The Sickening Secret.

The 70 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time by Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen.

No one can be certain what genius first realized that disease could be turned from an uncontrollable killer into a weapon. Maybe some fourteenth-century Tartar. Perhaps the same one who got the bright idea, as he watched his comrades dropping from plague during their three-year siege of the Genoan-occupied Black Sea town of Caffa, to catapult cadavers over the city walls.

Nice move, if a little shortsighted. The Genoans fled the city all right. Then they dispersed, bacillus-ridden, throughout Europe.

Or perhaps it was whichever German surmised that anthrax might do quite nicely in cutting down Europe's livestock supply during World War I. It really doesn't matter who thought of it first, the fact is, biowar got its biggest boost from exactly the effort designed to curtail it: the 1925 Geneva Convention. On June 17, 1925, most of the global powers at the convention affixed their stamps to a protocol banning the use of biological weapons.

There were two important abstainees. The United States didn't sign, which was slightly curious because at that point, America showed little interest in developing germ weapons [allegedly]. The other no-show was a different story. With the impetus of an ambitious and, in a twisted way, visionary young military doctor named Shiro Ishii, Japan had become infatuated with dreams of infecting its enemies. A decade later Japan occupied Manchuria and Ishii commanded his very own biowar empire, replete with the emperor's seal.

The sprawling operation was centered in a remote Manchurian town called Pingfan and was euphemistically named the Anti-Epidemic Water Supply Unit, Unit 731, now better known as the Ishii Corps.

Unit 731's research methods were scientifically sloppy and ethically, well, not quite right. Their test subjects were humans: Koreans, Chinese, and Russians at first. Then, after Japan went to war with the West, American, British, and Australian prisoners found themselves marched, shipped, and hauled to an encampment near the faraway Manchurian city of Mukden. There they were met by a masked welcoming committee of medical personnel who greeted them by spraying some indeterminate liquid in their faces, ramming glass probes in their rectums, and injecting them with mysterious serum.

Many of the soldiers, unsurprisingly, died. But their bodies were not disposed of according to orthodox disease-control techniques. To say the least. The creepy team of scientists came back and dissected the corpses.

These practices were a matter of routine for Ishii's Unit 731, whose vast kingdom of disease is thought to have traversed much of eastern Asia. The lab at Pingfan, alone, held germ factories that bred eight tons of toxins per month. It also contained an impressive flea farm useful in vectoring Ishii's personal favorite malady, bubonic plague. Ishii's unit pelted several Chinese cities with "flea bombs," igniting outbursts of plague.

Unit 731 infected thousands of humans, American and British POW among them, with plague, tetanus, anthrax, botulism, meningitis, tuberculosis, and a potpourri of similar noxious concoctions. Ishii's team of medical experts coolly charted their subjects' illnesses from infection to death. Prisoners who complained of crippling diarrhoea were "tested" by being compelled to run laps around the camp until they dropped from exhaustion. Some were made to stand naked in 40-below weather until their limbs froze, ostensibly to study the effects of disease in cold climates. The details aren't really important.

At least not to the United States War Department and General Douglas MacArthur. In Ishii and his files, the military brass realized, they had a motherlode of data that the United States could never develop on its own due to - as two American biowarfare researchers eloquently put it upon returning from interviews with Ishii and his underlings in Tokyo - "scruples attached to human experimentation."

Taking a unique approach to supporting our boys in the field, MacArthur suggested a deal that would allow Ishii and the rest of Unit 731's mad scientists immunity from war-crimes prosecution if they would just share their test results with American researchers, an arrangement that suited Ishii just fine. Only the state department objected, on grounds that later revelation of the deal might "seriously embarrass" the U.S. government.

Ishii slipped into reclusive retirement, devoted, according to his daughter, to religious study - though rumors ran rampant that he made repeated visits to Korea helping the United States mount a biowarfare campaign there. Dr. Murray Sanders, the military physician who finally blew the whistle on the secret deal, believed that Ishii gave lectures at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where American scientists immersed themselves in a supersecret germ weapons project after the war.

Many of Ishii's top associates went on to illustrious and rewarding careers with Japanese universities, corporations, and the government. The doctor who oversaw the cold-weather experiments struck lucrative deals with commercial fisheries as a "freezing specialist." His contribution to the frozen fish industry can only be guessed at.

The extensive unpleasantness that was Unit 731 remains one of World War II's more obscure large-scale crimes against humanity, thanks to both a U.S. government coverup reflex and Japan's always intriguing compulsion to transform, ignore, or reinvent its own history [much like the rest of the planet].

Indeed, if a Tokyo graduate student in the early eighties hadn't stumbled across a shred of Ishii's scant remaining paper trail, the Japanese public might never have known about its existence.

But it seems Ishii's empire extended into Tokyo, where things become a little tougher to conceal, seeing as how there are fifteen million people there. In 1989, a construction crew hit on a chock-full stash of human remains beneath the pavement of Shinjuku, Tokyo's futuristic redevelopment zone. "The remains were found just steps from the site of the wartime laboratory of Lt. Gen. Shiro Ishfi," reported the Asabi Evening News, which noted the belief of Kanagawa University Professor Kefichi Tsuneishi - Japan's leading 731 authority - that Ishii's unit had transported the bodies of its victims to Tokyo for further "study."

In August of 1993, several Chinese families, who think that bones of family members may be among the ghoulish heap, began demanding that Japan identify the skeletons. So far the government's approach to the unusual archaeological find has been ho-hum, declining to investigate where the bones came from or run any tests.

Not that the United States always provides a better example of openness, at least on the topic of biowarfare. For some reason, a chapter of Peter Williams and David Wallace's book "Unit 731: The Japanese Army's Secret of Secrets", was omitted from the American edition. It appeared in England, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

The chapter was titled "Korean War" and it explored the still controversial evidence that the United States military employed Ishii's techniques against China and North Korea. The charges had been around since the fifties, and were either hushed up or brushed off as commie propaganda (REDS' PHOTOGRAPHS ON GERM WARFARE EXPOSED AS FAKES-EVIDENCE IS CONCLUSIVE, hollered a March 15, 1952, New York Times headline). Williams and Wallace base their account largely on the findings of the International Scientific Commission for the Facts Concerning Bacterial Warfare in Korea and China (ISC), the one source "generally accepted today as being of high quality," the authors say.

The ISC found that numerous Chinese and Korean sites suffered unexplained outbreaks of bubonic plague and other diseases that coincided with the appearance of non-indigenous or out-of-season insects in those areas. A Chinese plague expert who examined the Korean outbreak told the ISC that his results "explain the reasons why the Americans deliberately protected the Japanese bacteriological war criminals." The United States used Ishii's "flea bomb" method to spread the plagues, ISC evidence indicated.

Nor were fleas the only weapon deployed by American biowarriors. On an April night in 1952 an American F-82 fighter was spotted flying over a Chinese village near the Inner Mongolian border. With the break of day, residents were greeted by an infestation of more than seven hundred voles. Of the voles who survived both the night cold and ravaging cats, many "were sluggish or had fractured legs."

A test on one dead vole showed that it was infected with plague. At first, "the Commission was puzzled how the voles had been dropped from the air," write Williams and Wallace. "But Unit 731 had devised such methods."

In North Korea, the ISC learned of a bizarre clam bombing. In what the ISC determined was a failed attempt to contaminate a local water supply, American planes unloaded cholera-infested clams on a hillside near a water purification plant.

"Japanese research had shown that marine lamelli-branch mollusks were well suited as media for the growth of cholera vibrio," Williams and Wallace report.

Such were the rewards of MacArthur's secret deal. Several MuMen survivors - who years later still suffered from unexplained outbreaks of fever and illness - tried to pry the truth from their own recalcitrant governments. As late as 1987, British and American MuMen vets were told "no evidence" existed that Allied prisoners were victimized by Ishii's brand of scientific inquiry. In fact, such evidence had existed for more than forty years, and was known to MacArthur when he conceived the secret deal.

It was through this covert pact, and the subsequent conspiracy to cover it up within the U.S. and British governments, that Shiro Ishii became the father of modern biological weapons. The U.S. biowarfare program was lackadaisical until 1942, 'When Chiang Kai-shek wrote a letter to Winston Churchill filling him in on Ishii's machinations. The British had their own quite minor research effort going, and the United States joined in. A year later, the Americans got their own project off the ground at a place called Camp - later Fort - Detrick in Maryland.

The quest for the "biological bomb" was conducted under the same air of paranoid self-importance as was its atomic counterpart. But unlike the Manhattan Project*, which drew leading physicists of the day, biowarfare research repulsed the nation's top biologists who recoiled from the endeavor. Those darn scruples again.


The government announced the biowarfare project in 1946, but the public's horrified response prompted the army's chief of staff, Dwight Eisenhower, to slap a three-year gag order on the project - broken only by Defense Secretary James Forrestal's 1949 debunking of public concerns as "unduly spectacular."

In the meantime, Fort Detrick, now largely an outpost of the CIA, plugged away at such unspectacular enterprises as the search for toxins that could disguise assassinations as natural deaths and other spooky schemes that have since became the stuff of spy-buff legend.

U.S. researchers did test toxins on humans, albeit volunteers. Prison inmates and, weirdly, Seventh Day Adventists lined up to get shot up with psittacosis, equine encephalitis, and tularaemia.

But it still wasn't enough. One of the biggest problems in deploying biological weapons is somehow ensuring that - oops! - the germs don't blow back in your own army's face. To check how germ clouds drifted under actual weather conditions, the military started dousing American cities with bacteria.

A 1950 "attack" on San Francisco, in which a navy minesweeper spewed rae serratia bacteria all over the City by the Bay, sent eleven people to the hospital. One person died. Researchers also unleashed toxins into the Pentagon air conditioning system and the New York subways.

A lawsuit against the government by the San Francisco victim's family revealed three-hundred "open air" germ tests between 1950 and 1969. In 1972 the U.S. government officially renounced the development and use of biochemical weapons.

Even so, secret germ tests continue, though often under the aegis of universities and private research institutes. Today's experiments have an ominous twist - genetic engineering. In 1986 the Wistar Institute, a venerable research facility in Philadelphia, infected Argentinean cattle with genetically altered rabies virus, catching Argentinean cattle ranchers completely by surprise.

The University of Oregon embarked on similar experiments in New Zealand.

The military found the biology business a hard habit to break. Despite the 1972 ban, the Defense Department was allowed to clone a Shiga toxin gene. Shiga toxin causes dysentery. The military, public spirited as ever, asserted that it merely sought a vaccine against the terminally runny affliction. But if the history of germ warfare research proves anything, it's that in the wacky world of infectious disease, defense and offense are often interchangeable.

The foreboding epilogue, or perhaps epitaph, to this unfortunate account is spelled A-I-D-S. The thesis that this fin de siècle epidemic sprang from biowarfare genetic experiments, perhaps on purpose, is common currency among conspiracy traffickers.

Needless to add, there's nothing on the record to confirm it. But then, there was "no evidence" that American prisoners were subjects of Ishii's human experiments either.


Harris, Robert, and Jeremy Paxman. A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret Story of Chemical and Biological Warfare. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

McDermott, Jeanne. The Killing Winds: The Menace of Biological Warfare. New York: Arbor House, 1987.

Piller, Charles, and Keith Yamamoto. Gene Wars: Military Control Over the New Genetic- Technologies. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1988.

Williams, Peter, and David Wallace. Unit 731: The Japanese Army's Secret of Secrets. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989.

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