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In WWII, Japanese Soldiers Forced Filipinos to Dig Their Own Graves—Before Dissecting Them Alive

The empire's cruel human experiments on Filipinos during World War II.
IMAGE Wikimedia Commons / J. C. Leyendecker
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It seems there is no end to human cruelty when there is war. We’re familiar with the stories of rape, murder, death marches, and enslavement. Filipinos were no strangers to this type of suffering during World War II. But little has been said about the even darker, gruesomer stories of the human experiments performed on Filipinos when the Japanese occupied the archipelago.

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Everyone knows the gory history of Bahay na Pula. It’s a story that never fails to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. But there was even more horror that played out in the dark.

Stories of the empire’s human experiments were revealed when Japan lost the war, with Unit 731 being the most infamous military unit involved in the war crime. Led by convicted war criminal Shiro Ishii, the unit carried out some of the cruelest human experiments during WWII while stationed in Manchuko, now part of China. It wasn’t until half a century later that the same war crimes were revealed to have occurred on Philippine soil.

When the Japanese invaded the Philippines during World War II, soldiers flooded cities and towns by the thousands, bringing with them medics and doctors from Japan. It was one of these medics who broke his silence in 2006 about the human experiments conducted on Filipinos by the Japanese during the war.

His name was Akira Makino, who at 22, was stripped of his innocence when he became one of the few who were ordered to perform vivisections on unassuming Filipino men, women, and children.

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In August of 1944, Makino was sent to the Japanese base in Zamboanga, Mindanao, believing that he was sent to care for the sick and wounded as a naval medic for the empire.

Little did he know that he would be the one inflicting the pain a few months later.

In Zamboanga, Makino’s unit was largely isolated from the rest of the military while fighting guerilla groups made up of Muslim Moros defending their land. The Moros are still remembered to this day for their fierce defense of Mindanao during the war, but even the fearless warriors of the Moro people weren’t able to escape vivisections by the enemy soldiers.

By December of 1944, Makino was ordered to perform human experiments on supposed enemies. The first was on two Filipino men believed to be American spies. Drugged and tied to the table, the two were cut open by Makino and the doctor directing him.

"My captain combat-surgeon often showed us human intestines, and said this was the liver and that was that and so on," said Makino. "He did that to train us. The captain said if he died, we would have to take up a scalpel to conduct the operations instead of him."

The Filipinos who were caught and experimented on were “nothing but living-body experiments” used as human guinea pigs to train young medics in surgery. This “training” included amputations, dissections, and suturing blood vessels on human beings.

The only blessing of the entire gruesome episode was that the victims were anesthetized during the procedures—at least most of the time.

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But that was the only blessing. At least 50 victims were killed during and after the vivisections.

"We were supposed to keep them alive in captivity, but it was no problem if we 'disposed' of them, in the beheadings the Japanese have become infamous for," Makino said.

Perhaps the most tragic moment of it all was when the soldiers ordered the Filipinos to dig the holes that would be the mass graves of their friends, their families, and themselves. The bodies of the victims were dumped into the holes with their stomachs cut wide open.

According to Makino, his doctor captain said it “would just be a waste of suture thread.”

Despite his horror and disgust at the vivisections, Makino had no choice but to comply with the orders of his sadistic captain or else find himself beaten bloody or at the bottom of a ditch.

"I would have been killed if I had disobeyed the order," Makino said. "That was the case in those days."

After Japan lost the war, Makino’s unit fled to the jungles to escape retribution from the locals and the U.S. army. When he eventually returned to Japan, he joined other Japanese soldiers when they made return trips to the Philippines to collect the remains of fallen brethren. Whenever Makino made a trip, he’d donate food and supplies to the people of Mindanao in a quest for redemption. But it wasn’t enough. For half a century, he was haunted by memories of the torturous experiments and the guilt it left behind.

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The deaths, experiments, and vivisections remained under wraps for 60 years before Makino came forward. He was the first Japanese war veteran to reveal the army’s human experiments in the Philippines during WWII. At 84, he faced massive scrutiny for telling his story in 2006, and died one year later in 2007.

“You have to talk when you know you have done something guilty," he said. "The souls of those who died would not be soothed if the story remained buried.”

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Anri Ichimura
Section Editor, Esquire Philippines
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