DOCTORS OF DEPRAVITY; Even byJapan's Standards of Wartime Cruelty, Unit 731 Plumbed Horrifying Depths - Turning Their Prisoners into Human Guinea Pigs for Unspeakable Medical Experiments. Only Now, after a Cynical American Cover-Up, Is the Truth Emerging

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Byline: CHRISTOPHER HUDSON

AFTER more than 60 years of silence, World War II's most enduring and horrible secret is being nudged into the light of day. One by one the participants, white-haired and mildmannered, line up to tell their dreadful stories before they die.

Akira Makino is a frail widower living near Osaka in Japan. His only unusual habit is to regularly visit an obscure little town in the southern Philippines, where he gives clothes to poor children and has set up war memorials.

Mr Makino was stationed there during the war.

What he never told anybody, including his wife, was that during the four months before Japan's defeat in March 1945, he dissected ten Filipino prisoners of war, including two teenage girls. He cut out their livers, kidneys and wombs while they were still alive. Only when he cut open their hearts did they finally perish.

These barbaric acts were, he said this week, 'educational', to improve his knowledge of anatomy. '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 very little about women - it was sex education.' Why did he do it? 'It was the order of the emperor, and the emperor was a god. I had no choice. If I had disobeyed I would have been killed.' But the vivisections were also a revenge on the 'enemy' - Filipino tribespeople whom the Japanese suspected of spying for the Americans.

Mr Makino's prisoners seem to have been luckier than some: he anaesthetised them before cutting them up. But the secret government department which organised such experiments in Japanese-occupied China took delight in experimenting on their subjects while they were still alive. A jovial old Japanese farmer who in the war had been a medical assistant in a Japanese army unit in China described to a U.S. reporter recently what it was like to dissect a Chinese prisoner who was still alive.

Munching rice cakes, he reminisced: 'The fellow knew it was over for him, and so he didn't struggle when they led him into the room and tied him down.

But when I picked up the scalpel, that's when he began screaming. I cut him open from the chest to the stomach and he screamed terribly, and his face was all twisted in agony.

'He made this unimaginable sound, he was screaming so horribly. But then finally he stopped.

This was all in a day's work for the surgeons, but it really left an impression on me because it was my first time.' The man could not be sedated, added the farmer, because it might have distorted the experiment.

The place where these atrocities occurred was an undercover medical experimentation unit of the Imperial Japanese Army. It was known officially as the Anti-Epidemic Water Supply and Purification Bureau - but all the Japanese who worked there knew it simply as Unit 731. It had been set up as a biological warfare unit in 1936 by a physician and army officer, Shiro Ishii.

A graduate of Kyoto Imperial University, Ishii had been attracted to germ warfare by the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning biological weapons. If they had to be banned under international law, reasoned Ishii, they must be extremely powerful.

Ishii prospered under the patronage of Japan's army minister. He invented a water filter which was used by the army, and allegedly demonstrated its effectiveness to Emperor Hirohito by urinating into it and offering the results to the emperor to drink. Hirohito declined, so Ishii drank it himself.

A swashbuckling womaniser who could afford to frequent Tokyo's upmarket geisha houses, Ishii remained assiduous in promoting the cause of germ warfare. His chance came when the Japanese invaded Manchuria, the region in eastern China closest to Japan, and turned it into a puppet state.

Given a large budget by Tokyo, Ishii razed eight villages to build a huge compound - more than 150 buildings over four square miles - at Pingfan near Harbin, a remote, desolate part of the Manchurian Peninsula. …