For a while after the end of World War II, Toshio Tono could not bear to be in the company of doctors. The thought of putting on a white coat filled him with dread.
As a young man with an interest in gynecology, it was an aversion that could have quickly ended his dream of a career in medicine.
However, there were powerful reasons behind his phobia.
In 1945, as a first-year student at Kyushu Imperial University’s medical school in southern Japan, Tono became an unwilling witness to atrocities.
Those atrocities — namely the dreadful medical experimentation on live US prisoners of war (POWs) — decades later, continue to provoke revulsion and disbelief in Japan and abroad.
Amid widespread criticism, including in the US, that under Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan is attempting to expunge the worst excesses of its past brutality from the collective memory, Tono believes his “final job” is to shed light on one of the darkest chapters in Japan’s modern history.
In May 1945, just weeks after he began his studies, a US B-29 Superfortress crashed near the city of Fukuoka, where Tono’s university was located, after being rammed by a Japanese fighter plane.
One of the estimated 12 crew died when the cords of his parachute were sliced by another Japanese plane. On landing, another opened fire on villagers before turning his pistol on himself. Local people, incensed by the destruction the B-29s were visiting on Japanese cities, reportedly killed another two airmen on the ground.
“The B-29’s crews were hated in those days,” Tono, now the 89-year-old director of a maternity clinic in Fukuoka, said in a recent interview.
The remaining airmen were rounded up by police and placed in military custody. Their captain, Marvin Watkins, was sent for interrogation in Tokyo, where he was beaten but survived the war.
The prisoners were led to believe they were going to receive treatment for their injuries, but over the following three weeks, they were to be subjected to a depraved form of pathology at the medical school to which Tono is the only surviving witness.
“One day two blindfolded prisoners were brought to the school in a truck and taken to the pathology lab,” Tono said.
“Two soldiers stood guard outside the room. I did wonder if something unpleasant was going to happen to them, but I had no idea it was going to be that awful” he said.
Inside, university doctors, at the urging of local military authorities, began the first of a series of experiments that none of the eight victims would survive.
According to testimony that was later used against the doctors and military personnel at the Allied War Crimes Tribunals, they injected one anesthetized prisoner with seawater to see if it worked as a substitute for sterile saline solution.
Other airmen had parts of their organs removed, with one deprived of an entire lung to gauge the effects of surgery on the respiratory system. In another experiment, doctors drilled through the skull of a live prisoner, apparently to determine if epilepsy could be treated by the removal of part of the brain.
The tribunals also heard claims from US lawyers that the liver of one victim had been removed, cooked and served to officers, although all charges of cannibalism were later dropped owing to a lack of evidence.
As an inexperienced medical student, Tono’s job was to wash the blood from the operating theater floor and prepare seawater drips.
“The experiments had absolutely no medical merit,” he said.
“They were being used to inflict as cruel a death as possible on the prisoners. I was in a state of panic, but I couldn’t say anything to the other doctors. We kept being reminded of the misery US bombing raids had caused in Japan. But looking back it was a terrible thing to have happened,” he said.
Medical staff preserved the prisoners’ corpses in formaldehyde for future use by students, but at the end of the war the remains were quickly cremated, as doctors attempted to hide evidence of their crimes.
When later questioned by US authorities, they claimed the airmen had been transferred to camps in Hiroshima and had died in the atomic bombing on Aug. 6, 1945.
On the afternoon of Aug. 15, hours after the emperor had announced Japan’s surrender, more than a dozen other US POWs held in Fukuoka camps were taken to a mountainside execution site and beheaded.
The macabre experiments at Kyushu University were not without precedent. In occupied China, members of the Japanese Army’s notorious Unit 731 experimented on thousands of live Chinese and Russian prisoners of war and civilians as part of Japan’s chemical and biological weapons program.
Of the 30 Kyushu University doctors and military staff who stood trial in 1948, 23 were convicted of vivisection and the wrongful removal of body parts. Five were sentenced to death and another four to life imprisonment, but they were never punished.
They were the beneficiaries of the slow pace of justice as US-led occupation authorities attempted to deal with large numbers of military leaders and civilian collaborators suspected of war crimes. One of the most senior doctors, Fukujiro Ishiyama, killed himself before his trial.
By the early 1950s the Korean Peninsula was in the midst of a bloody civil war, while Japan had been officially recognized as a US ally under the terms of the San Francisco Peace Treaty.
With a politically stable Japan regarded as key to preventing the spread of communism in the region, then-US president Harry Truman issued an executive order that led to freedom for imprisoned war criminals, including those awaiting execution.
By the end of 1958, all Japanese war criminals had been released and began reinventing themselves, some as mainstream politicians, under their new, US-authored constitution.
“The way Japan was during the war, it was impossible to refuse orders from the military,” Tono said.
“Doctor Ishiyama and the other doctors committed crimes, but in a way they were also victims of the war; but I hated doctors for a while. I couldn’t get to sleep without pills,” he said.
After the war, Tono spent years examining documents and revisiting relevant locations in an attempt to establish what had happened.
Ignoring pleas from his former superiors not to disclose the truth about the prisoners’ treatment, Tono revealed all in Disgrace, his meticulously researched account of the crimes.
Like the leaders of Unit 731, the doctors who conducted vivisection re-entered postwar society as respectable members of the medical community. Most never spoke of their wartime experiences.
Earlier this year, the university made the surprising decision to acknowledge the darkest chapter in its history with the inclusion of vivisection exhibits at its new museum.
Seven decades on, a simple stone monument erected by a local farmer marks the spot where the B-29 came down and where the US airmen’s terrifying ordeal began.
“The job of a doctor is to help people, but here were doctors doing exactly the opposite,” Tono said.
“It’s difficult to accept, but this really happened. I decided to tell the truth because I don’t want anything like this to ever happen again,” he said.
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