When Anthrax balloons flew over California

There is no end to the debate of whether the US should have dropped the Atomic Bomb on Japan – but one reason President Truman was so anxious to do it was because the Japanese had already sent a hundred balloons, each stuffed with anthrax, over the Pacific and into California and Oregon.   The attack failed, because at the high altitude of the balloons, the anthrax froze, but Truman knew that countries in the throes of defeat do desperate things and worse might come.

The American public was not told about the Japanese Biological Warfare program, because the few people in the US government who knew about it were afraid it would cause panic.
The day that Japan surrendered though, the front page of the New York Times, had this headline: “Enemy Tortured Dying Americans with Sadist Medical ‘Experiments’.”

It wasn’t just American prisoners who died that way, it was also (probably mainly) Chinese prisoners.  The man who founded and led this program was Shiro Ishii, and its not surprising that the first question MacArthur (the victorious American general) asked when he landed at Atsugi was: “Where’s Ishii?”

Ishii’s largest operation was Unit 731, located in Pingfan China.  It was an enormous complex consisting of seventy buildings.  Inside the high walls were laboratories for breeding millions of insects and vats capable of breeding eight tons of germs a month.  After it was built, to make sure no one learned about it, all the construction workers were lined up and shot.

Prisoners were dissected alive – that way they wouldn’t have putrefaction bacteria distorting results.  Anesthesia was not used, to get better test results on germ impact and on how long it took the patient to die.

There were other aspects to Ishii’s program.

In 1942, a group of Japanese tried to poison the Los Angeles water supply (using typhoid and other germs).

The Japanese tried balloons again, this time carrying incendiary devices, and of the 9,300 they sent, 200 landed in Alaska, Hawaii, Vancouver, the Aleutian islands – and in the heartland – in Michigan.  One of the balloons knocked out the power at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state.

By the end of the war, the Japanese had a submarine (the I-400) that was a huge monster that could launch planes and contained enough fuel to take it to both coasts of the US and back to Japan.  One plan was to have it deliver germ bombs, but fortunately for the US, the idea was stopped by the chief of the Japanese general staff, Yoshijiro Umezu.  He said “Germ warfare against the United States would escalate to war against all humanity…Japan will earn the derision of the world.”

But germ warfare was used against other peoples that the Japanese attacked.

When the war was obviously lost, Ishi ordered all the buildings of Unit 731 blown up and razed to the ground.  By the time the Russians got there, even though the prisoners’ bodies had been burned and then pulverized, skeletons from earlier days remained buried deep under the debris.  Also, thousands of plague-infested horses, moneys, dogs, rats, and even camels had been released into the countryside – the Japanese had been in too much of a hurry to dispose of them first.

The irony was that Ishii was not punished – he got a plea bargain, turning over his records in exchange for getting away scot free. This was because the Americans assumed his knowledge was valuable and they wanted to know how to defend against BW from future enemies, such as the Soviets.  Contrast that with the American treatment of General Umezu, who as I mentioned earlier vetoed a germ attack against the east and west coasts of the United States.  Umezu was sentenced to life in prison. Life isn’t fair. Ishii had become so potentially dangerous, by exploring the forbidden knowledge of BW, that even when caught, justice could not be served.

(Even more ironically, Ishii’s research turned out to be sloppy and mostly useless.  American scientists said that his blood and tissue samples had been tested many hours after the experiments, thus making them worthless, and no new science revelations had emerged. He was not only a sadistic monster, he was incompetent).

One last thing to notice: the shooting of the construction workers who built Unit 731.  Unit 731 had to be a secret.  Even after the war was lost, it had to be a secret.  It is no longer a secret – but have we learned from it?  I would bet most people never heard of it.

Supreme Commander – MacArthur’s Triumph in Japan – by Seymour Morris Jr. (2014) – on General Douglas MacArthur.  (MacArthur defeated Japan, and then led the occupation).
“Enemy tortured Dying Americans with Sadist Medical Experiments” – New York Times, Sept 2, 1945. This article was based on what happened on a prison boat, not at Pingfan, and relied on two American doctors who were held prisoner – one of whom, Dr. Keschner, had to prepare concoctions that the Japanese then injected into other Americans. The other, a Dr. Gottlieb, believed that sadism played a part in these experiments.  That may seem obvious, but I throw it in anyway. You can get the article on the New York Times archive, which is on the internet.


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