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Unit 731 Testimony Paperback – April 15, 2004
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Over the fifty years since World War II, we have been made aware of atrocities committed during those years. We are most aware of Nazi Germany; less in the consciousness, but still a part of the common knowledge, is Stalin's treatment of Russians during and after the war. But the actions of the Japanese army in China during the thirties and forties-- and their ultimate consequences-- have gone largely unreported in the Western press. Americans were first made aware of the scope and depth of Japan's war crimes in the late 1980s by two investigative journalists, Williams and Wallace, in their book Unit 731: Japan's Secret Biological Warfare in World War II. Soon after, Godfrey Ho released the first of four exploitation films based on the activities of Unit 731, called Men Behind the Sun (a film partially subsidized by the Chinese government). Gradually, Americans became more aware of what happened (especially in the case of the Rape of Nanjing), but the numbers-- conservative estimates put the death toll in China between 1930 and 1945 at thirty million-- and the specific case of Unit 731 are still largely unknown to Americans.
Hal Gold fires another shot in the battle to set things right with his book Unit 731: Testimony. During 1993 and 1994, an exhibition based on the activities of Unit 731 toured Japan, and a handful of ex-Unit 731 personnel testified about their actions and the actions of others. It was the first time the Japanese government had allowed evidence that Unit 731 even existed to be publicized. Gold's book starts with a history of Unit 731, and then provides transcriptions of many of the testimonies given during the exhibition.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Unit 731: Testimony is the quotidian attitude of the employees recounted in much of the testimony. While a number mentioned initial pangs of conscience once they realized what it was Unit 731 was actually doing, almost all of them say that they simply got used to it. And we think kids are desensitized to violence today? Wonder what the average teen would do if he found himself in a room where a live vivisection, without benefit of anesthesia, were being performed.
Gold gets his message across by being invisible. He puts the facts on the table as plainly as possible, and then lets the testifiers speak for themselves. The facts lead to one conclusion: the U. S. government (and specifically MacArthur and Truman) were fully aware of the activities of Unit 731, which turned over all surviving test results and documents in exchange for immunity against war crimes prosecution (many of MacArthur's surviving memos and letters dealing with Unit 731 strongly imply that the general didn't consider those activites to be war crimes at all). Allegations were made during the Korean War that the United States, with help from Unit 731 commander Shiro Ishii, carried out a biological attack on Pyongyang. Gold never conclusively proves the case, but the circumstantial evidence points to the conclusion that those allegations are true.
The testimonials, on the other hand, speak volumes before they are even read. Japan is changing, as a culture, and the government's ability to allow the disclosure of fifty-year-old state secrets are a promising beginning. (As a side note, Gold also mentions at least three aborted operations the Japanese were considering that would almost certainly have altered the course of the war. It really makes one think to realize that the Japanese had a submersible aircraft carrier sitting not far off the coast of Oregon-- and decided not to use it.)
This is a powerful book, and one that should become a standard text in twentieth-century history classes. In terms of scale and in terms of horror, the Japanese occupation of what they called Machuria was the chief atrocity of the twentieth century. And you know what they say about history forgotten. ****
What made these exhibits intereresting, and this book, is that it worked as a forum for veterans and victims alike to recount their stories. Privates, doctors, secret police all came out to speak (some anonimously) about their role in the horrific activities of Unit 731.
Unit 731 Testimonial does not describe the history of the Japanese Bilogical Warfare research. Rather it concentrates on the actual experiences of people involved in the human experiments. Some of those quoted were truly ignorant of what Unit 731 was really doing, others had suspicions, while a few knew in detail. Some of those quoted did not actually participate in Unit 731's activities, but had been personally involved in similar atrocities and compelled by the exhibit to recount.
Unit 731 is invaluable as a resource in understanding the mentality of the Japanese involved in BW related atrocities during World War II.
Among these were Stalin's Gulags, the Japanese comfort women, Bataan Death March and Rape of Nanking.
Gold's book, "Unit 731: Testimony," takes a look at another wartime atrocity the Japanese have refused to own up to for the past 50 years: a program set up by the military to experiment with biological weapons on humans and other heinous human tortures that were expounded as "scientific advancement."
Gold's book is divided into two sections, a Historical Overview in which he explains how the idea of a human experimentation lab began in the Russo-Japanese War and became a horrific reality due to one man, Ishii Shiro; and a second section in which testimonies are given on criminal acts by the participants, including researchers, Kenpeitai officers, nurses and professors.
The historical overview lays out factual groundwork of Unit 731 and gives explicit details on some of the experiments, including live autopsies, biological tests and frostbite trials; which is some of the most disturbing literature I have ever read. Even as the bilogical weapons scare makes the headlines today, Gold gives proof that this isn't a new event in the world as the Japanese unleashed fleas with the Cholera disease on the Chinese citizens. After the war is over in 1945, Gold continues to explain how Unit 731 was covered up (with American help), and how some of the war-time criminals became wealthy professors and businessmen in Japan and set up world-wide companies like Green Cross. Gold also discusses the Japanese's unwillingness to admit their guilt about such crimes and how the majority of the Japanese citizens either don't know of their country's war-time atrocities or scoff at such notions as unfair accusations. (And people wonder how there are nut-jobs out there who dispute the Holocaust as ever happening.)
The testimony section is equally as shocking in that the participants recall their brutal crimes with some even trying to defend their actions.
Overall, this is a very disturbing and powerful book that I highly recommend. It's one of those books where the reader is shocked as they read the words and a book that will force the reader to keep thinking about it even if they are not reading it at the time. I can only give it four stars though in that as Gold cites very good sources on Unit 731, including personal testimony, he hints at some very serious allegations about the US during the Korean War, including biological bombs dropped by US Troops and the creation of the AIDS virus by the American military, that he gives no evidence to. To throw out accusations like that should force the author into making two choices - backing it up with facts, documents, or other info - or leaving it out of the book.