Sunday, June 4, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Grisly Wwii Fact: Japanese Dissected American Pows Alive -- Medical Experiments Conducted On B-29 Crew

Baltimore Sun

FUKUOKA, Japan - "I could never again wear a white smock," says Dr. Toshio Tono, dressed in a white running jacket at his hospital and recalling events of 50 years ago.

"It's because the prisoners thought that we were doctors, since they could see the white smocks, that they didn't struggle. They never dreamed they would be dissected."

The prisoners were eight American airmen, knocked out of the sky over southern Japan during the waning months of World War II, and then torn apart organ by organ while they were still alive.

What occurred here 50 years ago this year, at the anatomy department of Kyushu University has been largely forgotten in Japan and is virtually unknown in the United States. American prisoners of war were subjected to horrific medical experiments. All of the prisoners died. Most of the physicians and assistants then did their best to hide what they had done.

The gruesome experiments performed at the university were variations on research programs Japan conducted in territories it occupied during the war. In the most notorious of these efforts, the Japanese Imperial Army's Unit 731 killed thousands of Chinese and Russians held prisoner in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, in experiments to develop chemical and biological weapons.

Ken Yuasa, now a frail, 70-year-old physician in Tokyo, belonged to a military company stationed just south of Unit 731's base at Harbin, Manchuria. He recalls joining other doctors to watch as a prisoner was shot in the stomach, to give Japanese surgeons practice at extracting bullets.


While the victim was still alive, the doctors also practiced amputations.

"It wasn't just my experience," Yuasa says. "It was done everywhere."

At least nine crewmen from a U.S. B-29 bomber shot down on May 5, 1945, over southwestern Japan were taken into custody, although some had been beaten or stabbed by civilians.

The local authorities assumed that the most knowledgeable was the captain, Marvin S. Watkins. He was sent to Tokyo for interrogation, where he would be tortured but would nonetheless survive the war.

What happened next cannot be easily explained. Perhaps caring for the Americans was an impossible burden, especially because some were injured. Perhaps food was scarce.

Whatever the reason, a military physician and a colonel in a local regiment decided to make the prisoners available for medical experiments, and Kyushu University became a willing participant.

Teddy J. Ponczka was the first to be handed over to the doctors and their assistants. He had been stabbed, in either his right shoulder or his chest. According to Tono, the American assumed he was about to be treated for the wound when he was taken to an operating room.

But the incision went far deeper. A doctor wanted to test surgery's effects on the respiratory system, so one lung was removed. The wound was stitched closed.

How Teddy Ponczka died is in dispute. According to U.S. military records, he was anesthetized during the operation, and then the gas mask was removed from his face. A surgeon, Taro Torisu, reopened the incision and reached into Ponczka's chest. In the bland words of the military report, Torisu "stopped the heart action."


Tono remembers events differently. The first experiment was followed by a second, he says. Ponczka was given intravenous injections of sea water, to determine if sea water could be used as a substitute for sterile saline solution, used to increase blood volume in the wounded or those in shock. Tono held the bottle of sea water. He says Ponczka bled to death.

Then it was the turn of the others.

The Japanese wanted to learn whether a patient could survive the partial loss of his liver. They wanted to learn if epilepsy could be controlled by removing part of the brain. According to U.S. military records, physicians also operated on the prisoners' stomachs and necks.

All the Americans died.

"There was no debate among the doctors about whether to do the operations - that is what made it so strange," Tono says.

The remains of the soldiers were at first preserved in formaldehyde so they could be studied by anatomy students. There were second thoughts when Japan surrendered to the United States in August 1945.

Some of the people involved began to worry about the consequences of having performed the experiments. The body parts were disposed of, records destroyed and stories concocted to mask what was done.

Japanese authorities claimed that some of the American POWs had been sent to Hiroshima and vanished in the atomic bomb blast, that the others had been in a plane crash on the way to Tokyo.

Word of the experiments eventually leaked out.

Thirty people were brought to trial by an Allied war crimes tribunal in Yokohama, Japan, on March 11, 1948. Charges included vivisection, wrongful removal of body parts and cannibalism - based on reports that the experimenters had eaten the livers of the Americans.


Of the 30 defendants, 23 were found guilty of various charges. (For lack of proof, the charges of cannibalism had been dismissed.) Five of the guilty were sentenced to death, four to life imprisonment. The other 14 were sentenced to shorter terms.

But the attitude of the American occupation forces began to change, largely because of the start of the Korean War in June 1950. The United States had less interest in punishing Japan, an enemy-turned-ally.

In September 1950, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, as supreme commander for Allied Forces, reduced most of the sentences. By 1958, all those convicted were free. None of the death sentences was carried out.

By the mid-1960s most of the medical notes, photographs and tissue samples had been destroyed, hidden or lost, according to Shoji Kawazoe, a former faculty member.

The victims are honored collectively each May 5 at the sites where the B-29 and the Japanese fighter crashed.

This year, the mayor of Takeda City, the village closest to the crash site, spoke briefly. The memorial, he said, was intended to transcend hatred. "War does not necessarily come from outside," he said. "It can come from inside ourselves."

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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