Stranger Than Fiction: Shadows of the Pacific: Covert and Secret Operations in WWII

By Jave Harron

The Pacific Theater of the Second World War is often forgotten when compared to the European Theater. Despite stretching from only battles inWorld War II to take place on American soil to the South Pacific to the heartland of China, the events and figures of Europe are often more familiar due to the media attention. However, many forgotten atrocities, interesting, and strange events that are not as well known occurred in the Pacific.

One such figure was a man named Wendell Fertig. Before WWII, the Philippines was a colonial possession of the United States. Many American forces were stationed there, as a means of projecting power around the South Pacific. Imperial Japan had its own plans for colonizing Asia, and knew that the Philippines were a territory that must be invaded. Despite a large number of American and Filipino troops, the initial Japanese invasion of the Philippines rapidly conquered the territory. Many American forces surrendered immediately.

Some, however, did not. Among those that did not surrender was a Colonel named Wendell Fertig. Despite having the rank of Colonel, Fertig did not have any formal military training. Instead, he was a directly commissioned officer, a civilian specialist given a rank and job in the armed forces. He was a civil engineer who was employed as a consultant and agent of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Wendell Fertig, with some other American and Filipino soldiers, fled into the jungles. On the island of Mindanao, they began to organize the locals into a guerrilla unit. Armed with just old rifles, swords, and knives, the operation would prove itself strong and versatile. Going by the name "United States Forces in the Philippines," the operation waged guerrilla war against the Japanese, freed additional American and Filipino prisoners, and accepted them into their ranks.

They were a very formal and well organized group. When an American submarine stopped by to drop off supplies, they were greeted by a marching band. Wendell Fertig's experience as an engineer had made him more knowledgeable about logistics, and their importance in guerrilla warfare. From the initial invasion of the Philippines to MacArthur's return, Wendell Fertig tied down a significant number of Japanese troops, and killed approximately 7000 enemy forces.

After the end of the war, Wendell Fertig was promoted to Colonel, but not to General. Some believe friction with MacArthur to be a driving factor in this decision. Regardless, Wendell Fertig did not fade quietly into obscurity. Instead, when he came back to the US, he became one of the founding members and instructors in what would become the Army's special forces program. Wendell Fertig, an engineer with no formal military experience, had become a capable American guerrilla. In a biography about him, "They Fought Alone," he is photographed as an old man holding a Filipino sword in hand. Other than this biography, few recall the American Guerrilla Engineer.

The other side of the Pacific war had its own secrets. One of the most secret of these was a series of weapons programs that Imperial Japan defended under layers of secrecy. As the only combatant to use biological and chemical weapons during World War II, the Japanese had an extensive research program for these weapons. The lab itself was as vile as what it made. The lab was called Unit 731, and it was founded and led by a doctor named Shiro Ishii. Dr. Ishii has been compared by some to the Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele. Both performed experiments of questionable value. Both performed experiments with involuntary human subjects. Of the two, Ishii and Unit 731 were far larger and extensive, while less well known.

Before WWII, Japan was interested in biochemical weapons due to their low cost and relative ease of manufacture. Their ban by international law drove some to think if they had been banned, they must be truly powerful indeed. For a country poor in natural resources, these weapons seemed appealing. To the amoral Dr. Ishii, these were his demented passion.

Japan invaded Manchuria in the late 1930s, setting into motion the events that would lead to the Pacific War. In their newly conquered territory, Shiro Ishii was granted permission to construct a special lab for human experimentation. Many Chinese slave laborers were forced to build it, and then used as the first batch of human subjects. However, a jailbreak compromised the secrecy of the lab, and Ishii was forced to start from scratch.

Shiro Ishii possessed a gift for manipulating bureaucracy. He managed to acquire an unlimited supply of funds and enough land to build the ideal lab envisioned in his mind: Unit 731. Dr. Ishii followed the construction of the lab in close detail, ensuring perfection in all aspects. It was built near the city of Harbin in Manchuria, which would double as a source of laboratory fodder. Unit 731 had its own railway extension, cinema, cafeteria, brothel, and Shinto shrine. Thousands of Japanese personnel lived comfortably inside. The human subjects were called 'maruta,' or logs. This was a joke from the scientists inside, who spread the rumor that Unit 731 was a 'harmless lumber mill' to lull the population into a false sense of security. People taken inside as subjects included Chinese civilians, American and other Allied prisoners of war, and anyone unfortunate enough to be on the streets of Harbin when the secret police were told to fill a subject quota. Men, women (including pregnant ones), children, infants, and the elderly were all exposed to experiments.

While officially known as an epidemic prevention unit, the truth was the exact opposite. Unit 731 was a huge complex built for the study of biological and chemical weapons. Experiments almost always fatal. Prisoners would often be exposed to germs, and then be vivisected alive to see the spread of disease within. Other subjects were sealed in gas chambers and exposed to poison gas. Other subjects were killed in high pressure chambers. Others were exposed to freezing temperatures, and then had the frozen limbs shattered for frostbite tests. Bombs, flamethrowers, and other weapons were tested out on hapless victims. Radiation was tested on some subjects to see if it would be a viable weapon. Some people were forced to work to death, others were starved, and others were forcibly infected with venereal diseases by rape. Doctors would sometimes rape female subjects, and then be vivisected along with the fetus. Even surviving one experiment meant dying in another. Victims' remains were removed in the camp's crematorium.

Unit 731 had smaller, sister units bit around Japan's empire. Other camps were built in southeast Asia, occupied China, and their own home islands. Unit 731's location in Manchuria, however, allowed them to perform 'field tests.' Pilots would spray germs, poison chemicals, and infected fleas onto nearby villages. Then, ground teams would be deployed to test the villagers for signs of infection. Any infected ones would be taken back to the lab and vivisected alive. The Japanese would also hand out infected food to starving civilians, even spreading anthrax-laced candy to children. Plague and disease infected several villages in Manchuria, and other places in China. Poison gas and bioweapons were used extensively in China during the war.

Unit 731 was often ignorant of many of the dangerous of chemical weapons. An attempt at a poison gas attack backfired when the wind shifted, killing Japanese troops instead. Believing that biological and chemical weapons could be 'tamed,' Shiro Ishii continued to make the experiments more diabolical. There was even a plan to attack the US mainland with bioweapons, using seaplanes launched from submarines as kamikazes on West Coast cities, and exotic means like balloon bombs. However, the war ended before this plan could be put into effect.

As the war ended, Russian troops pushed into Manchuria. Shiro Ishii and Unit 731 fled, attempting to destroy the evidence behind them. Surviving subjects were killed. Infected animals were freed. Chemical weapons were dumped into rivers and ditches, poisoning the environment for years to come. Attempts to blow up the main building of Unit 731 did not succeed, since it had been built so strong. A handful of the doctors were captured by the Russian forces, but most escaped back to Japan.

After the war, the evil only became compounded. Shiro Ishii offered his research notes on human subjects to the American government in exchange for complete immunity from war crimes. Fearful of Russian attempts at bioweapons development, the Americans accepted the deal. Unit 731 vanished from history books, and almost all of its members returned to lucrative careers. Despite using American soldiers as lab rats, the Unit had been helped by the government it once fought. Shiro Ishii himself died of throat cancer a few years after the war. Other members of Unit 731 would become the head of the Japanese Medical Association, the founder of a rich medical supply company Green Cross, and leaders of universities and hospitals.

The story might have remained hidden forever if not for evidence reemerging. Several of the old chemical weapons were dug up in China. A Japanese journalism student found old lab notes from Unit 731 in a used bookstore in Tokyo. Notes on the American hand in the Faustian deal were released to the public. A handful of surviving vets of Unit 731 began to testify. Recently, the Japanese government acknowledged that it had used bioweapons in the Second World War. Much still remains to be addressed, but full extent of Dr. Ishii's evil science project has at least been revealed.

Both Wendell Fertig and Shiro Ishii are only two of the strange parts of history in the Pacific War. While their deeds differ widely, they are part of a common theme in history. With enough logistical ability, significant deeds can be accomplished. Fertig's war of liberation and Ishii's demented lab are but two such events. At first, an American guerrilla on a Pacific island and a whole secret lab of mad scientists seems hard to believe. These are but two stories from the Second World War that are stranger than fiction.