An Author Accuses the Japanese of Horrifying Medical Experiments on World War II P.O.W.s

updated 01/11/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/11/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

The camp had a crematorium and a wartime staff of 3,000

The catalog of atrocities is eerily familiar. The scene was a World War II death camp, where prisoners were deliberately exposed to plague, typhus and anthrax bacteria. The captors injected their human guinea pigs with horse blood, froze their arms to study how tissues defrost and starved them "to see how long they could last." Stories like these were heard all too often at the Nazi war crimes trials in the late 1940s. This camp was not in Europe, however, but in Manchuria, China. It was run not by Germans but by Japanese. Its inmates were Chinese, Russian and possibly even U.S. prisoners of war. According to writer John Powell, American authorities learned of these heinous human experiments in 1947 and agreed to protect the scientists who had conducted them in return for their medical findings.

"At least 3,000 people were killed at the main Japanese biological warfare station, code-named Unit 731, near Harbin, China," says Powell, 62. "At least two other Japanese biological warfare stations were engaged in similar human experimentation." Powell's report, published recently in the antiwar Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, charges that Japanese generals concluded that germ warfare offered their best hope of victory. The biological warfare unit, commanded by Lt. Gen. Shiro Ishii, a surgeon, produced eight tons of deadly bacteria a month, and the efficacy of the microbes was tested on prisoners. Those who did not die of disease were put to death by scientists eager to autopsy their bodies. One month before the end of the war, the surviving prisoners were poisoned, their bodies were burned and the camp was dynamited.

The shocking facts about the Manchurian death camp were originally revealed by a Japanese film producer, Haruko Yoshinaga, in a 1975 Tokyo Broadcasting System documentary. She painstakingly tracked down several of the 30 or so surviving Japanese scientists. "They were surprised and scared," she recalls. "They were trembling, shaking, even speechless. They had been told not to talk to anyone—not even their own families." Some tried to defend their actions: "The Americans and the Soviets were experimenting too," one insisted.

Author Powell says that the final atrocity occurred after the war—the deliberate cover-up of the experiments by the American government. Using the Freedom of Information Act, Powell obtained documents that he says back up his claim. He cites a May 1947 cable from occupation forces in Tokyo to Washington: "ISHII STATES THAT IF GUARANTEED IMMUNITY FROM 'WAR CRIMES'...HE CAN DESCRIBE PROGRAM IN DETAIL." Seven months later a report by an American biological warfare researcher noted, "It is hoped that individuals who voluntarily contributed this information will be spared embarrassment because of it." The keystone of Powell's case is a 1956 FBI memo that quotes a Defense Department official as saying that U.S. forces had "determined that the Japanese actually did experiment with biological warfare agents in Manchuria during 1943-44, using American prisoners as test victims."

The U.S. government vehemently denies Powell's charges. "No documentary evidence is available that any such war crimes were ever perpetrated on U.S. government personnel, or those of the Soviet Union," says Norman Covert, information officer at Fort Detrick, Md., a medical research center. Covert has issued a point-by-point refutation, arguing that Powell's evidence is speculative and suggesting that Unit 731 was a penal facility for criminals, not prisoners of war. Accusations that U.S. POWs were involved came from the Japanese Communist Party, Covert says.

Proving the allegations has become the latest in a series of crusades that have consumed Powell's life. A onetime publisher of an English-language magazine in Shanghai, where he was born of American parents, Powell became sympathetic with the Chinese Communist revolution. On his return to the U.S. in 1953, he was tried for sedition for accusing the U.S. of using germ weapons in the Korean War. The case was ultimately dropped. Powell investigated the story of Ishii's camp while researching a book on the history of biological weapons. He pursued the subject, he says, in the hope of abolishing such weapons. So far, Powell has not found an American publisher.

At least one man understands Powell's obsession. Dr. Sueo Akimoto, 73, a respected medical educator, worked as a wartime blood researcher in Unit 731; he deeply regrets his service there. Says Akimoto now: "It was war, but war is no excuse."

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