Tue, Aug 18, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Japan revisits its darkest time, when POWs became experiments

One Japanese doctor has dedicated himself to ensuring that the vivisection of eight US airmen during World War II by his fellow countrymen is not forgotten

By Justin McCurry  /  The Guardian, FUKUOKA, Japan

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.

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