Medical Experiments on POWs

By Sheldon H. Harris 

According to the Hippocratic oath, it is the duty of medical personnel not only to heal the sick and offer comfort to those beyond healing but also to do nothing knowingly harmful to a patient. But beginning in the 1930s and continuing throughout World War II, the Japanese medical profession as a whole, and, most particularly, medical staff attached to the Japanese military routinely committed atrocities, subjecting prisoners of war, noncombatants, and political and common criminals alike to hideous medical experiments.

Although the Imperial government had pledged to treat prisoners of war (POWs) with care and respect, prisoners were treated brutally while medical treatment for sick prisoners was either nonexistent, or, at best, primitive, apathetic, or indifferent. The consequences of this policy of mistreatment are revealed by a comparison of mortality rates in Japanese POW camps with those in Europe. The death rate in Japanese camps was at least 27 percent. In Europe the figure was roughly 4 percent.

Graver still was the decision on the part of the Japanese medical establishment as Japan’s army conquered a wide swath of territory in the Pacific and on the mainland of Asia in 1942 to treat POWs and conquered peoples as prime candidates for human experimentation, as well as substitutes for the animals traditionally used for medical training purposes. Captives, both military and civilian, were strapped to gurneys, vivisected without anesthesia, injected with scores of different pathogens, or used in demonstrations of surgery techniques.

In one instance in the Philippines, several prisoners were used to teach neophyte Japanese physicians the art of surgery. A number of healthy males were taken into a field, forced to lie down on a sheet, had masks placed over their noses, and were anesthetized. The victims were then cut open as the senior surgeon demonstrated “proper” techniques to his students. When the lesson was over, one of the surgeons would shoot the patients, since they were no longer useful for teaching purposes.

In another incident in China in 1942, a senior surgeon conducted an “operation exercise” for the benefit of the young doctors and other medical personnel attached to his unit. This surgeon injected an anesthetic into the lumbar region of a healthy patient. When one of the observers questioned the surgeon as to whether he was going to disinfect the needle he was using for the injection, the surgeon replied, “What are you talking about? We are going to kill him.”

Captured American airmen were frequently subjected to vivisection experiments. In July of 1944 on Dublon Island in the South Pacific, a surgeon used American POWs for a particularly ghastly experiment. Eight POWs were subjected to tests in which tourniquets were applied to their arms and legs for periods up to seven and eight hours. Two of the men died from shock when the tourniquets were removed. They were then dissected and their body parts were tested for various maladies. Their skulls were saved as souvenirs by the principal surgeon. In another episode in May and June of 1945, eight American airmen were vivisected at Kyushu Imperial University, one of Japan’s most prestigious medical schools. Lungs were removed from two of the prisoners. Other victims had their hearts, livers, and stomachs removed. Still others, their brains and gall bladders. Of course, none of the eight

These are only a few examples from what was a systematic pattern of medical atrocities. From 1942 until Japan’s surrender in mid-August of 1945, Japanese physicians and support staff performed hundreds of similar experiments. Many hundreds, if not thousands, of test subjects died. But few of the perpetrators were ever brought to justice, and many enjoyed distinguished careers in postwar democratic Japan.

No Japanese government has ever acknowledged the guilt of these physicians, although the laws of armed conflict completely prohibit such crimes and did so during World War II, even before the passage of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. The 1906 Hague Convention, which Japan had ratified before hostilities broke out, provides that “officers, soldiers, and other persons officially attached to armies, who are sick or wounded, shall be respected and cared for, without distinction of nationality, by the belligerent in whose power they are.”

At the Nuremberg Tribunals following World War II, medical experiments were declared a crime against humanity. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 defined medical experiments on POWs and protected persons—that is, civilians under the control of an occupying force—as a grave breach, and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court stated that medical experiments are war crimes, whether they occur in an international armed conflict or an internal one. It defined the crime as: “Subjecting persons who are in the power of an adverse party to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments of any kind which are neither justified by the medical, dental or hospital treatment of the person concerned nor carried out in his or her interest, and which cause death to or seriously endanger the health of such person or persons.”

Related posts:

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  2. Compelling Military Service