By Thomas Easton
The Baltimore Sun
UKUOKA, 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 U, and then torn apart organ by organ while they were still alive.
What occurred here 50 years ago this month, 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 asistants then did their best to hide the evidence of what they had done.
Fukuoka is midway between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cities that are planning elaborate ceremonies to mark the devastation caused by the United States'dropping the first atomic bombs. But neither Fukuoka nor the university plans to mark its own moment of infamy.
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."
Kyushu University stands out as the only site where Americans were incontrovertibly used in dissections and the only known site where experiments were done in Japan.
On May 5, 1945, an American B-29 bomber was flying with a dozen other aircraft after bombing Tachiaral Air Base in southwestern Japan and beginning the return flight to the island fortress of Guam.
Kinzou Kasuya, a 19-year-old Japanese pilot flying one of the Japanese fighters in pursuit of the Americans, rammed his aircraft into the fuselage of the B-29, destroying both planes.
No one knows for certain how many Americans were in the B-29; its crew had been hastily assembled on Guam. But villagers in Japan who witnessed the collision in the air saw about a dozen parachutes blossom.
One of the Americans died when the cords of his, parachute were severed by another Japanese plane. A second was alive when he reached the ground. He shot all but his last bullet at the villagers coming toward him, then used the last on himself.
Two others were quickly stabbed or shot to death.
At least nine were taken into custody.
B-29 crews were despised for the grim results of their raids. So some of the captives were beaten.
The local authorities assumed that the most knowledgeable was the cap! tain, Marvin Watkins. He was sent to Tokyo for interrogation, where was tortured but nonetheless survived the war.
Every available account asserts that a military physician and a colonel in a local regiment were the two key figures in what happened next. What happened 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, the colonel and doctor decided to make the prisoners available for medical experiments, and Kyushu University became a willing participant.
Teddy Ponczka was the first to be handed over to the doctors and their assistants. He had already 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.
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.