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Book Review: Unit 731 Testimony by Hal Gold

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One has to wonder why so many are unaware of what went on in Unit 731, much less what, exactly, it was. The reason for this, as explained in Hal Gold's Unit 731 Testimony, is due to the extensive covering up by the Japanese government, for unlike the stupid Nazis who filmed most of their crimes, the Imperial Japanese Army was much better at hiding it. Another reason many do not know could be due to the pardoning of punishment by the U.S. government in exchange for Japanese medical information. Unit 731 was nothing more than a medical unit run by the Imperial Japanese Army designed to perform the most horrific experiments on people, including the Chinese, Korean, Russian, British and American.

Some of these experiments included poisoning victims with deadly diseases, live vivisections, the harvesting of plague infected fleas (which in turn were dropped on entire Chinese villages), poisoning Chinese children by offering chocolate laced with anthrax, frostbite experiments, tying individuals up for bayonet practice, and the list goes on. Unit 731 Testimony offers background into the medical unit, and the brain behind it: Shiro Ishii. The book not only details the history behind the unit, but also the mentality that went along with it — the idea that Japanese duty was to adhere to the wish of the Emperor, of whom they believed to be a god. The second part of the book includes first-hand witnesses and testimony, and all events are relayed in a very deliberate, matter of fact tone, sans emotion. Even those doctors expressing remorse do so only later, and through their testimony, one can see how they had trained themselves to detach. One doctor even notes that the first time he heard screams in pain, he was bothered by it. But then the second time became easier. By the third time, he no longer noticed the screams.

Probably the most disturbing of all, however, is that many of these scientists went unpunished for their crimes. Dr. Kitano Masaji, who was in charge of the frostbite experiments, later became head of the Japanese pharmaceutical company, the Green Cross. Japanese scientists were also not punished by the American government, despite having murdered American prisoners of war, in exchange for the information gained by their human experiments.

On the outside, citizens were told that Unit 731 was a lumber mill, and they even went so far as to refer to their prisoners not as people, but as logs, or by the Japanese word for wood logs: maruta. Unit 731 Testimony is not a personal narrative, but a historical text offering facts, events, and dates. And despite the horrible accounts, the text is never overly descriptive or forcibly emotional, but rather the author allows the events to stand on their own. It is not a book that reads like a novel much in the way Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking does. Rather, Unit 731 Testimony is a good source for information on this time, as well as a variety of first-hand accounts.

Unlike the German concentration camps, prisoners in Unit 731 were, on average, fed well. The reason for this was due to the scientists wanting accurate medical results as how it would apply to normal, healthy individuals. The reasoning behind the experiments involved not only learning how to improve Japanese defenses, but also to know the many ways the enemy could be defeated. Prisoners were kept in small cages and kept alive even when in pain. There is one testimony, for example, that involves a woman who had lost her hands in a frostbite experiment, and then later was infected with syphilis. Her ailments went untreated for the intention of noting the progression of the infection. And very often those who were infected with some sexually transmitted disease were forced into sexual intercourse with a healthy person. Or sometimes a sick prisoner would be forced to share a cell with a healthy one, just so the doctors could document how long it took for the infection to spread from one person to the other.

Unit 731 Testimony does not offer subject matter that should be taken lightly, and it is a highly informative and necessary book, offering a good overview of this terrible event. It is difficult to imagine what could be more disturbing than the descriptions on these pages, or knowing that human beings could be so cruel and lacking in compassion as to do this to another member of their own species, or any living species for that matter. But that was part of it: to the Imperial Japanese Army, the Chinese, Koreans and anyone else were subhuman, they were nothing more than maruta, or wood logs. Many also rationalized it by thinking that these prisoners were destined to die anyway, so why not use them to enhance medical research? With every crime, there is a logic attached to it, even if that logic seems warped to anyone on the outside. Unit 731 shows not only the most despicable elements of human nature, but also that more often than not, crime pays. Many of these doctors not only went unpunished, but they became rich up until their deaths. After all, if crime didn’t pay there would be a lot less of it.

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About Jessica Schneider

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/tom-carter/ Tom Carter

    Nice review. I’ve read about Unit 731 before, and I’ll read this book, too. If such things can be compared, this exceeds even the horrors of human experiments at Auschwitz conducted by Dr. Mengele and others.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ Jessica Schneider

    Yes, Unit 731 and Ishii were actually worse than Mengele. It is hard to believe but at least there were some survivors of Auschwitz, where as everyone who entered Unit 731 perished. Mengele’s primary focus was children, though he too went unpunished. There is a doc that can be found online called “The Horrors of Unit 731″ on You Tube.

  • John Wilde

    All this is going beyond horror…
    I’m glad we dropped the “Fat man” on those slant-eyes.
    God bless America.