Articles

That time the Japanese made a last-ditch plan to spread the plague in Calfornia


The Empire of Japan was in dire straits by 1945. Between the terribly bloody Pacific island-hopping campaign by the United States and its allies and the firebombing against Japanese cities, Japan was looking for anything it could use to hold back the enemy tide. One plan that was almost brought into fruition was the mass use of bubonic plague against the U.S. mainland, meant to terrify the civilian population and disrupt the war effort off the West coast.

The plan was named Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night, and was the brainchild of Lt. General Shiro Ishii, the commander of Japan's infamous biological warfare program. Unit 731, as the program was known, had been developing and testing biological weapons since 1932 under the perversely named Army Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory.

Using special float-planes deployed from five of the huge Japanese I-400 class submarines, which had been designed to launch airstrikes against the United States West coast, the plan was to use either biological bombs or Kamikaze attacks to spread bubonic plague across San Diego. The mission was expected to be a one-way suicide mission for all pilots and submariners involved.

To develop these weapons and others, Unit 731 had been using human experimentation on a vast and horrifying scale, testing everything from germs and chemical toxins to flame throwers on live subjects. Most of the experimentation took place on civilians from occupied territories, mainly China, but some Allied prisoners of war were also included in the experiments.

But it was by far the aerial biological bombing in mainland China that took the largest toll. Unit 731 used low-flying aircraft to infect Chinese coastal cities with bubonic plague infected fleas, and also experimented with air-dropped cholera, anthrax, and tularemia. The resulting outbreaks are estimated to have killed as many as 400,000 to 600,000 Chinese, mainly civilians.

These sort of results made the weapons seem ideal for a strike on the U.S. west coast. They hoped that the resulting epidemic would spread and disrupt the huge logistical operations supplying the U.S. armies and fleets bearing down on the Japanese Home Islands.

It was not the first plan by the Japanese to attack the U.S. mainland. Several Japanese submarines had shelled targets targets on the west coast, with minimal results. Operation Fu-Go launched over 9,300 hydrogen balloons loaded with explosives into the Pacific jet stream, where they would be propelled towards North America.

The plan was that the explosives would start forest fires, burn cropland and spread fear among the civilian population. Despite Japanese propaganda that claimed American deaths in the thousands and widespread panic, the program was an almost complete failure. It was clear that something more destructive was needed for such piecemeal attacks, and biological weapons seemed a natural solution.

In the end, after a lot of careful planning, the operation never happened. Only 3 out a projected 18 I-400 submarines could built, and the Japanese high command wanted those held back to defend the Home Islands. The operation was not slated to begin until Sept. 22, 1945, and the August atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent surrender rendered the operation moot. No biological weapons were ever dropped onto to U.S. soil.

After the war, despite the horrific atrocities committed against civilians and Allied POW's, many of the doctors of Unit 731, including Shiro Ishii, were granted immunity from war crimes prosecution in exchange for their knowledge of biological warfare and human experimentation. Part of Operation Paperclip, which also gave immunity to hundreds of German rocket scientists and other scientific personnel, the US government had decided their expertise was too valuable to lose.

It is unlikely that Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night could have had any real effect on the outcome of the war, given that victory over Japan by the U.S. in 1945 was a foregone conclusion. Japan was essentially blockaded, its remaining forces were hopelessly outgunned, and the U.S. atomic bombings and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria showed that no last ditch plan could save them.

Unit 731 was the first to use modern biological weapons on a large scale, and the terrible toll they took in China showed how ruthlessly effective such munitions could be. If the war had not ended when it did, San Diego and southern California might have faced what China had already suffered, with terrible consequences.

Humor

These old Navy training videos on how to flirt are hilariously bad

The National Archives hosts countless educational films that have come from the military throughout the ages. If you want to learn about declassified nuclear testing, they've got it. If you want to learn how to properly resist communist propaganda, they've got that, too. If you want to learn the 1960's way of wooing women, you better believe the U.S. Military has wasted money on making those videos, too.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

How R. Lee Ermey's Hollywood break is an inspiration to us all

While there have been many outstanding actors and celebrities who have raised their right hand, there has never been a veteran who could finger point his way to the top of Hollywood stardom quite like the late great Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey.

Keep reading... Show less
Podcast

Combat poetry reveals what life is like on the Afghan front lines

Justin Eggen had some things stuck in his head for a long time during — but especially after — his two deployments to Afghanistan. These thoughts became poems and short stories that reflected his feelings and personal experience as a Marine in Marjah and in Afghanistan's Sangin Valley. They are Eggen's way of handling the overwhelming series of emotions from and memories of his time there.

Keep reading... Show less
Military Life

7 things grunts think about on watch in fighting holes

If nothing else has made you question your choice to join the infantry before, digging a fighting hole definitely will. It's always miserable, it's extremely time consuming, and there's always a giant rock waiting for you once you're halfway down. But, once you get that hole dug, it's smooth sailing. Now, all you have to do is deal with the sleep deprivation and crummy weather.

Keep reading... Show less
History

That time US troops found 200 tons of stolen Nazi gold

In the closing months of World War II, the defeated Nazi Army scrambled to hide the hundreds of tons of gold they had despicably stripped from various nations during their occupation. As they hurriedly stashed their ill-gotten gains, they were unaware that the Allies were drawing near.

Keep reading... Show less
Lists

10 military spouses you should unfriend on Facebook immediately

Often, there comes a point when people decide to give their Facebook friends list an overhaul.

They completely change their social landscape online by avoiding accepting friend requests from certain types of people, and they give their current friends list a good, hard scrub.

Everyone has their reasons. Maybe they're doing it for security purposes, or because a handful of people's posts drive them crazy or they want to keep a more professional profile. Military spouses in particular might do so because they want to focus on positive, stress-free relationships – that is, the ones that bring wine, wear sweat pants, and check judgment at the door.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

This JASSM variant could replace the Harpoon

For a long time, the AGM-84/RGM-84 Harpoon missile has been the primary anti-ship weapon of the United States military. Over the years, with improvements, it's successfully held the line. But, as is perpetually the case, time and technological advances have forced the U.S. Military to look for a missile with even more reach and punch.

Keep reading... Show less
Entertainment

7 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to watch before 'Infinity War'

Not planning a two-day Marvel Cinematic Universe marathon right before seeing "Avengers: Infinity War?"

Nobody has time for that.

To accommodate fans who want to freshen up their knowledge, we collected a list of the most essential MCU movies to watch right before you see "Infinity War," which is scheduled for release April 27, 2018.

Keep reading... Show less