'If you survived one experiment, they used you again; no one escaped death.'
Sheldon Harris, CSUN professor
What took place at the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp known as Unit 731 was unspeakable. More than 3,000 Chinese and Russian prisoners died at the camp in occupied China, the victims of germ warfare experiments by the Japanese during World War II.
But what happened after the Allied victory in 1945 is just as chilling, said Cal State Northridge history professor Sheldon Harris: The United States secretly protected the Japanese army doctors of Unit 731 from prosecution as war criminals. In return, the Japanese officers gave U.S. military authorities the data from their grisly human experiments.
Harris said he has proof of the deal in formerly top secret documents he obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act. In response to Harris' research and inquiries, the U.S. Army, after years of denying the story, has confirmed the basic facts of the deal.
"The fact is, we made a joint decision not to prosecute," said Norman M. Covert, an Army spokesman at Fort Detrick, Md., where the military conducts its biological warfare research. ". . . The driving point was to retain the information within friendly channels. That's why we did it, to keep the information out of the hands of the Soviets."
Harris, a teacher of American and film history who became fascinated with the subject during a tour of China in 1985, is preparing the first scholarly study of the episode. He plans to write a book about it, probably next year.
The Army had denied that the government protected the Japanese army doctors who ran Unit 731, beginning when the first English-language article on the subject was published in 1981, and as recently as August, following a science conference at UC San Diego.
"The whole cover-up is remarkable," said Harris, who has visited the former germ warfare factory near Harbin, China, during his research.
Even now, Covert, a military historian who has done most of the Army's research of the incident, said, "The U.S. government and I will never say that a deal was made . . . but it can be interpreted that way."
That's probably as close to an admission as will be made by the Army, said John Dower, a professor of Japanese history at UC San Diego and an acknowledged expert in the field. "Even if you drop a ton of evidence, the government is slow to concede these things," he said.
Dower credits San Francisco writer John W. Powell with doing most of the groundwork on the experiments, which were first reported in Powell's article for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in October, 1981.
Powell said in a telephone interview that he is pleased to see historians such as Harris pursue the story and prod the Army to release more information. "It's a step forward to setting the record straight," he said.
Dower said the historical conclusion that can be drawn from Harris' and Powell's research is that the United States "was simultaneously involved in exposing some Japanese war crimes and covering up others."
"After the war, as in the case of the Nazis, we were engaged in enlisting fascists and murderers to our side who we felt had skills or knowledge that would be useful in the Cold War," Dower said. "While it is a natural development, it's not a very attractive one because, particularly in the case of biological warfare, we are talking about the commission of the grossest, most horrendous sorts of atrocities."
While Nazi doctors were put on trial for war crimes by the International War Tribunal at Nuremberg, Harris said that formerly top secret documents show that U.S. military authorities agreed to keep secret the evidence collected against the Japanese who ran Unit 731.
U.S. authorities at the time believed the data from human experimentation performed by the Japanese would advance the country's knowledge of biological warfare, Harris said.
The first reports of biological warfare experiments conducted at Unit 731--which has been converted by the Chinese into a memorial--surfaced more than 10 years ago in a Japanese television documentary. Since then, historians have determined that Japanese doctors and scientists killed thousands of Chinese and Russian prisoners, as well as nearby villagers, by infecting them with diseases such as plague, cholera, anthrax, typhoid and syphilis.
Other prisoners were exposed to chemical weapons such as mustard gas. Some were exposed to radiation, others injected with horse blood and many dissected while alive, Harris said.
"If you survived one experiment, they used you again; no one escaped death," Harris said.
He said the Japanese then field- tested their findings; for example, by dropping loads of plague-infested fleas on Chinese troops and villagers.