Unit 731

Most people know about the horrors perpetrated by the sadistic heads of Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Many also know about the American failures to rescue Jewish refugees and the general lack of urgency about shutting down the camps. Fewer know of the atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War II or of the part America played in letting Japanese war criminals off the hook.

WARNING: This post contains graphic descriptions of the horrifying human experiments carried out at Unit 731 by Japanese scientists.

For China, World War II began in 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria, seizing a large chunk of territory and setting up a puppet state called Manchukuo. Harbin, of course, is a part of that region, and so came under Japanese jurisdiction starting in 1931.

In 1932, the chief medical officer of the Japanese army, Shiro Ishii, was placed in command of the “Army Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory”, based in a suburb south of Harbin. Here, secret chemical and biological research was conducted until the facility was attacked in 1935. The Japanese government, sold on the usefulness of this type of research, gave Ishii a blank check to begin a more extensive program, and in 1936 his team began work in a much larger facility closer to Harbin. Officially, they were the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army. Colloquially, they were known as Unit 731.

Officially, the 731 was a lumber mill; but in actuality its purpose was human experimentation. Scientists and staff jokingly referred to their test subjects as “logs”; these logs were acquired by the Japanese secret police, who stole men, women, and children off the streets and shipped them by train to Unit 731. What exactly happened to people once they got there? The list is long, and extremely horrible.

For one, the scientists performed numerous vivisections–surgeries on live patients–often without anesthesia. Sometimes they would infect the “test subjects” with diseases first. Sometimes they removed organs. They amputated limbs, sometimes reattaching them to the opposite side of the body, they froze and unthawed body parts to study the effects of gangrene, removed parts of people’s brains, raped and impregnated women and then experimented during the pregnancy. They even performed vivisections on newborn infants.

They tested the effectiveness of explosives (and effective treatments for shrapnel wounds) by tying unprotected test subjects (i.e., Chinese people) to boards at varying distances surrounding an explosive, and then detonating it. They also tested numerous chemical and biological agents in this manner, as well as flame-throwers.

They infected their subjects with numerous diseases from syphilis to the bubonic plague, then infested their living quarters with fleas. The resultant infected fleas were dropped from airplanes over Chinese cities, resulting in thousands of deaths.

Other miscellaneous experiments were also performed. The full extent of these will probably never be known, so here’s a sampling courtesy of Wikipedia. Prisoners were subjected to:

  • being hung upside down to see how long it would take for them to choke to death.
  • having air injected into their arteries to determine the time until the onset of embolism.
  • having horse urine injected into their kidneys.
  • being deprived of food and water to determine the length of time until death.
  • being placed into high-pressure chambers until death.
  • being exposed to extreme temperatures and developed frostbite to determine how long humans could survive with such an affliction, and to determine the effects of rotting and gangrene on human flesh.
  • having experiments performed upon prisoners to determine the relationship between temperature, burns, and human survival.
  • being placed into centrifuges and spun until dead.
  • having animal blood injected and the effects studied.
  • being exposed to lethal doses of x-ray radiation.
  • having various chemical weapons tested on prisoners inside gas chambers.
  • being injected with sea water to determine if it could be a substitute for saline.

The soldiers at Unit 731 even gave out poisoned candy to children to study its effects in the local population.

All of that alone would be horrifying enough, but there’s more. When the war ended, Shrio Ishii and his fellow butchers knew their lives were in danger, but they also know that their experimental data would be of interest to American military scientists (who weren’t allowed to experiment on people) eager to get a head start on the Russians. They met with the Americans and parlayed a deal, trading the data on their horrifying experiments in return for complete and total immunity. To repeat
(for it bears repeating): The United States of America granted the heads of Unit 731 complete immunity. Shiro Ishii died in 1959 of natural causes, without having served a single day in prison.

Today, parts of Unit 731 still exist as a museum in suburban Harbin.