1941-1945: Total War

The war in the Pacific was won by logistics and production as much as it was won by soldiers. When two imperial powers come into large-scale armed conflict, every aspect of their respective societies are mobilized to support the effort. Factories are repurposed to build guns and planes, civilian supplies of cotton, steel, oil and even food are rationed to ensure that the Army can function, and every man, woman and child has their energies and their labor directed towards the war effort. In total war, civilian populations become strategic targets. Of course, the Pacific war had another important factor that affected its outcome: the size of the theater.

In the Pacific, distances are so vast that simply transporting soldiers and keeping them fed and equipped becomes a serious logistical problem. Throughout the war, key battles were fought over supply lines and the tiny islands that made them possible. Some of the worst suffering inflicted on soldiers in the Pacific theater were the consequences of inadequate supply. Hunger and disease were often endemic among the soldiers who fought across these island battlefields. Sailors and airmen died in the skies and on the seas in vast numbers to ensure that supplies could reach soldiers on the ground.

Of course, the battles were not the only places where the ugliness of war reared it’s head. There was suffering to be found on the home front in both Japan and America. In America, ethnically Japanese citizens were taken from their homes and livelihoods and corralled into internment camps. In Japan, civilians were conscripted into poorly paid government work while they could barely feed their own families. Meanwhile, POWs, foreign civilians and political dissidents were tortured in brutal experiments intended to produce new weapons for the war. In total ware, everyone is touched by brutality.


Leyte Gulf: The Killing Blow

by William Chaster


Japanese soldiers were renowned for being brave to the point of insanity during the Second World War. It is easy to dismiss these men as suicidal zealots but when exploring the theme of everyday life in time of war, a topic is needed to discuss the mindset which inspired this bravery and what the experience of the typical soldier in battle was. In this, the Battle of Leyte Gulf is an excellent medium. When examining such a subject, there are several issues which must be considered. To begin with, the battle itself, its outcome, and how it fits into the Second World War will be analyzed. This will then be followed by a study of the reasons which motivated Japanese troops to fight with such ferocity and how they compared to those of American sailors. The final section will then attempt to outline the involvement of the average Japanese sailor at Leyte Gulf. Ultimately, the question is what were Japanese sailors thinking at this engagement and why were they still willing to fight and die in a war which seemed hopeless?

The Battle

The Battle of Leyte Gulf, with a combined total of more than 200,000 men and 280 warships, is one of the largest naval battles in human history.1 (pg. 431-432) By this stage of the war, American forces were closing in on Japan, capturing Japanese bases and pushing their armies back in almost all areas. By October 1944, the Philippines were some of the last outer defences left to Japan and its last lines of communication with the resource rich areas to its south.2 (pg. 36) With the American landings in late October 1944, Japan had to respond in a desperate bid to keep what remained of its defensive cordon intact. Mustering almost all its remaining forces, the Imperial Japanese Navy was sent to disrupt the American landings underway at Leyte.

Fought from October 23rd to 26th in four separate encounters, the Battle of Leyte Gulf ended in a loss for the Imperial Japanese Navy which sustained 10 000 casualties.3 (pg. 288) After this battle, Japan could offer but sporadic resistance to overwhelming American forces and would never again seriously challenge the Allies for dominance of the sea. Thanks to the loss of 24 ships, including four aircraft carriers and three battleships, this defeat "spelled the collapse of [the Japanese] navy as an effective fighting machine."4 (pg.375) Entering this engagement, the United States Navy had a significant superiority over the Japanese both in quality and quantity. Therefore, why were Japanese sailors still willing to fight and die when it was apparent that Japan was being defeated? The answer is rooted in the conditions experienced by all sailors and the pressures put on them by Japan's militaristic society.

The U.S. carrier Princeton burning after a bomb hit

The U.S. carrier Princeton burning after a bomb hit.5

The Motivating Factors

The first, and probably most well known, reason that Japanese armed forces members were so committed to fighting was the Bushido Code. Dating back hundreds of years, Bushido is the strict code that the warrior Samurai followed in battle and it still carried enormous weight in the Japanese army of the 1940s.6 (pg. 301) In Bushido, it was forbidden to surrender as this was seen as dishonorable. No matter how hopeless the situation, it was better to die in battle than to dishonor your family by being taken prisoner. 7 (pg. 264) It is well documented that this put a massive amount of pressure on Japanese armed forces members to fight to the very last. Even those who may not have followed Bushido as ardently were pressured immensely by their comrades in arms. For example, in the Burma campaign, many who were so sick or injured as to be unable to fight were "given a grenade and persuaded, without words, to sort [themselves] out."8 (pg. 202) Whether through Bushido or from fellow soldiers, Japanese troops faced high expectations exacerbated by the customs that were espoused.

Another component to the motivating factors was loyalty. In this case it has two meanings. One was remaining faithful to a commander as part of Bushido. Loyalty upheld a warrior's honor and the honor of his family, important values in Japan at the time. This was doubly important for in the eyes of the Japanese people, the emperor was an "absolute monarch"; a divine figure to whom all of Japan answered.9 (pg.102) All service given was done in his name. To surrender was seen as the worst breach possible in a warrior's duty to his leader. Therefore, in doing so, a Japanese soldier would be betraying the divine emperor. If he were to be captured alive, he and his family would be treated with contempt; thus it was not just himself he was fighting for, but for his family as well.10 (pg. 193)

The second meaning of loyalty was the fact that Japanese troops were also faithful to their fellow soldiers. In any war, soldiers fight not only for their country, but for their friends and unit. Japanese sailors at Leyte Gulf would have been fighting as much for their shipmates as they would for their emperor. Bushido has nothing to do with the desire to come out alive with one's comrades in arms. In this sense, Japanese soldiers were more similar to their American counterparts than both sides realized. Obviously, Japan's militaristic society had a strong influence over its soldiers. However, the final point is much more identifiable with broad human emotions than those based on beliefs.

The last reason for sailors in the Japanese Navy to participate in Leyte Gulf has little to do with ideological rhetoric. The Philippines were the point where two separate American thrusts would come together.2 (pg.36) This constituted a severe threat to Japan. The capture of these islands would deny Japanese access to many of its vital resources to the south which would in turn lead to a worsening of the shortages already felt in the Japanese economy. This would only increase the strangulation of the Japanese war effort, leading to defeat. Defeat was a failure in the warrior's service which could only bring dishonor on him and his family. In this sense, Japanese sailors at Leyte gulf were fighting to protect their people, their families, and their homes from being overwhelmed and invaded. This is exemplified by the statement of one navy veteran of the Philippines, sent to fight as a soldier, who said that he was fighting for his parents and younger brothers.7 (pg. 376) The desire to save one's loved ones would only inspire these men to fight harder, making it an easy choice to participate in battle if it meant potentially safeguarding their families.

The reasons that Japanese sailors fought so hard are varied: Intense societal and traditional pressures, a desire to protect their land and families, and a melding of Shinto ideology and intense nationalism all created an iron will to fight to the end.11 (pg.339) It is therefore interesting to compare these motivations with sailors of the American Navy. The differences are obvious, namely that the United States did not have the same intense brand of spiritual devotion that the Japanese did. There was no powerful belief system that prevented American troops from surrendering. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine United States armed forces members venerating and honoring President Roosevelt to the extent that they would rather die than be captured. Despite the differences, the similarities between the two sides, while more subtle, are still apparent. The values of home and family, and the will to protect those at all costs transcends religions and countries. In studying everyday life in a time of war, it is important to remember the experiences of both sides and find the commonalities between them. Therefore, with an understanding of the reasoning behind Japan's fanatical determination to fight, and an understanding of the similarities in terms of everyday life between the two sides, it is possible to try and understand the experience of the average Japanese sailor at Leyte Gulf.

A map of the battle area showing the 4 engagements fought throughout its course

A map of the battle area showing the 4 engagements fought throughout its course.12

The Sailors' Experience

Leyte Gulf would have been terrifying. Taking part in a battle pitted against superior forces would have been enough to unnerve the most hardened and dedicated soldiers. Despite this, sailors in the Imperial Japanese Navy maintained relatively high morale leading up to and during the engagement. Despite the ordeal of constant air attacks and having friendly ships sunk around them, sailors on the super battleship Yamato were reported as never faltering in their duty and maintained a "fighting spirit and...gallant attitude [which] made them worthy of praise."4 (pg. 372) In spite of the odds, there are no indications of Japanese sailors acting with cowardice or insubordination. This is partly thanks to the intensive naval training which favored physical abuse as it was thought this made cadets better sailors.7 (pg. 318) It is also partly due to the spiritual devotion felt by most Japanese sailors. This combination ensured that, despite the terror of battle, Japanese sailors did their duty with admirable determination. Stemming from this spiritual devotion is one particular aspect which deserves closer examination: the experience of those who's ships were sunk and how Bushido again dominated.

Shipwrecked sailors faced complicated issues brought on by the adherence to Bushido. This is exemplified by the experience of one officer who's ship was sunk prior to Leyte Gulf. He remarked that abandoning ship was hazardous for Japanese sailors. The usual dangers involved with being cast adrift notwithstanding, there was also the worry that if they were not picked up by Japanese forces then they would be considered missing in action. This meant that they could be taken prisoner, a great shame for them and their family.7 (pg. 296) This could have caused men to stay at their stations despite the probability of certain death as a ship sank. Indeed, this practice was not unknown among Japanese captains, an example being the captain of the carrier Akagi at the earlier Battle of Midway. In that instance, one Captain Aoki went down with his ship despite having the opportunity to get to safety.13 (pg.182-183) While not being representative of all crew members, it does display the lengths some sailors would go through to maintain their honor.

Continuing in his narration, the officer went on to remark that despite having time to equip life boats with materials to better their odds of survival, nothing was done before their ship sank. This was because he "never thought to try and save [his] own life while [his] warship was afloat. [They'd] make no preparations to extend [their] own lives."7 (pg. 296-297) While the effort to try and save their ship was admirable, this neglect in preparing for the eventuality of a sinking would lead to deaths among those who were able, or willing, to abandon their doomed vessel. Thus the experience of Japanese sailors at Leyte Gulf was one of duty and defiance, sacrifice and honor. If there were any doubts as to the dedication of the members of the Imperial Japanese Navy, they would have been eliminated by its futile, if brave, performance at Leyte Gulf.


The Battle of Leyte Gulf was a crushing defeat for the Japanese navy. The final large scale engagement of the war between American and Japanese fleets, it saw the once powerful Imperial Navy reduced to splinters by American naval and aerial supremacy. The pressures of Bushido and the qualities of sacrifice and loyalty it espoused ensured that Japanese sailors fought with a bitter determination no matter the situation. However, it is obvious that Japanese sailors were fighting for their comrades in arms, their land, and their family in addition to their ideology at this engagement; reasons which were comparable to the motivations felt by American sailors. The experiences at Leyte Gulf itself show that Japanese sailors performed their duty well, even in the face of overwhelming odds. Unfortunately, there were those who would rather face certain death over survival due to the very same ideology which motivated them to fight as hard as they did. Although the Japanese Navy effectively ceased to exist as a cohesive force after Leyte Gulf, it would be comforting for its sailors to know that they ensured it did not go down without a fight.

Feature Image: The Japanese super-battleship Yamato under attack during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. She would survive but her sister ship Musashi would be sunk by air attack.14

Unit 731: The Truth, the Experiments, the Significance.

By Gina Kwon

The Truth

Compared to the Nazi human experiments in their concentration camps, Japan’s history of human experimentation by Unit 731, is not well known. The history of Unit 731 is significant since many biological weaponry breakthroughs were discovered due to the experiments conducted under Doctor Shiro Ishii. This research paper will primarily focus on how the Shiro Ishii and his unit gathered information on biological weapons through experiments done on POWs, and the significance of the formation of Japan’s Unit 731. However, the life of a POW in Unit 731 was completely divorced from regular civilian daily life, which made writing this paper difficult due to the lack of information on the daily life of a POW. POWs who have survived do not know the exact aspects of the experiments done on them during their time in Unit 731, making it challenging to find solid evidence to what was afflicted on them. Therefore, while this paper will endeavor to describe the daily ordeals a POW faced during their period in Unit 731 and bring a tighter focus on the involvement of the U.S army, who covered up the atrocities of Unit 731, the exact details on the daily lives of POW are still unknown.

Shiro Ishii

Shiro Ishii

Shiro Ishii 1

Shiro Ishii was the mastermind of Unit 731, a military surgeon with connection among the right Japanese of high social ranking.2(pg2) Shiro Ishii was blessed with intellect and good physique, being unusually tall for a Japanese person. His childhood was detached as he received gifts of tribute among his fellow classmates, which was an effort on their part to gain the favour of his wealthy family. Put on a pedestal by his family and teachers, Ishii believed the world existed to serve him.2(pg6) According to Mark Felton, he “lacked empathy towards his fellow human beings.”3(pg13) However, Shiro Ishii was aware of his social standing; he understood the importance of social and career climbing. He was unashamed in begging for funds and prone to corruption and embezzlement.2(pg9) Initially, Shiro Ishii’s efforts to get funding from the government were largely ignored; the military wished to abide by the Geneva Protocol, although Japan signed the protocol, they did not ratify it.2(pg4) Despite the reluctance of the military, Ishii was convinced the role of biological weapons to be crucial to strategies and tactics. He reasoned that Japan should quickly develop biological weapons to give the nation an unbeatable lead over others. Ishii regarded biological weapons as the centerpiece of Japan’s strategies; it would give Japan a military edge over other nations, especially over the feared Soviets. With Ishii doggedly begging for funding, he finally persuaded the Kwantung Army to fund his research.3(pg11)

Unit 731

In 1932, the Kwantung Army provided Ishii enough funds to set up a biological weapons research facility- the Epidemic Prevention Unit, also known as Unit 731.2(pg22) Ishii’s first facility was located in Harbin, but the unit later expanded to other rural areas of Manchuria. Most facilities were located in strategic areas; Beiyinhe was chosen for the similarity of its climate to the areas near Soviet borders. In the article written by SStephens contains information on Unit 731, which expands on each division and their specific goal towards their experiments, such as developing biological weapons geared towards the Soviets. The Kwangtung Army saw the Soviet Union as their greatest enemy and wanted to push the Soviets back, expanding Japan’s boundaries.3(pg15) The Japanese developed small biological weaponry in the form of flea-infested mice from the natural plague area along the Manchurian-Soviet border.4(pg27) Specifically thinking of using the biological weapons against the Soviets, three prisoners were injected to test how effective the diseased fleas were. In efforts to understand the effects of the fleas the three prisoners were dissected while they were unconscious and delirious from their fevers.4(pg27)

Harbin Facility of Unit 731

Harbin facility of Unit 731 5

Living Conditions, Treatment and their Daily Life

After the construction of Unit 731’s facilities, human experimentation began in earnest. At first, the prisoners shipped to the unit were political prisoners, resistance members of anti-Japanese groups, or common criminals.4(pg28) Ishii was particular about his test subjects, therefore he wished for healthy men under the age forty, in order to have optimum control over the health variables in the experiment.2(pg28) However, as the facility became more engaged in their research, there was always a lack of human fodder. Civilians of all ages and sex living in the vicinity of the facility were lured into the facility, with promises of employment.6(pg35) Throughout the war, POWs were transported to the Mukden facility of Unit 731. The living conditions of the facility consisted of small cells, occupied by one or multiple prisoners, which included a flush toilet. 3(pg29) Cleanliness was essential to Ishii and his scientists since they needed their subjects to be uncontaminated and healthy. The building had central heating and cooling systems to maintain ample living conditions to subjects.3(pg29) The subjects had scheduled time to exercise in an exercise room.2(pg28) Prisoners were shackled and locked in their cells but the staff routinely checked the health of each prisoner.4(pg26) Physical health wise, a prisoner’s health was better than a regular civilian’s health in the surrounding areas of the facilities.

While the daily diet of the residents in the surrounding towns consisted of small steamed dumplings and a handful of pickled vegetables, 4(pg38) the POW’s diet consisted of well-balanced and nutritious meals.2(pg28) Major Peaty, a British POW in the Mukden facility, recorded what the scientists did to him and what he and his fellow POW were fed. He wrote, “treatment is fairly satisfactory” describing how each POWs were subjected to regular rectal examinations, which he believed to be health checks.3(pg80,84) Peaty records on 5 April 1943 “we estimate that we are receiving between 2,800 and 3,000 calories”,3(pg55) and on 14 Jun 1943 “Rations have improved. We are getting potatoes and fish in reasonable quantities, giving us about 3,000 calories.”3(pg56) It is noted, while Major Peaty was not a doctor, there were US doctors present, such as Major Kankins and Mark Herbst, who calculated the daily calorie intake.3(pg55) On 24 February 1943, Major Peaty meticulously recorded the funeral service for 186 American POWs who died within 105 days of arriving at the facility. 3(pg57)

Electric Shock Experiments

Unit 731 Scientists experimenting shock currents on a victim 7

The staff treated the POWs relatively humanely as they refrained from torture.8(pg76) However, almost all the victims of the experiments died in agony. The death tolls are contributed by the experiments the scientists of Unit 731 would inflict upon the POWs. Despite Major Peaty’s thoughts of the POWs’ treatment, the scientists treated victims as mere tools to satisfy their curiosity and to achieve their goals of developing biological weapons. While some POWs, such as Major Peaty would be ignorant to what is happening to other POWs and the civilians the unit had captured, the daily life of these prisoners were instilled with fear. Scientists injected prisoners with deadly diseases and observed the result. Unit 731’s experiments involving Chinese POWs and civilians have no known survivors of the experiments; those who survived the experiments were killed and studied.9(pg221) The experiments consisted of studies never done before, such as; injecting horse urine in the prisoners’ kidneys or blood transfusions with the horse urine,*2(pg40) taking large amounts of blood daily to see the effects of a progressive wasting disorder, and air pressure tests.2(pg29) There are also records of Iwanami Hiroshi, the Commanding Officer of Fourth Navel Hospital on Dublon Island, requesting eight American soldiers to experiment on. These experiments consisted of shock experiments and injection of streptococcus bacteria, which cased blood poisoning; among the eight, two survived. The two surviving soldiers were strangled to death and sent to be dissected; the hearts and organs were removed and placed in bottles. Iwanami also confessed to sending specimens of the soldiers to Tokyo by cutting of four of the soldiers’ heads and boiling them; however, there is no record of where and why the specimens were sent to Tokyo.10(pg37-38) Some more grotesque tests were the removal of organs with the victims still alive without anesthetics, or studies on methods of murder, such as striking the head with an axe and removing the brain, regardless of whether the victim was still alive, to observe the effects.10(pg30) There were also tests on how victims handle close range bomb detonations, either with or without pathogens, and afterwards dissect the victim to study the effects.*2(pg40) Women were not exempted from these tests, as there are records of prisoners of both sexes forced to have sex with each other, after one prisoner had been infected with syphilis.11(pg55) If the women, who were forced to engage in sexual intercourse, become pregnant the infant would be delivered by the doctors and then dissected and killed along with their mothers.11(pg56) In other tests the scientists used women as subjects for scientific education.11(pg33)

``We removed some of the organs and amputated legs and arms. Two of the victims were young women, 18 or 19 years old. I hesitate to say it but we opened up their wombs to show the younger soldiers. They knew little about women – it was sex education. `` 3(pg1)
[To get more information on the scientists of Unit 731, Sarah Stephens' article "Unit 731: The Side of the Scientist " contains information on the daily life of scientists in Unit 731.

After the discovery of Unit 731 in Beiyinhe, Shiro Ishii ordered the facilities there to be destroyed to ensure that his activities remained a secret and built another in Harbin. The facility was demolished through explosions and the remaining survivors were killed to prevent them from revealing the horrors they endured.4(pg30) Evidently, the life of a POW in Unit 731 was a short one. Despite vague information on the account of POWs of Unit 731, torture and cruelty was a certain feature of the daily life.


General Douglas MacArthur 12

The Significance

The significance of the formation of Unit 731 is an important factor to note. After the war ended Unit 731 seemingly vanished. There was no uproar compared to the reaction to the discovery of human experimentation in Nazi Germany. The Japanese government in 2001 only formerly recognized the reality of the things done in Unit 731.13 When the truth about Japan’s Unit 731 was revealed to the public, there was an outrage. However, it is hard to believe that American military intelligence knew nothing about the human experimentation. In 1945, the United States occupied Japan under General Douglas MacArthur. 3(pg127) When MacArthur had learned of the existence of the facilities, Lt. Colonel Murray Sanders, a highly qualified bacteriologist who served the US Chemical Warfare Service,6(pg121) was sent to investigate the Japanese biological warfare program. Although, MacArthur received manuscripts proving the truth of Japanese human experiments he did not understand the full extent of the experiments, MacArthur wanted to obtain the information concerning biological weaponry.3(pg128) The data was invaluable to whoever attained it. Researchers of the American biological weaponry division lacked information on how to deliver the diseases; the Japanese had information on how to make carriers so fleas and small animals can carry disease and plagues without killing the carriers.6(pg29) The American scientists also had limited field-testing experiments; the Japanese had ample results due to Unit 731’s raids in China.4(pg68) The field experiments done by the Japanese proved that plague fleas’ could disrupt Chinese lines of communication; they also had positive results in attempt to cause a small epidemic that claimed twenty-four lives by spraying plague fleas by

Operation Fugo was a large balloon that carried the biological agents from Unit 731 to Chinese fields as an experiment

Operation Fugo was a large balloon that carried the biological agents from Unit 731 to Chinese fields as an experiment14

aircraft.6(pg68) All the research material the Japanese scientists carried was essential for the American biological weapon development unit, while the American scientists were unable to experiment on humans; they were allowed to obtain data through other parties. Despite clear violations of human rights, MacArthur had to negotiate with the escaped Unit 731 doctors, granting them immunity from prosecution, in return of the data.3(pg128) The negotiations were the product of the belief that “ethics must be subordinate to the demands of war." 9(pg227) Not only was the immunity the result of lack of ethics in war, but the Japanese assurance that there were survivors of Unit 731 and the suggestion that the Soviets had also traded immunity for access to the data.9(pg226-227) The Americans and the Soviets were in the initial stages of the Cold War, understanding the Soviets also had information pertaining biological weapons made the Americans to prioritize national security over human rights, which includes moral blindness.9(pg228) Nonetheless, granting full immunity despite the death tolls of their countrymen, the Americans turned a blind eye to the Japanese experiments.

Through the understanding of Shiro Ishii’s motivation and desire for biological weapons, it is apparent how Unit 731 was his brainchild. As Shiro Ishii directed Unit 731 and his small empire of scientists, he succeeded in several breakthroughs concerning biological weaponry and their uses. Field experiments in China brought back positive results, which pleased high placed officials in Japan who also believed biological weapons to be the greatest secret weapon of Japan. The American cover-up displays how important the data on the biological weapons to the Americans, despite the thousand American POWs killed during the experiments. The significance of the negotiations brought American scientists data tested on humans, instead of animals.4(pg191) Despite the deaths of the POW, it’s undeniable that the American military saw value in the information obtained knowing that the investigation had “greatly supplemented and amplified previous aspects of [the biological weaponry] field.”4(pg206) By killing thousands of POWs and civilians, Shiro Ishii achieved great amounts of data on the human anatomy and on the development of biological weapons. Through successful negotiations with the U.S, Shiro Ishii and several doctors were released with no qualms. Justice was denied for the thousands of POWs and civilians who were experimented on without any consideration to their rights as human beings.