A Deeper Whiff of Shiro Ishii

Warning: Bio warfare, sadism, murder

In my previous post about Shiro Ishii, I told a bit about his interest in biological warfare, and how he came to serve the US Government, at its bio-warfare research base at Ft Detrick, MD. It’s a depressing tale, but it gets worse.

We have to examine a bit about what, specifically, Shiro Ishii and his subordinates were working on. This story is turning into a bit less of a “weird history” episode and is more about how we see events in historical context. That sounds cryptic, but I’ll explain it in the last piece. For me, it’s also an exercise in unpacking how my mind forms opinions about things that may or may not have happened. What do we really know about Shiro Ishii? His work for USAMRIID would have been classified, since it was weapons research. Once he comes to America, he sort of disappears from history, unlike his nazi counterparts Mengele and Von Braun. Was Shiro Ishii wracked with guilt, or was he just an old Japanese guy wandering around beautiful civil war-era Frederick, with its quaint shops, eateries, and profoundly American culture? He was a sort of human plague-vector, his head full of dangerous ideas, and a demonstrated interest in carrying them forward. It is almost certain that he didn’t have human victims to work on, which must have been a step down in terms of the quality of his lab-work.

There’s a thoughtful paper at National Library of Medicine, about United States Responses to Japanese Wartime Inhuman Experimentation after World War II: National Security and Wartime Exigency [nlm] comparing the US’ reaction to German experiments and the Japanese.

A person whose important role in post-war events has not been sufficiently recognized is John W. Thompson. Born in Mexico of American parents, educated in the U.S., and a medical graduate of Edinburgh, John West Thompson (1906-1965) entered World War II as an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Thompson possessed varied expertise. He was a skilled enough psychiatrist to assess German war crimes defendants for underlying psychopathology. He was prominent enough in medical research later to be offered (and decline) the physiology chair at the University of Ottawa in 1946. He had studied high-altitude flying, fitting him to evaluate German wartime research in that area. Finally, he had worked at Harvard during the 1930s with physiologists Andrew Ivy and Leo Alexander, who became central figures in the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial.

Thompson is the man who looked over Mengele’s work and concluded it was mostly pointless sadism, but then looked at Ishii’s work and decided it was scientifically worthwhile enough to whitewash the man’s past and bring him to the US.

The Japanese scientists were more astute than the Germans, both in banding together to plan their response to the American investigations and in realizing that the American interest in their data gave them a powerful bargaining chip. Like Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights tales, the Japanese interrogees became adept at revealing just enough in each interview, leaving what was yet unsaid as a tantalizing demonstration of how valuable their continued freedom would be to U.S. interests.

Aah, the great nebulous “U.S. interests” – the cover-all that excuses a great number of crimes. “It might be useful” in other words.

Lt. Col. Murray Sanders, a bacteriologist was the first investigator from the U.S. biological warfare unit at Camp Detrick, Maryland to travel to Japan. Sanders was told by several interviewees in September and October 1945 that the Japanese military had engaged solely in defensive research, as biological warfare was “clearly against humanity.” The repetition of this phrase suggested a prearranged script. Sanders trusted his translator, Lt. Col. Ryoichi Naito, not realizing that Naito had served in Unit 731 and was deliberately manipulating the interrogations. In a 1983 interview, Sanders admitted that he had been “deceived” during his nine-week investigation.

“Defensive research”? If I understand the situation in WWII correctly, that “defensive research” would have meant, eventually, preparing bio-weapons for the US Marines to run into during their “island hopping” campaign. Imagine if the beaches they landed on had been seeded with vectors carrying a range of nasties? Now that I think of it, I wonder what effect this had on the assembly of the US military’s innoculation program. When I went through army basic training, at Fort Dix, NJ, in the summer of 1983, they gave me a great big pressure-injected shot of ${classified you don’t need to know} stuff. Apparently, it had a lot of weird things you wouldn’t normally expect to encounter, unless you were going up against Shiro Ishii – anthrax, tetanus, and so forth.


Plague-infected fleas, bred in the laboratories of Unit 731 and Unit 1644, were spread by low-flying airplanes upon Chinese cities, including coastal Ningbo and Changde, Hunan Province, in 1940 and 1941. This military aerial spraying killed tens of thousands of people with bubonic plague epidemics. An expedition to Nanking involved spreading typhoid and paratyphoid germs into the wells, marshes, and houses of the city, as well as infusing them into snacks to be distributed among the locals. Epidemics broke out shortly after, to the elation of many researchers, where it was concluded that paratyphoid fever was “the most effective” of the pathogens.

Because we are going to re-visit some aspects of Ishii’s work, in the last piece of this story, please keep that in mind: Ishii’s method was to try to induce plagues, by infecting vectors and dropping or spraying them into a target area. By the way, this is the intellectual framework in which US politicians are working, when it comes to biology and bio-weapons: where else do you think the US’ leaders got the idea that a tailored coronavirus would be a practical weapon? The US had secret projects researching the implications of exactly that – I’d expect that successive US presidents had access to information that there were such programs. Typically, that sort of information would crop up on the “defensive” side, but it would have been part of the knowledge-sphere of the war-hawk politician. I remember the long, puzzled laugh I had when, during the Iraq war, there was some establishment spokesperson on television talking about bio-weapons: (paraphrasing) “A single plane would fly over and there would be a fine mist descending on the troops. A few days later, half of them would be incapacitated.” Then, he held up what was (to my eyes) clearly a sprayer/mister nozzle. Was it a prop that he had picked up from a hardware store, or was it one of ours on loan from Ft Detrick? The TV interviewer, naturally, did not ask.

Speaking of Ft Detrick, it did not evade my attention that the alleged “anthrax mailer” around 9/11 was a research scientist from Ft Detrick. It’s thought-provoking that the guy the FBI tagged with doing that had access to methods for “weaponizing” the anthrax. That whole story may never be told, because the FBI still managed to not figure out that case but they searched a pond in Maryland near Ft Detrick because, allegedly, the guy they tagged used an underwater glove-box to handle his cultures. That sounds ridiculous to me, but what do I know? [I imagine a 2-layer glove-box with an outer jacket full of bleach, maybe, surrounding the inner chamber] At the time I was thinking “what does ‘weaponizing’ anthrax even mean, and how do you know that?” The words “ball mill” were used but there was no support behind them – clearly someone was feeding talking-points to the media, again. And that someone was getting their information from a US bio-weapons research lab. Shiro Ishii was dead by then (he died in Tokyo in 1959 of a larygeal cancer) but his ghost seems to hover over Ft Detrick, still.

That model, of spraying a live pathogen like anthrax onto troops is straight out of Ishii’s playbook. And, so was all the discussion of bio-weapons when Saddam Hussein was allegedly preparing a bio-weapons strike on ${someone} in Colin Powell’s famous pack of lies he told the United Nations. This would have been around the time I was beginning to formulate my doctrine of projection: “if the US government is accusing another nation of sneakily doing ${X} it’s because the US has been doing ${X} for some time already.” Again, nobody asked Colin Powell, “how do you guys know that?” because maybe someone would have said, “oh, ours are better.”

[wikipedia] At least 12 large-scale field trials of biological weapons were performed, and at least 11 Chinese cities were attacked with biological agents. An attack on Changda in 1941 reportedly led to approximately 10,000 biological casualties and 1,700 deaths among ill-prepared Japanese troops, with most cases due to cholera. Japanese researchers performed tests on prisoners with bubonic plague, cholera, smallpox, botulism, and other diseases. This research led to the development of the defoliation bacilli bomb and the flea bomb used to spread bubonic plague. Some of these bombs were designed with porcelain shells, an idea proposed by Ishii in 1938.

These bombs enabled Japanese soldiers to launch biological attacks, infecting agriculture, reservoirs, wells, as well as other areas with anthrax, plague-carrier fleas, typhoid, dysentery, cholera or other deadly pathogens. During biological bomb experiments, researchers dressed in protective suits would examine the dying victims. Infected food supplies and clothing were dropped by airplane into areas of China not occupied by Japanese forces. In addition, poisoned food and candies were given to unsuspecting victims.

Imagine if troops started showing up sick simultaneously with smallpox and bubonic plague? That’d be a bit of a give-away, I expect. And, a 10,000 troop/1,700 deaths  “own goal”? I’m surprised Ishii survived that. Infected food supplies and clothing sounds like Ishii stole a riff from the US genociders who gave indigenous peoples smallpox-laden blankets, to induce pandemic among isolated tribes.

Two days later, Kamei stated that the Japanese feared that information given to the US “will be discovered by Communists and passed to Russia.” Those behind Kamei now saw that an emerging U.S. priority was keeping biological warfare information out of Communist hands. Kamei told Fell, “The human experiments were extensive enough to reach scientific conclusions. …conclusions [that] are in no way based on imagination.” Having previously lied that all documents had been destroyed and that the surviving officers of Unit 731 had only hazy recollections of experiments, the Japanese now changed course and reassured the Americans that they had valuable information to trade for immunity from prosecution.

Ah, yes, “the communists will learn our technique and use them on you.” That’s interesting, considering that the Soviets were mostly learning their dirty warfare technologies from the US, at the time, thanks to its remarkably permeable veil of secrecy around the Manhattan Project. I also wonder at the American scientists who appear to have accepted the Japanese resasoning – after all, Stalin had demonstrated that for mass murder he didn’t have a problem with just lining huge numbers of people up and shooting them or isolating them and letting them starve. It’s odd that anyone would feel that the Soviets wanted lessons in how to depopulate huge regions. I think that what was going on, here, was a crafted appeal to the American desire for a “safe” weapon that could be dropped on people you don’t have to look at, to burn or poison them from 10,000 feet – the quintessentially American way of war. We don’t want to get our hands dirty.

During the final months of World War II, Japan planned to use plague as a biological weapon against San Diego, California. The plan was scheduled to launch on September 22, 1945, but Japan surrendered five weeks earlier.Plague fleas, infected clothing and infected supplies encased in bombs were dropped on various targets. The resulting cholera, anthrax, and plague were estimated to have killed at least 400,000 Chinese civilians.Tularemia was also tested on Chinese civilians.

There is something particularly gruesome about inflicting disease on people in addition to high explosive. First you destroy their infrastructure and organization and then make everyone sick. If you’ve summoned one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, you may as well invite the others, right?

I find it odd that someone who planned to attack San Diego in 5 weeks was welcomed in Maryland, but maybe I’m just a narrow-minded grudge-holding kind of guy. 400,000 dead in China would not have been anything more than a statistic to the US government – after all, it had already demonstrated its comfort with things like that. But Ishii was a bloody-minded bastard who was developing all of this stuff with an eye toward using it on Americans.

Human targets were used to test grenades positioned at various distances and in various positions. Flamethrowers were tested on people. Victims were also tied to stakes and used as targets to test pathogen-releasing bombs, chemical weapons, and explosive bombs as well as bayonets and knives.

Decades later, the US Government did a clever head-fake, throwing Monsanto and other companies under the bus by letting it be known that they were the primary producers of Agent Orange (Dioxin) which was used as a bio-weapon against Vietnamese civilians and agriculture. The fig-leaf that it was a “defoliant” is ridiculous: it was originally developed as a bio-weapon for use in WWII to destroy German crops but the war ended too soon. I suppose some asshole somewhere argued that starvation was less unpleasant than high explosive. Again: may as well invite all the horsemen to the party. Perhaps the spray-head that the fellow showed on TV prior to the Iraq war was one of the spray-heads developed for use on Vietnam.

I’ve raised other relationships with chemical and bio-warfare because Shiro Ishii was obviously not the only bastard working this angle. It has been a pervasive desire of governments, for a long time, to be able to do away with large numbers of the wrong sort of people easily, leaving the land ready for re-occupation by the right sort. Anyone with half a brain should look upon these plans by governments, and realize “they that is aimed at me!” but consistently the governments have managed to argue “no, it’s aimed at the other guy!” In fact, there are generations of Americans who appear to have bought the argument that all of those nuclear weapons are necessary because they, in fact, make their lives safer. Only in some sick fantasy-land do they do so.

At a conference yesterday at which the Chief of the Chemical Corps and representatives of the War, State and Justice Departments were present, it was informally agreed that the recommendations of the C.inC., FEC [Commander-in-Chief, Far East Command, i.e. General Douglas MacArthur], and the Chief, Chemical Corps would be accepted, i.e. that all information obtained in this investigation would be held in intelligence channels and not used for ‘War Crimes’ programs.

The decision to shelter Ishii went pretty high up the chain of command, didn’t it?

I think that’s enough for now. What I wanted to do was to introduce a feeling for how Shiro Ishii went about bio-warfare. It’s going to come up again, in the last posting of this series.

This stuff is stuck in my mind and has been for years. It makes it hard to love humanity in the slightest. I suppose it’s part of my anti-government attitude; I’ve noticed a lot of liberals/libertarians have an anti-government viewpoint that is oriented along an axis of personal liberty: governments exist to control us and therefore they are bad. I outgrew that conceit long ago. Governments are out to fucking kill us in the most horrible way possible, if we oppose them – or if they get into one of their eternal pissing contests and need to rack up a kill-count. We’re nothing but a collateral statistic to them, and never have been anything more.

If you want more about Shiro Ishii’s experiments, including what may be a photo of him performing a vivisection, you can go here.



  1. Ridana says

    It is almost certain that he didn’t have human victims to work on

    I wish that “almost” wasn’t in there. Given our track record of human experimentation without informed consent, I have to suspect “didn’t have” ought to be “had.” After all, in the early post-war years we still had easy access to lots and lots of potential victims who no one would be looking for or asking about.

  2. lorn says

    The Japanese were particularly cruel to the other Asian races. Has something to do with them being seen as defective/ failed copies of the Japanese. Similar psycolgy surrounds what has been termed the ‘uncanny valley’ in robotics where people are generally much more accepting of robots that are clearly robots. Far less so with forms that try but fail to feel human.

    So many of the Unit 731 experiments were useless exercises in cruelty. Tying people to stakes and detonating bombs near them really doesn’t advance any greater understanding. Other than, yes, the Chines die like other races and, under the right conditions, otherwise nominally civilized people can indulge perverse tastes torturing and destroying flawed versions of themselves.

    A few experiments were nominally useful, much like German hypothermia research, but what to do with knowledge obtained in that manner?

    And the Japanese were studying bioweapons and this just happened to be both an area the US had neglected and a field we felt we needed to master. Bio-weapons were seen as the ‘poor man’s nuke’. Nuclear weapons were intensely industrial. You really need a huge, very energy hungry, and very chemically focused complex to make bomb-grade materials in any reasonable time. This is why nuclear development is hard to conceal.

    Biowarfare, OTOH, is compact and really doesn’t need a huge infrastructure to get into. At the end of WW2 the US was behind. Which is what gave Ishii the leverage to escape prosecution.

    IMHO biowarfare, like most chemical warfare, is a dead end. Yes, it can be effective but there are few controls. Germs know no borders. That and the little buggers are always adapting. Use a bio-weapon and your guys may still be vulnerable across, time, space, and inoculating agents.

    In school I knew the son of one of the men who created Agent Orange. His son was also getting his PhD in chemistry. We used to drink at the same bar. His version, as related by his father, was that the process was run too hot and that is what produced the dioxin. Higher temperatures allowed the process to run faster but created dioxin as an unwanted byproduct. As a junior chemist his father tried to get them to slow down but this was the ‘go-go’ sixties and profits were paramount.

    In all these cases the cruelty is so very banal, even boring. It is all so predictable as nearly great minds play out their prejudices and perverse desires. But when you see other humans as mere objects only the crudest questions come to mind. It is all so devoid of real creativity. Which is why so much of this sort of ‘research’ is useless.

    One recurring question that does come up. One that does interest me are the various claims and stories surrounding the Japanese nuclear program:



  3. says

    Tying people to stakes and detonating bombs near them really doesn’t advance any greater understanding

    I hesitate to argue this point, but: they were trying to see if bomb fragments of bombshells containing anthrax would carry anthrax into victim’s bodies. So there was some “legitimate scientific interest” there if you consider absolute ghoulishness to be legitimate science.

    IMHO biowarfare, like most chemical warfare, is a dead end. Yes, it can be effective but there are few controls. Germs know no borders. That and the little buggers are always adapting. Use a bio-weapon and your guys may still be vulnerable across, time, space, and inoculating agents.

    I’m afraid “for now” applies. It might be possible, eventually, to develop custom retroviruses that affect only people with certain gene expressions, i.e.: a virus that only destroys white people or people with neanderthal DNA, etc. The controls are an issue, and COVID-19 has illustrated that, bigtime. But I’m sure there are bio-weapons proponents who’d point at ebola and observe that you can build a virus that is so aggressive and destructive that it burns out its target population fairly quickly. Messing with bio-weapons based on endemic viruses would be stupid, but I’m sure some boffin right now is arguing that it’d be possible to make a virus that only affects people from Osama Bin Laden’s family. Until it mutates.

    In all these cases the cruelty is so very banal, even boring. It is all so predictable as nearly great minds play out their prejudices and perverse desires. But when you see other humans as mere objects only the crudest questions come to mind. It is all so devoid of real creativity. Which is why so much of this sort of ‘research’ is useless.

    I agree – it appears to me to be that they’re just in it for the sadism.

    See my posting for today. :( I used to worry that capitalism would develop a bio-weapon to keep the workers in line, and now I realize that they did. It’s just called “medical care” and the withholding of it.

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