Inside Japan’s feared WW2 medical unit that disembowelled screaming PoWs, popped out eyes & infected them with plague

JAPAN's forces were notorious for their ruthlessness and cruelty in World War 2, and tales of their sadism towards Allied prisoners have become infamous.

Many know the horrific stories of the POWs who died on forced death marches or were worked to death building railways from films like Bridge on the River Kwai and Empire of the Sun.

But fewer people have heard of the atrocities committed by Imperial Japan's most evil death squad – Unit 731.

The unit was set up by army doctor Shiro Ishii in 1936 to look into biological weapons.

And during the war it used captive soldiers, political dissidents and civilians from occupied countries – including women and children – as living test subjects.

Ishii razed eight villages in occupied China to build a sprawling four-square-mile compound at Pingfan, near Harbin.

Here his doctors carried out horrific experiments on their helpless victims, infecting them with gruesome diseases like bubonic plague.

They then carved them open without anaesthetic while they were still alive to study the effects on the inside of the body.

I cut him open from the chest to the stomach, and he screamed terribly, and his face was all twisted in agony."

A former medical assistant in the unit spoke anonymously in 1996 to recall one such “operation” he carried out.

He told the New York Times: “The fellow knew that it was over for him, and so he didn't struggle when they led him into the room and tied him down.

“But when I picked up the scalpel, that's when he began screaming.

“I cut him open from the chest to the stomach, and he screamed terribly, and his face was all twisted in agony.

“He made this unimaginable sound, he was screaming so horribly. But then finally he stopped.

“This was all in a day's work for the surgeons, but it really left an impression on me because it was my first time.”

He explained that the poor prisoner was denied even the mercy of painkillers because they “might have affected the body organs and blood vessels that we were examining”.

And he confirmed similar experiments were done on children, but defended it because “probably their fathers were spies”.

One of their aims was to make plague bombs which could be sent to the US on balloons and dropped to start outbreaks.

As time went on, the unit expanded its scope beyond biological warfare.

Inmates also had limbs amputated to study blood loss – and sometimes had them stitched back on the opposite side of their body.

Others had parts of their brains, lungs or liver cut out, or their stomach removed and their oesophagus reattached to their intestines.


Chemical weapons like anthrax and phosgene gas were also tested on the condemned subjects.

One harrowing account details a Russian mother and daughter left in a gas chamber as doctors peered through glass and timed their convulsions.

They watched as the woman sprawled over her child in a desperate bid to save her from the gas.

Some prisoners were tied to stakes as troops tested the latest flamethrowers and grenades on them.

Others were locked in pressure chambers to see how much they could take before their eyes popped out of their sockets, or spun to death in centrifuges like a cat in a washing machine.

In another sick experiment, victims were taken outside in freezing weather and left with exposed limbs, periodically drenched with water, until they got frostbite – all so they could study how to treat it.

One Japanese officer said they knew the subject had been left outside long enough because “frozen arms, when struck with a short stick, emitted a sound resembling that which a board gives when it is struck”.

Ishii ran Unit 731 as his own personal house of horrors.

One one occasion, he demanded a human brain to experiment on, so guards grabbed a prisoner and held him down while one of them hacked his head open with an axe.

The “death factory” was littered with body parts in jars.

Takeo Wano, a 71-year-old former medical worker in Unit 731, said he once saw a six-foot-high glass jar in which a “Western” man – cut in half vertically – was pickled in formaldehyde.

I was reminded of Dante's Inferno – abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

Another anonymous veteran said he saw feet, heads and other organs kept in containers.

He recalled: “I saw samples with labels saying 'American,' 'English' and 'Frenchman,' but most were Chinese, Koreans and Mongolians.”

Human beings used for the twisted experiments were nicknamed “logs”, because the cover story for the nightmarish facility was that it was a lumber mill.

Between 3,000 and 12,000 men, women and children were murdered in Unit 731.

No prisoner sent there is ever known to have survived.

But there were at least seven other outlying units dotted across Japanese-occupied Asia, all under Ishii's command.

Brit POW Major Robert Peaty, of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, was the senior British officer at Mukden, a camp 350 miles from Pingfan.

Recalling the camp's horrors after the war, he said: “I was reminded of Dante's Inferno – abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

Peaty recorded inmates being given regular injections of infectious diseases, disguised as harmless vaccinations, in a secret diary.

On February 23, his entry read: "Funeral service for 142 dead. 186 have died in 5 days, all Americans."

Despite the unimaginable atrocities carried out by Ishii and his doctors of death, nobody was ever punished.

The US Army granted immunity to the war criminals in exchange for their data and the research was kept secret, with Japan only admitting to Unit 731's existence in the 1990s.

Ishii was allowed to live peacefully until his death from throat cancer in 1959.

Other senior officials at the hellish camp went on to have successful careers in medicine, politics and academia.

One became governor of Tokyo, another the president of the Japan Medical Association and one even rose to become the head of the Japan Olympic Committee.

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