22Apr2013

The Other Doctor Mengele – Unit 731, Harbin

Unit 731-5

Among the unremarkable apartment blocks of Ping Fan, an unremarkable suburb of Harbin, sits an unremarkable low brick building, muted against the snow.

This is 731. The base of Unit 731, home to some of the worst atrocities in this part of China during World War II, a place where men, women, babies and children were infected with hideous diseases then dissected – alive, and without anaesthetic, because either mercy killing or anaesthesia might affect the state of the organs the doctors wanted to inspect.

The doctors, scientists and soldiers at Unit 731 froze people alive, limb by limb, allowing frostbite to develop, then gangrene, amputating the gangrenous section of the limb, then repeating the process with the living stump, and moving onto the next limb, until all that remained of the victim was a head and torso.

On the waste not, want not principle, they’d then inject the traumatised, limbless victim with bubonic plague, and dissect them alive to track its progress. We’ve been to S-21 in Phnom Penh but this is worse, by far.

At Unit 731 doctors watched as a mother in a gas chamber threw herself over the body of her baby to try and save him, and took careful notes as human beings were compressed in a pressure chamber until their eyes popped from their skulls.

You’ve heard of Josef Mengele.

But you’ve probably never heard of Shiro Ishii, a medical doctor, a distinguished professor, a genius microbiologist with a photographic memory, a decorated soldier, a Lieutenant-General in the Imperial Japanese Army, and the man behind Unit 731.

Shiro Ishii.

The few low buildings that scatter the small site are a fraction of what was once here. The Ping Fan base of Unit 731 stretched over six square kilometres. There were breeding facilities for plague rats, fleas and more. Cells for victims. Laboratories. Dissection rooms…

And, of course, creature comforts for the 3000 men who worked here. Shiro Ishii saw to it that his men had a library, a swimming pool, an auditorium for movies, a brothel in which to rape Chinese “comfort women”, a bar in which to unwind — and, of course, a Shinto temple, at which they worshipped dutifully.

Probably the single most chilling image at the site, in fact, is a photo of the men of Unit 731 at prayer.



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Unit 731 was just one of many such bases scattered across Manchuria. From these, the Imperial Japanese Army dropped porcelain bombs full of plague fleas onto Chinese towns, sprayed POWs with plague bacteria from the air, poisoned water sources with typhoid, injected people with cholera and withheld water from them.

Their purpose? To track the progress of diseases spread by biological warfare, and how best to contain them.

Ishii, a father of seven, handed out chocolates full of anthrax to starving children in Manchurian cities. He and his subordinates infected human beings with cholera, smallpox, gas gangrene, tetanus and a haemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola, and started outbreak after outbreak of bubonic plague.

And, because chemical weapons were part of their research brief, the men gassed POWs and civilians, too.

When Unit 731 retreated, they released their plague rats, and abandoned possibly as many as two million chemical weapons. Plague killed tens of thousands of Manchurian Chinese after the war; abandoned chemical weapons injured many and still pollute the soil today.

Emperor Hirohito, the father of Japan’s current emperor, Emperor of Japan both during World War II and until his death in 1989, established Ishii’s unit by Royal Decree, met him at least twice and almost certainly monitored his progress carefully.

Trees overhanging barracks building at Unit 731 base, Ping Fan, Harbin.

Every nation has its own perspectives on the war that shaped and defined the last century.

In England, World War II is a heroic solo battle against Hitler’s armies as an isolated island; in the US, it’s a gallant and voluntary intervention to save Europeans from their own problems. In both nations, there’s a firm and erroneous belief that, while the Red Army engaged in mass rape in Berlin, our own troops didn’t.

In Russia, the focus is on the Great Patriotic War, a war in defence of the motherland that started in 1941. In China, it’s the People’s War Against Japanese Aggression, and it started in 1937 – although Japan occupied this part of China in 1931, and installed a puppet government led by the “Last Emperor”, Pu Yi.

In Japan… Well, the Japanese government didn’t acknowledge Unit 731′s activities until a scant few years ago, and has never paid compensation or contributed to the chemical weapons clean-up. Many Japanese nationalists deny wartime atrocities and pay tribute to convicted war criminals at a sacred shrine: the current Prime Minister Abe has repeatedly hinted that he will do likewise.

Ishii swore his staff to silence. Many of his team went onto stellar careers in pharmaceuticals and even medicine after the war. A bare handful of the men who worked at Unit 731 have expressed their deep regret for the things they did; others have said they’d do the same again.

Unit 731 base, Harbin.

It’s a surprisingly muted place, Unit 731. In a time of rhetoric between a nationalist Japan and a resurgent China, of competition over oil and islands, the tone is calm, almost dry.

Sombre galleries explore the beginning of Japan’s chemical and biological weapons programme, “inspired”, so to speak, by the trenches of World War I, lay out maps of facilities, recreate scenes in muted silver sculptures, lay out rooms of instruments salvaged from the site.

The focus, here, is on Chinese suffering. No mention of the Russians and Mongolians who died, of the American POWs deliberately infected with disease at Mukden: the names of the dead recorded here are all Chinese.

When the Japanese retreated from Manchuria, they blew up as many of these bases as they could. But not all.

And the world knew. The Russians knew. The Chinese knew. Truman knew.

So, in a world where even the men behind S-21 have finally gone to trial, why have most of us never heard of Shiro Ishii?

Unit 731 base in Ping Fan, Harbin.

In Ishii’s world, the Japanese military code dictated death rather than surrender, the Emperor was a living god and, thanks to the same sense of racial superiority that helped dehumanise 731′s victims to the degree that the men who mutilated and murdered them referred to them as “logs”, Japan could not lose the war.

So when Hirohito surrendered, Ishii was so distraught that he experienced what seems to have been a nervous breakdown.

Not that that stopped him bringing his data back to Japan, hiding it, then faking his own death – until the US caught up with him in 1946.

Ishii’s crimes were not the issue. A war crimes trial would have put the fruit of his labours on open view. And, unlike Mengele’s torture-murders, Ishii’s had genuine value: they had produced a treatment for frostbite, a series of vaccines and, what was of most interest to his captors, the foundations of a world class biological weapons programme.

And, as the US had only started its biological weapons programme in 1942, the military was desperate for Ishii’s data.

So Ishii negotiated immunity from prosecution for himself and every one of his subordinates in exchange for the painstakingly detailed notes of every single murder they had committed, for photos of the diseased organs of vivisected children, for records of the most effective systems for delivering both chemical and biological weapons.

And, of course, they got it. As well, apparently, as money, gifts and “entertainment”.

Which is why you’re unlikely to have heard of Shiro Ishii.

The man who had overseen the live dissections of infants and pregnant women without anaesthetic, who had killed tens of thousands with bubonic plague and typhoid, lived peacefully in Tokyo until 1959 on his army pension.



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In Harbin? Here’s a rather lighter piece on the ice sculptures. And, if you’re interested in World War II, you might want to read about the last soldier of World War II, who hid out in the Indonesian jungle until 1974.

38 Comments

  1. Talon says:

    Absolutely horrifying stuff. Evil has so many names and this man’s face.

    • Theodora says:

      Quite. And we can be absolutely sure that, like many Nazi functionaries, he firmly believed that he was doing his duty for the greater good.

  2. When I was studying in Beijing, this was part of my Modern Chinese History class. It ashamed me to have gotten that far in my education and to still have been ignorant of China’s experience during WW2.

    Great article!

    • Theodora says:

      Well, all nations focus on our own experiences of World War II. So in Blighty, we’ll have Empire of the Sun and Bridge over the River Kwai, and that’s about as far as Japanese atrocities go…

      Did you do earlier Sino-Japanese wars, or just the War of Japanese Aggression?

  3. Clay Tripllehorn says:

    Unbelievable and sobering. Incredible what we can do to each other in the name of progress.

  4. What an intense and horrifying story! Hard to imagine the reasoning that someone would have for doing these sorts of things, but I found the political and cultural rhetoric in China to be quite powerful.

    • Theodora says:

      Well, what he was doing was, unlike Mengele’s activities, valid, if horrific, science. He was testing the spread of biological weapons and the impact of these diseases on the human body, and how they progressed through them — so serving his country by developing and testing weapons. On, umm, living people.

  5. Rhonda says:

    I am speechless. Almost embarrassed to be part of the human race.

  6. Mary says:

    Yikes, that is shocking and just more proof of the evil our governments do and allow done! Sad, but well written and important for people to know. Thanks!

  7. Vanessa says:

    How can I hate learning about stories like this, and yet be fascinated at the same time? Fascinated in a way that makes me question who exactly was this man? He had to have had parents, a childhood, friends, a teacher… What kind of life leads to someone being so twisted? Had we lived a life similar to his, would we have ended up with as demented a sense of “right/wrong/in the name of science” as he did? Just like learning about those involved in the Holocaust–they are just humans. Like us. Scary stuff! (thanks for using your story telling skills for history’s sake–great job!)

    • Theodora says:

      Well, he had seven kids… And he doesn’t seem to have been intrinsically sadistic. I can’t imagine that all the 3000 people who worked at that site were intrinsically sadistic, either.

  8. Selly says:

    This is bone-chilling stuff, I had the shivers reading this. It’s horrifying, saddening and infuriating. I don’t think I could go near this building, I heard enough WW2 stories from my dad to last me a life time. Truly unbelievable that human beings do this. //shudder

    • Theodora says:

      God, I can imagine your dad having a mountain of horrific WW2 stories. My parents were both born after the war — one of my grandfathers fought in it (on horseback), and lost all but one member of his family in it, but the other was too young to even be drafted. My grandmother had memories of being strafed on the road to the French coast when trying to escape occupied France…

  9. Yvette says:

    Damn. Only vaguely ever heard about this before… curiously from a Chinese middle school girl when I was volunteering at the library in high school who’d never heard of the Holocaust. Culture is a strange beast, especially when it comes to interpreting what people think happened in history.

    Regarding the immunity btw, nowhere near as horrific as what Ishii did but I always thought the dark start of the American space program to be very similar, ie Werner von Braun being so determined to build rockets that he was an SS officer who used slave labor for his V1 series to bomb London (but then he and his team were granted full immunity and moved to the US… the ones who didn’t went to Russia and did their space program). I don’t think most people remember that any more either these days, but his biography is certainly one I’d like to tackle someday.

    • Theodora says:

      Yes — I almost mentioned Von Braun in this piece, and then thought better of it — thought it might over-complicate things. He was more than complicit in slave labour, to put it very mildly, and, umm, you don’t join the SS unless you’re ideologically solid.

      The holocaust is not well known in Asia as a whole. I’ve met Indonesians who’ve not heard of Hitler, and one who dated Indonesian independence from what we might consider the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies — and, of course, modern Chinese history is full of Sino-Japanese wars.

  10. Catherine Hartmann says:

    Horrific but thank you for educating me as I had, as you quite correctly stated, never heard of him.

    I hope that these people’s suffering actually resulted in some good in the way of vaccines and treatments.

    I just can’t get my head around this kind of torture whatever the reason but if there was no reason at all then somehow that makes it even worse.

    Sorry not making my point coherently, but then I guess that is why you are the writer not me. Hope you understand roughly what I am trying to say.

  11. oh my god. this makes me physically ill. how people can do this to others is beyond me. thank you for bringing it to light.

  12. Mark says:

    Shocking as it may bee….

    It goes on here in the US everyday at areas in the desert and other secretive government facilities, if an in-depth search is done the clues are there. The government has been experimenting with the populace for decades now than they used too. The US government just covers it up better. And guards them well with fences and military personnel. They are sworn to secrecy, or if not they will silence you via accident/suicide/etc.

  13. Aleah says:

    I haven’t heard of him before but I guess I really wasn’t interested in reading up about evil. One would think having one Josef Mengele would be enough!

  14. WTF?!?! Seriously! Just when you think you’ve heard the worst, you get surprised once again. Amazing we can still be surprised!

    Thanks for the fantastic article! Really great! We need to hear about this stuff.

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks, Justin. I always feel a bit more awareness of this sort of thing might help people understand the history behind these nasty little island disputes Japan and China are always having.

  15. Larissa says:

    Absolutely horrifying, and politically sickening. There are so many “secrets” that WWII continues to give up gradually.

    And, Theodora, an extremely well-written piece. I did not really want to read about such atrocities, but you told the story in such a compelling way I was unable to stop reading.

  16. Nonplusssed says:

    Wherever there was the greatest inhumanity at that time there always seems to have been an American hot in pursuit with an open chequebook and a new passport. Atrocity carpetbaggers but they do make all those lovely movies and TV comedy shows. Can’t imagine why we don’t hear more about it. Oh! We just did; well done.

    • Theodora says:

      Quite. If Saddam Hussein’s scientists had been any good — rather than having to buy the stuff wholesale from Donald Rumsfeld back in the days when they were the good guys — I’m sure a tonne of them would be in America right now. With passports. Sharing photos of Halabja…

      • Nonplussed says:

        Who’s to say they’re not? Anyway, enough for now lest we’re both rendered to a dungeon in Tunis for water-boarding.

  17. Whew, what a read. Thanks for that. I am frequently appalled by the various Japanese atrocities recorded in WWII museums throughout Asia. I read the Rape of Nanking and visited the museum there but became disheartened when I saw how much of the treatment of that tragic story was nationalistic verbiage about heroes of the great nation vs. imperialist pigs. (By the way, when the head of the local Nazi party is the good guy, you know you’ve got some really bad things going on.) Japan has a lot to own up to, but I did find that the Peace Museum in Hiroshima was one of the better examples I’ve seen. In the wrong treatment it would be a chance to accuse the Americans for being monsters. Instead, for me, it felt above the accusational approach. It was stark and sad and spoke to the waste of war and the destructive power of nuclear weapons. There was even mention of the Rape of Nanjing, including a range of the number of victims, something that could get your place vandalized or your life threatened in Japan. Mention of the jingoism that lead up to the war, and the locals who had run off to participate in it. This is what “peace” museums need to do. Otherwise they become tools to continue to divide humanity into entitled groups that can perform such atrocities on each other. No culture, no nation, no people have a monopoly on atrocity.

    • Theodora says:

      Yes, I always thought EXACTLY that about Nanjing as well. And I was expecting the tone here to be very much that you describe in the Nanjing Museum, which I haven’t visited. And it isn’t.

      Obviously the term “imperialist” comes up, but it’s pretty accurate in the term of Japanese WW2 activities: they were imperialist, in every sense, and it’s never coupled with pigs. The language at 731 is remarkably mild.

      And, yes, I’ve seen records of Japanese atrocities in Penang and the Philippines too — the room used as the military brothel for the comfort women at the fort in Penang will stick in my mind for a long time. Partly for the barbed wire over the windows. Partly because of the bunk beds. This is the first, for whatever reason, that I’ve felt moved to write about.

      But, of course, China’s own history is full of Chinese-on-Chinese atrocities…

  18. holley weeks says:

    Nationalism is perhaps the worst thing that has happened to the world.

  19. Paddy Black says:

    I think the worst thing about all this is that both Josef Mengele and Shiri Ishii lived comfortable, wholesome lives after the war. It’s like karma went on a holiday for a while.

    Thanks very much for this article, I’m writing a 2000 word essay on whether or not America was justified in bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki and i think Ishii will be a good example of how America was justified

  20. Don'tLieToMe says:

    A few resource sites would be greatly appreciated. NONE were GIVEN. WHY NOT?

    • Theodora says:

      Not sure if you’re a spammer or just a slow reader, but there are four authority links in the post. If you’re looking for specific information on something in particular, I can probably direct you, but it’s a personal blog post, not an academic article.

  21. David says:

    Why is there no mention that the pardon was granted by Douglas McCarthur in 1947 after it was approved by President Truman and his advisors. Exchanging data on the gruesome experiments performed on 12,000 hapless human beings and granting these brutes freedom from prosecution must surely rank as one of the most heinous deals of the century and a war crime of major proportions.

    • Theodora says:

      I’d agree that it’s one of the single nastiest of a series of nasty post-WWII deals — way worse than Werner Von Braun. As to why I didn’t specify MacArthur and Truman’s personal involvement? I guess because I’m a Briton, writing (at the time) from China, so my primary focus was on the Chinese and Japanese rather than the nitty gritty of US involvement….

  22. Those, who commite genocide, almost always escape. The reason: genocide denial is a reflex, to avoid confronting the need to pursue relentlessly, ALL those, who commit genocide.

    Key point: while leading Nazis were tried at Nurnberg – and some hanged – those leaders had hundreds of thousands of equally guilty helpers. Each one should have been tried and – if found guilty – hanged.

    Alternatively, the Allies could have designated the SS and Gestapo as criminal orgnaizations – which they surely were – and further ordained that anyone proved to be a member, in any capacity, would be summarily shot. To have done that would have sent a good global message: joining an organization that carries out a genocide means each and every member of that organization may be shot, so soon as membership has been verified by a competent authority.

    This is harsh. But unless this is done, genocides will continue because the perpetrators usually escape.

    Genocide denial is so ingrained, that most refer to the Nazi genocide against Jews and Roma (gypsies) as “the Holocaust”. The word “holocaust” means “to sacrifice by fire”. This term desecrates the memory of murdered Jews, because most Jews accept some form of the Law that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. Under the Law of Moses, even the appearance of humans sacrifice is strictly prohibited: human sacrifice was practiced by the resident of Canaan (the Promised Land_, and Jews were forbidden to follow Canaanite practices.

    Referring to the Nazi genocide as “The Holocaust” is a desecration. The few remaining Nazis must chuckle when they hear the word “Holocaust”. It confirms to them that they won: that Jews – whom the Nazis tricked into going along with Nazi plans – still “don’t get it”!!

    Further, almost all of the words used to discuss the Nazi genocide, are those used by the Nazis to hide their crimes. Thus, Jews were “arrested”, “deported”, and “executed”, terms that have a place only in countries, wherein Rule of Law prevails.

    In fact, Jews seized by the Nazis got no legal process of any sort. “Deportation” is a legal process by which a person unlawfully in a country is sent to his/her country of citizenship. “Execution” is a penalty imposed by a lawful Court, wherein a person has right of defense. None of these terms has any place in the discussion of genocide, which is the negation of Law.

    In short, the escape of the Unit 731′s many murderers – every person who served there in any capacity – is no different from any other
    genocidal event. The perpetrators escape, because no one is willing to mete out justice, i.e., to shoot or to hang every murderer. So long as that is not done, genocides will occur.

  23. Dee says:

    In the name of scientific knowledge? BS, The end did not justify the means and the information wasn’t important enough to cause the pain and suffering of so many. I am even more ashamed that the U.S stooped so low as not to punish the perpetrators for the sake of the information, information that with proper and humane homework, they would have been able to conclude themselves.

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