Unit 731: One of the Most Terrifying Secrets of the 20th Century
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The history of Unit 731 begins with one man, Shiro Ishii. Ishii was an extremely bright young man in Japan and gained entrance to Kyoto Imperial University. Something that is important to know about Ishii is that he was close to 6 feet tall. That might seem like a useless piece of information but for the Japanese (who are generally speaking not too tall) he was like a stern tower of a giant, demanding attention and respect wherever he went. In 1922 Ishii had returned to Kyoto Imperial University to further his education and knowledge of bacteriology, serology, preventive medicine, and pathology. That same year he was sent to Kyushu. There, a highly contagious disease had become extremely aggressive and claiming many lives. The disease caused a severe amount of swelling to the brain and was extremely difficult to study. Ishii approached the problem from a different direction, rather than studying the disease (he was unable to do so efficiently because the problem lay in the brain where he was unable to get to before the patients died) he studied how to prevent effective water filtration so that soldiers weren't drinking liquid parasites. He did this well, and because of it received much acclaim from his colleagues, and it is said that he even demonstrated how his product worked in front of the Emperor of Japan himself (supposedly Ishii swore by his filtration so much that he urinated in the filter and then proceeded to drink the clean water the filter produced). In April of 1928 Ishii left Japan to travel the world for two years studying. Ishii visited clinics and laboratories in almost thirty countries. He went everywhere from Russia to America, Germany and France. He returned with information he believed would drastically alter the fate of Japan.

Because of Ishii's strong ties with prominent officials such as: Colonel Chikahiko Koizumi ( who would soon be the Army's Surgeon General and later on become Japanese Health Minister), Colonel Tetsuzan Nagat (who would soon become Chief of the War Ministry's Military Affairs Bureau) and Nobuyoshi Araki the War Minister, he was able to receive funding for projects he believed would result in Japan emerging as world leader. In 1930 when Ishii returned from his trip Koizumi (who had long been pushing the idea of funding a project for chemical and biological warfare.) Koizumi, a soldier was not as respected as other militants because he was a surgeon, and surgeons at the time had no weapon they could use in war. Koizumi would use Ishii as his tool to change all of these notions the war officials had.

After the Mancurian Incident (the official Japanese occupation of Manchuria) occurred in September of 1931, Japan proclaimed a "sovereign state" Manchukuo which was ruled by the puppet emperor ( and last emperor of China) Pu-Yi. Manchuria was the perfect place to set up a unit which would research the effects of biological and chemical warfare and how to use them effectively as a weapon against Japan's enemies. Far from the main island of Japan, Manchuria was the perfect secret location. The project of Unit 731 was first set up in the city of Harbin, but was destroyed after a group of prisoners blew up the laboratory forcing Ishii to find another suitable location. Unit 731's title for the public was " Epidemic Prevention and Water Supply Unit of the Kwantung Army" seeming harmless and rather proactive. On August 1, 1936 Ishii was given formal command of the Unit. After the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937 Japan's war in China escalated. The laboratory in Pingfan was set in three square kilometers of land and the facilities were hidden by a high wall, and protected by many high voltage wires. The land had around one hundred and fifty buildings, including housing for those captured, and incinerator, an animal house, and air field. From an aerial view blocks 7 and 8 were hidden from the naked eye, these buildings however were the hotspots for bacteria production and research. A young recruit describes his first impression of Pingfan-

"...the central building towering skyward over other building, with all square-tiled facades, were larger than any of those I had observed on my trip over, including Osaka, hsinking and Harbin. these buildings reflecting the sunlight glistened in brilliant white and broke into the vast sky. High earth walls were constructed with barbed wire fencing atop. It was obvious that this compound was isolated strictly from the outside world."

Unit 731 was broken into eight different divisions

1st Division- Bacteriological research

2nd Division- Warfare research and field experiments

3rd Division- Water filter production

4th Division- Bacteria mass production and storage

5th Division- Educational division

6th Division- Supplies division

7th Division- General Affairs

8th Division- Clinical Diagnosis

The secrecy of Unit 731 always remained to priority for the operation. Members of the unit were transported in and out of Pingfan in covered cargo trucks, while the trucks registration tags never remained the same, being changed for protection frequently. When researching which method was best to disperse a virus or disease, Ishii arrived at the conclusion that dispersing internal pathogens in water supplies would be much more effective than by air dispersion. Pingfan was producing three hundred kilograms of plague germs and bacteria at one point. At Unit 731's height the production plant had the capacity to create enough bacteria to kill the entire world's population several times over. In 1941 Ishii discovered his greatest ally, the flea. Ishii understood that fleas ingest around five thousand plague organisms once feeding from a rat suffering from disease and "when the flea stops sucking blood from it's victim, may drive back into the bite wound highly infective blood. The infective flea may regurgitate as many as ten thousand to twenty four thousand organisms at one biting. Some of these usually enter the blood of the new host who, if susceptible, contracts bubonic or septicemia plague. Ishii found that an infective flea, with its blocked gullet could live and carry its deadly bit for up to one month and a single bit was found to be sufficient to cause infection." Innocent Chinese who had been captured were the patients to such tests.

Ishii's "Secret of Secrets" was kept from thousands of employees at Unit 731. Prisoners would pass through tunnel entrances to the "death blocks" of blocks seven and eight, never to return again. The only thing guaranteed when entering either of these blocks was death and pain. The reason Ishii chose the remote location of Manchuria was in order to test specifically on live human subjects. Ishii accumulated most of his subjects from a detention camp called Hogoin in Pingfan. Russians who would not cooperate and give any information after being house at Hogoin would be sent straight to Unit 731. Though, seventy percent of the humans used were Chinese. "Unsuspecting and innocent people were also tricked into the clutches of Unit 731. Some were lured by the prospect of employment. Young boys, mothers and children, even pregnant women, were trapped". Throughout the existence of Unit 731 in Pingfan, three thousand people were sacrificed. " The prison was a vision of hell. Through the syphole cut in the steel doors of each cell, the plight of the chained prisoners could be seen. Some had rotting limbs, bits of bone protruding through skin blackened by necrosis. Others were sweating in high fever, writhing in agony or moaning in pain. Those who suffered from respiratory infections coughed incessantly. Some were bloated, some emaciated, and others were blistered or had open wounds. Many of the cells were communal. An infected person would be put with healthy prisoners to see how easily diseases spread. In desperation prisoners would try to practice primitive preventive medicine to escape contagion". Female prisoners were raped daily and was almost routine among the guards. The doctors used various methods of dispersing the diseases. They could be sprayed invisibly, in gas chambers, or in food, drink, chocolates, melons, or crackers.

Dr. Sueo Akimoto, a young serologist sent from the Tokyo Imperial University in Manchuria recalls what he saw when first arriving " I was very shocked when I arrived and found out about the human experiments. Very few of those scientists had a sense of conscience. They treated the prisoners like animals. The prisoners were the enemy, they would eventually be sentenced to death. They thought the prisoners would die and honorable death if, in the process, they contributed to the progress of medical science...I was very frightened although my work involved no human experiments. I wrote my resignation to Maj-Gen Kikuchi, the research chief, three or four times. But there was no way to get out. I was told that if I left I might secretly be executed."

Experiments Included:

- Vivisection without anesthesia

- Vivisections were performed while the prisoners were alive because it was thought that the decomposition process would affect the results. Men, women, children and infants were subject to this kind of vivisection.

- Vivisections performed on pregnant women, often women who had been impregnated by the doctors themselves.

- Limbs being amputated from prisoners to further study blood loss.

- Limbs having been removed were often re-attached to opposite sides of the body

- Some prisoners' limbs would be frozen and amputated, while other prisoners had limbs frozen and then thawed out to fully study the effects of rotting and possible gangrene.

- Some prisoners had their stomachs removed while alive.

- Prisoners would be hung upside down to see exactly how long one dies before being choked to death.

- Having horse urine injected into prisoners' kidneys.

- Starvation

- Prisoners would be exposed to extremely high and low temperatures in order to develop frost bite. Doctors would study how long a human being could survive before rotting and gangrene set in on human flesh. Extreme high temperatures were used to determine the relationship between temperature and human survival.

- Exposed to lethal dosages of x-ray radiation.

Besides prisoners being subjected to such testing, it is said that up to four hundred thousand Chinese civilians died due to their being exposed to viruses such as cholera and anthrax which were spread by air droppings of infected paper and mundane items.

I am twenty years old and ashamed to say that the first time I ever heard of Unit 731 was my sophomore year in high school. Often times, when being taught about World War Two students receive much information on the European side of the conflict and the horrible crimes committed throughout the Holocaust. Unit 731 however was just as terrifying and as much of a violation on human life. Ignorance can no longer be our excuse, and for the betterment of our society and our future, we must become more knowledgeable citizens of the world.

execution of an allied prisoner

Vivisection procedure while patient is alive, performed by Shiro Ishii himself

Vivisection of a raped girl

Bodies of victims

Child victim

Gas tests

A prisoner being buried alive

Information sign at the site today


Links to videos about Unit 731

Video 1

Video 2