, injections of air, phosgene gas and potassium cyanide.

“I looked through the peepholes in the cells,” says Shinozuka. “It was a terrible sight. There were people who were sick, people with no arms, no legs. Everyone died within a month at the most – not one survived. I would usually wait until their hearts stopped beating, and then I performed autopsies on them in great detail.” Even in this environment, some of Ishii’s experiments can only be described as psychopathically sadistic, with no conceivable military application. One documents the time taken to freeze to death three-day-old babies. In another, a man had his leg amputated and his arm sewn on in its place. The blood of horses was injected into people’s kidneys.

The victims of these gruesome experiments were mainly Chinese, Mongolians, Koreans and Russians – soldiers, resistance fighters, even innocent civilians rounded up on the streets of Harbin to meet Ishii’s quota of “logs”. But Han Xiao also believes some Allied prisoners, including Australians, British, American and Dutch were abused.

Some years ago, in fact, Han was visited by three Russian Australians searching for their grandfather’s grave. By a fluke, he was able to find a document referring to the man being handed over to Unit 731, and presumably killed, after refusing to succumb to torture and betray his comrades.

In 1982, a number of American former prisoners of war captured in the Pacific testified before a US Congressional inquiry that they had been experimented on at a Japanese concentration camp in the city of Mukden. Their claims could not be substantiated.

Most victims were like Jing Eun Rui, a resistance fighter captured by the Japanese in 1942. He is one of only 99 of the dead of Ping Fan who have been identified – the prisoners were referred to only by numbers and the Japanese burnt most of the records.

Jing Eun Rui’s niece, Guo Jing Lan, now a sprightly 73, was working with her uncle spying on Japanese troop movements and radioing them to other guerilla groups. Both were caught by the dreaded Kempeitai (the Japanese secret police). Guo survived torture, but Jing Eun Rui was shipped off to Unit 731, never to be seen again.

Five years ago, however, the remains of 101 people – some of them bearing signs of experimentation, such as saw marks and holes drilled in their skulls- were unearthed. The Japanese authorities wanted to cremate them, but were stopped by a court injunction.

Guo Jing Lan, along with relatives of other people presumed killed in Unit 731 and a Japanese support group, believes her uncle’s bones are among the remains and has sued to have them returned. “He deserves a decent burial, but even now after 50 years, the Japanese Government refuses to admit what it did,” she says.

“In my opinion,” says Han, the museum keeper, “what you see here is worse than Auschwitz, but it doesn’t get the same publicity. The West is a long way away – they didn’t suffer like we did, and they do not care about Asians.”

The scale of Ishii’s diabolical ambitions was huge. Enough germs were brewed up here to kill everyone on earth many times over; at full capacity, 300 kilos of plague bacteria were produced every month, 500 kilos of anthrax, and nearly a tonne of dysentery and cholera.

Fortunately for the Allies, Ishii’s attempts to deliver it as a battlefield weapon were a failure. At Anda airfield, 150 kilometres north of Harbin, scores of prisoners were tied to stakes in a field while the Japanese Air Force bombarded them with explosive shells, cluster-bombs and aerosols of deadly diseases.

Rats carrying fleas infected with plague were released into the countryside. One record that survived the bonfire shows that Ishii wanted to transport these rats by midget submarine to be released in the streets of Sydney and Melbourne, as well as the US and some Pacific countries.

Ishii gave children chocolates laced with anthrax, biscuits laden with plague; he fed prisoners of war typhoid-infected dumplings, and tea, coffee and beer laced with other pathogens. Thirty teenagers from Harbin died after being given typhoid-contaminated lemonade.

No less a witness than Prince Takahito, brother of Emperor Hirohito, confessed in an interview earlier this year that he had seen poison gas experiments and bayonet practice on prisoners.

As early as 1940, Ishii’s men attacked the town of Ningbo, infecting hundreds of wells and reservoirs, and scattering germ-dosed wheat and millet around. Within weeks, 500 people had died and the town was ravaged by plague, cholera and typhoid for the next seven years. A documentary film made about this “success” was shown to appreciative audiences of scientists and military personnel back in Japan.

But the weapon was so uncontrollable that Ishii managed to kill several thousand of his own troops.

This random, reckless pattern was continued in attacks on Chinese cities, and even further abroad. Ishii’s men spread cholera in Burma, caused a plague outbreak in Thailand, and left ampoules of anthrax which were captured in Papua New Guinea.

And as the war ended and Unit 731 fled back to Japan, they unleashed their final onslaught on the people of Ping Fan. Jing Fuhe, then a boy of 10, recalls watching in amazement as an extraordinary menagerie of sick animals escaped from the ruins of the death factory – camels, monkeys, rats, bears, squirrels, horses. That was what caused the epidemic that wiped out his family.

“No-one will ever know how many people died altogether,” says Han Xiao. “I think the number has to be in the millions.” Western scholars such as Sheldon Harris put the minimum figure at 250,000.

“They should have put Ishii on trial,” says Yoshio Shinozuka, the young orderly who served with Unit 731. Last year, like a number of other Japanese veterans who have “come out” in recent years, he returned to Ping Fan where he felt “the vengeance of the people we murdered remains”. When the war ended, Shinozuka roamed the countryside before being captured and put in a Chinese concentration camp for five years. The handful of people from the thousands who served in Unit 731 ever to stand trial were the small fry like him.

Some were captured by the Chinese and detained until they confessed; 12 Japanese officers were put on trial by the Soviet Union on Christmas Eve 1949 in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk for plotting to use biological warfare. They were sentenced to prison terms of up to 25 years, later commuted.

But neither Ishii nor any of his senior commanders were ever put in the dock at the Allied War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo – despite demands from both Stalin and Mao Zedong for them to be tried for “crimes against humanity”. The reason? They cut a deal with the Americans.

With the Korean War looming, the US – which had virtually no knowledge of germ warfare – was desperate to get its hands on packing cases full of experimental data which Ishii had smuggled back to Japan. The decision to trade that data for money and an immunity from prosecution was probably approved by President Harry Truman. The chief of US biological warfare wrote that “data costing many millions of dollars and years of work” had been obtained for $US250,000.

Ishii and his butchers, rehabilitated, later became Japan’s postwar medical establishment. No fewer than 700 of the doctors responsible for these ghastly experiments received the highest honours for scientific achievement, publishing more than 100 papers in which they disguised the true nature of their experiments by referring to “Korean monkeys”, “Chinese monkeys” etc.

Dr Masaji Kitano, who took over Unit 731 from Ishii, became head of Green Cross, Japan’s largest blood products company.

Dr Hisato Yoshimura, who froze prisoners to death, advised a Japanese polar expedition. Ishii’s successors and proteges still head all the major university medical schools in Japan and control the National Cancer Centre, the National Institute for Health, and the Japanese Medical Association.

It is a matter of conjecture whether the US did actually – as both China and North Korea claim – use Ishii’s technology in the Korean War. Han Xiao certainly believes so; his museum displays a model of what he says is an American germ bomb used during that conflict.

“Please learn the truth,” he exhorts a group of children from a high school in Hiroshima who have come to Ping Fan to place wreaths of coloured paper cranes at a shrine to the victims of Unit 731.

“Your politicians won’t admit what they have done. Your school books tell you lies. Japan still portrays itself as the victim, not the aggressor, in the war. Look around you and see what really happened and make sure it never happens again.”

Publishing Info

1. ‘Dr Death’, Shiro Ishii, above, was responsible for more than 250,000 deaths at Unit 731.
2. Yosio Shinozuka, a paramedic, said it was”a terrible sight”.
3. Jing Fuhe amd Guo Jing lan, both lost relatives to sadistic experiments.
Map: Asia