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How Japanese Doctors Who Dissected Live American POWs Ended Up Working for U.S.

Dr. Ishii, war criminal-turned- American asset.

This week’s news that Japan was excavating a site believed to been used for horrific human medical experiments on prisoners during WWII re-opened old wounds for those victimized by Imperial Japan’s shocking atrocities.

While most of the world is aware that the Nazis in Germany carried out incredibly heinous experiments on concentration camp prisoners, knowledge of Japan’s equally barbaric Unit 731 is much more limited. Even less known is the story of how some of the Japanese war criminals who performed these experiments, including the dissection of living American prisoners of war, ended up working for the United States after the war.

On May 29, 1945, an American B-29 Superfortress had finished a bombing run over southwestern Japan and was flying back to Guam when it was rammed by a Japanese fighter plane. The surviving crew bailed over hostile territory and nine American airmen were subsequently captured and handed over to Japanese doctors. Toshio Tono was one of them.

“Since they could see white smocks… they didn’t struggle,” recounted Tono.

“They never dreamed they would be dissected.”

But that’s exactly what happened to them. They were dissected alive, without anesthesia.

One  doctor removed one of the American’s lungs while he was fully conscious to study the effects of surgery on the respiratory system. Dr. Tono says they also gave this airman a saltwater IV to see if seawater was a viable alternative to traditional saline solution. It was not. The next victim had part of his liver removed so the Japanese could learn if a human being can survive such an ordeal. He could not. They cut out part of another American’s brain to see if they could control epilepsy. They could not. Every one of the prisoners died in agonizing pain.

“There was no debate among the doctors about whether or not to do the operations,” said Dr. Tono, “that is what made is so strange.”

As awful as Dr. Tono’s experiments were, there was an even bigger catch for the Americans. Dr. Shiro Ishii was the head of Imperial Japan’s military bio-warfare division, the notorious Unit 731, that performed experiments that would make the Nazi doctors proud. Or faint.

After the war ended, thirty people were brought before a war crimes tribunal. Of these, 23 were charged with vivisection and wrongful removal of body parts. Some were even charged with cannibalism– the Japanese allegedly ate the prisoner’s livers. Various sentences, ranging from death to imprisonment, were handed down.

Then something funny happened. Actually, it wasn’t funny at all; by 1958 all of the convicted Japanese had been freed. Not a single one of the death sentences was carried out. General Douglas MacArthur, who oversaw the post-war occupation of Japan, personally ordered the reduced sentences. Why on earth would he do such a thing?

Because members of Unit 731 and other Japanese war criminals possessed immense knowledge of biological warfare and medical research. The United States wanted to harvest the fruits of their twisted labor for its own purposes. Dr. Shiro Ishii and many others like him were granted immunity in return for their knowledge and expertise. The past was forgotten and these vile criminals found new homes and new fame in an America that welcomed them with open arms. After all, the Cold War was on and there was some very dirty work to be done.

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12 Comments

  1. Sharon GardnerMarch 13, 2011 at 10:58 amReply

    After doing research on how the prisoners from the USS Houston CA 30 were treated by the Japanese and then reading your article I have to struggle to separate the Japanese people from the Japanese government. Recent events have caused horrible suffering among the Japanese people. We are now seeing the kindness of Americans by relief efforts that are springing up and the donations made by Americans to help ease the suffering. It is shameful to the Japanese that they are unable to step up to the plate and apologize to the Americans and pay reparations to the few survivors of their abuse.

    • Brett WilkinsMarch 13, 2011 at 11:12 amReplyAuthor

      We also must not forget, that despite the fact that Japan started the war, that many elements of the Japanese military are guilty of horrific atrocities, and that the Japanese even today have a hard time owning up to what their country did, the United States committed far worse atrocities against the people of Japan. While Pearl Harbor was a strike on a military installation– a “legitimate” act of war, if you will, what we did to Japan in the name of revenge was some of the most utter destruction ever visited upon a nation. The US bombed most Japanese cities back into the stone age, using weapons designed to maximize the death and destruction. And this doesn’t even count the nuclear war waged against two Japanese cities, even AFTER the Japanese were attempting to surrender. Not once did we nuke them, but again three days later without even giving them time to digest what had happened at Hiroshima. Could we not have demonstrated a nuclear test in a remote location to a representative of the Japanese government along with an ultimatum? Did we have to drop two atomic bombs on two of the only un-bombed cities in Japan, cities with little military importance? Was not our action designed for a Soviet audience to impress upon Stalin the mighty power of the United States– and America’s willingness to use that power in a most ruthless manner?

      • jerryDecember 21, 2011 at 8:04 pmReply

        And what had the bomb not worked, the japanese military would have had more power to ensure that japan continue to fight even if it meant putting women and children in the front lines once americans began invading the mainland and this would end up costing another 50 to 100k american lives. you have to remember the japanese civilian was not in charge as is the american president, it was the army and to them it was more “honorable” to die than to surrender. I am one to say sorry to the japanese that we had to resort to such action at all but even today the japanese do not apologize for even one atrocity to either the americans, chinese, phillipines, or any other people they invaded and terrorized. I am a retired navy veteran and knew some philipinos in the 70’s with some stories of when they were children and the japanese invaded them and I do not wish to even consider telling those stories to anyone. And don’t even get me started on a legitimate act of war as an excuse because when one declares war on another country it is as a result of responding to an aggressive act not because you want to keep that country from counter-attacking you after you “surprise” them with an attack. I could go on forever but in closing you seem to be in need of some history lessons.

  2. Sharon GardnerMarch 15, 2011 at 10:54 pmReply

    Japan was all but defeated when we dropped “the bombs” there. What did these acts accomplish? As you mentionned, we did display our power for Stalin and the rest of the world but we also saved the lives of our men who were being held as POWs because the order had already been issued to exterminate them. Tough call to make.

  3. Al MacedonApril 25, 2011 at 7:19 pmReply

    Brett, you are sad idiot. You might want to read a bit and do some research into the Pacific Theatre before you go on with your finger pointing and revisionist history lesson. “Far worse atrocities”??? Japan did a lot more than attack military targets in WW2. I guess what the Japanese did to China, killing 20 MILLION of them, was nothing. Ever heard of the Rape of Nanking where 350,000 were killed? How about the 250,000 Chinese that the Japanese killed in retribution for assisting the pilots of the Doolittle raid? Yep, Japan was just playing fair. The use of the atomic bomb was a difficult decision to make but necessary. Japan WASN’T even close to unconditional surrender. Let’s see some facts and don’t spout that old crap about Japan wanting to surrender in July of 1945. Japan did contact the Soviets about a peace but they wanted to surrender to the US while retaining their old empire including China and SE Asia- something that the world could never allow. Japan was prepared for a long fight and they had plenty of civilians and equipment to carry it out. Our planned invasion of Japan, Operation Olympic, was expected to cost us over 200,000 casualties and Japan over 1 MILLION! Read up Hirohito and his part in the war. He wanted to continue to fight and even advocated women and children as fighters.

    • Brett WilkinsApril 25, 2011 at 7:37 pmReplyAuthor

      First of all, I apologize for the layout here; it seems WordPress doesn’t allow proper spacing and paragraph breaks here.

      When I wrote that the United States committed “far worse atrocities” than Japan, I meant that the US committed far worse atrocities against the Japanese than the Japanese committed against us. If you read the article I wrote (this is my blog), you would see that I have no sympathy for the Japanese and their horrific atrocities. But the US killed millions of Japanese civilians in the war, the Japanese killed no more than a handful of US civilians. Our response to Pearl Harbor– a strategic military strike largely forced by the US embargoes against Japan– was the destruction of the entire nation of Japan, including waging nuclear war. Hardly proportionate! As for Japan trying to surrender, I could provide plenty of proof of this, as I have studied and written extensively on the subject. But for the sake of brevity, let me just share with you a few quotes:

      “The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”
      -Supreme Allied Commander and, later, US President Dwight Eisenhower, Newsweek, 11/11/63

      “The Japanese were ready for peace and they had already approached the Russians and, I think, the Swiss. The Japanese war was really won before we ever used the atomic bomb. It wouldn’t have been necessary for us to disclose our nuclear position and stimulate the Russians to develop the same thing.” -Ralph Bard, WWII Undersecretary of the Navy.

      “While I was working on the new plan of air attack, I concluded that even without the atomic bomb, Japan was likely to surrender in a matter of months. Japan would capitulate by November, 1945.” -Paul Nitze, U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey.

      “Just when the Japanese were ready to capitulate, we went ahead and introduced to the world the most devastating weapon it had ever seen and, in effect, gave the go-ahead to Russia to swarm over eastern Asia. It was the wrong decision. It was wrong on strategic grounds. And it was wrong on moral grounds.” -Ellis Zacharias, Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence.

      “Japan was already defeated and dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary. I thought our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was no longer mandatory to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of face.” -Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

      “Even without the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it seemed highly unlikely, given what we found to have been the mood of the Japanese government, that a U.S. invasion of the islands [scheduled for November 1, 1945] would have been necessary.”
      -Paul Nitze, Vice Chairman, U.S. Strategic Bombers

      “His Majesty is anxious to teminate the war as soon as possible.” -Japanese communication intercepted by U.S. just before dropping of atomic bombs.

      Must I continue? If you care to stop your immature (and, frankly, untrue) name-calling and engage in a fact-based, historically accurate conversation, we can get into the REAL reasons why the US waged nuclear war against 2 of the only un-bombed cities in Japan.

      • jerryDecember 21, 2011 at 8:16 pmReply

        It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of face.” -Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

        you wrote your own affidavite. Since when do we run a war with “my belief”. What if Eisenhower had said to Roosevelt. ‘it is my belief that if we do not go with the D-Day invasion that in a matter of months the generals will overthrow Hitler and we won’t have to sacrifice american lives on the beaches. So who cares how many more lives are wasted as long as they are not “american” lives. In closing it is clear that those who believe the dropping of the bomb was necessary and those who believe it was not will never change there minds but funny how those who say it was not that you have cited only said it after the fact and probably only to sell their books. I recall a certain Sec of Def under Kennedy doing exactly this when stating he was against increasing troop involvement in Vietnam, but where was he shouting from the roof tops while we sent more troops over.

  4. JimMay 29, 2011 at 4:38 pmReply

    Brett,
    While I respect your opinion, you are trully incorrect. Your assertions of Japan considering to surrender before the atomic bomb blasts are outlandish. Your quotes are misleading and self serving and show that you acutally do not grasp the situation of the times, which are hard to do in this time in your defense. Let’s say America chose NOT to use the atomic weapon. Operation Downfall and Olympic, the Invasion of the home Islands in Nov 1945 would have taken place. Since you think we should have taken that route, I would suggest you read some history of the Campaign in the Central Pacific and the re taking of the islands and se how you would feel if you were in the assault wave landing on Honshu! Semper fi mac!

    • Brett WilkinsMay 29, 2011 at 4:44 pmReplyAuthor

      Regardless of who is right, and I do believe my years of historical studies back up my assertion, wouldn’t it have been just as effective (and much more humane) to give Japanese generals or representatives of the Emperor and/or government a live demonstration of an atom bomb test on a remote, uninhabited island and told the Japanese that if they didn’t surrender, the next one would be detonated over one of their cities? Instead, we nuked two of the only non-destroyed cities left in Japan. And before the Japanese had a chance to digest the magnitude of what had happened at Hiroshima, we did the same thing to Nagasaki. Those bombs had little to do with Japanese surrender (after all, despite demanding an unconditional surrender and renunciation of the Emperor, the first thing we did post-victory was to affirm that the Emperor would indeed remain on the throne) and everything to do with military testing and impressing upon the Soviet Union (and the wider world) that WE were top dog in the post-WWII world order.

  5. Joe WalkerAugust 23, 2011 at 5:46 pmReply

    What if the bomb failed to go off at the demonstration?

    • Brett WilkinsAugust 23, 2011 at 5:50 pmReplyAuthor

      Interesting point. But then it probably would have failed to detonate when used for real too, right?

      • Joe MammaApril 8, 2015 at 4:36 amReply

        What if my Aunt had balls? You don’t “What if” during a war against a depraved enemy. Your question about showing the Japs what an atomic bomb could do is utterly stupid. They did show the Japs at Hiroshima and they still refused to surrender. Thus they got Nagasaki three days later. They got what they deserved.

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