The Bug Offensive

From Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist, The Autobiography of Wilfred Burchett, edited by George Burchett and Nick Shimmin, University of New South Wales Press, 2005.

When I and other journalists reported from North Korea in early 1952 that the United States was waging germ warfare, using insects and small animals as “hosts”, we were ridiculed and malignedand have been ever since.  However, I was not very impressed by denialsfrom the US Command in Tokyo and official American spokesmen all the way back to Washingtonof a communiqué from the North Korean Foreign Ministry on 22 February 1952 stating that US planes had been dropping disease-infected insects over wide areas of North Korea.  There had been similar cover-up attempts after my report from Hiroshima.  Also, the methods described in the North Korean statement reminded me of a press conference in Chungking in late November 1941 at which Kuomintang China’s chief official spokesman, Dr Tsiang Ting-fu (1), accused the Japanese of having dropped infected fleas in the Changde district of Hunan province, causing an epidemic of bubonic plague in an area where it had previously been unknown.

The outbreak of bubonic plague in an area well over a thousand miles from any place where it had previously been reported caused astonishment, to say the least, in Chinese scientific circles.  A commission of enquiry was sent to investigate.  The results as outlined by Dr Tsiang are of historic interest because they represented the first documented account of the use of germ warfare in modern times.

The Commission had found that at 5 a.m. on 4 November 1941 a Japanese plane had flown very low over the Changde area dropping sacks of wheat and rice and bundles of old rags.  The plague outbreak followed just one week later; the incubation period after a human is bitten by a plague-infected flea is three to ten days.  It was presumed that the grain had been dropped to attract local rats and that the bundles of rags were saturated with fleas which would seek out the rats as hosts, transferring to humans as the infected rats died.  In modern germ warfare terminology the rats would thus act as “animal vectors”.  The Commission could only make a presumption because no fleas were left in the rags by the time its members arrived, and in any case most of the rags and grain had been swept up and burned by suspicious local peasants.

Another reason for my suspicion that the charges might be correct was that I had read a verbatim report of the Khabarovsk War Crimes Triala sort of Far Eastern Nurembergat which the Soviet Union put leading Japanese germ warfare experts on trial, accusing them of having prepared for large scale germ warfare in the Far Eastern territories of the Soviet Union and in Northeast China (Manchuria), and of having used Soviet, Chinese and Korean prisoners as human guinea pigs in testing out their deathdealing bacteria (the Japanese had tried to destroy their extensive germ warfare installations in Northeast China, but enough material and personnel fell into Soviet hands to convince their experts of Japanese intentions to launch germ warfare on a vast scale).

Japanese specialists gave detailed evidence on the methods of using insect and animal vectors and on the operational use of germ warfare on several occasions, including at Changde, as Dr Tsiang Ting-fu had claimed at that historic press conference.  The head of the Japanese project, General Shiro Ishii, was not in the dock, nor were several of his chief aides, because Washington reneged on wartime agreements to exchange alleged war criminals.  A statement from General MacArthur’s headquarters claimed that allegations of Japanese preparations for, or the waging of, germ warfare were “Communist propaganda”.  In December 1951, a couple of months before the North Korean accusation, Reuters reported that ex-general Shiro Ishii had arrived in South Koreaand I had remembered the name from the Khabarovsk trial.  A month after the Reuters report there was a curious statement by Major-General William Creaseywho then headed the Research and Development Branch of the US Army Chemical Warfare Serviceprophesying that “germs, gas and radioactive materials” might be the “cheapest weapons” for conquering an enemy without the destruction of his economy”.  The statement was made in Washington on 25 January 1952, just a quarter of a century before the announcement that a Neutron Bomb would fulfil this purpose by “only” destroying people!

Two days after Creasey’s statement an article appeared in the Sunday Mainichi, a leading Tokyo weekly, written by a Major Sakaki Ryohei, one of Shiro Ishii’s chief aides, in which he described the development of the Japanese germ warfare programme in terms which indirectly confirmed much of the evidence of the Khabarovsk trial.  Work had started as early as October 1936, the basic thesis of a top-level study group being that “bacteriological weapons are the most suitable and cheapest when a country such as Japan is extremely short in resources.  From a small laboratory and a number of test tubes, weapons can readily be made which will exterminate troops by the thousands…”  Ryohei dealt with the production of bacteria, the cultivation of fleas and other insect and animal carriers, the methods of ensuring infection of the germ carriers, the mechanical means of delivering the vectors, the need to develop effective aerosol sprays for the future and other means of delivering the germs “on target”all in all a most comprehensive survey of the advantages and potential of waging germ warfare.

A fascinating point about this article was that among the illustrations was one of a suitable container for delivering animals and insects from planes.  It was a cylinder of the size and shape of a two hundred pound bomb, but split lengthwise with the two halves hinged on one side so it could swing open and disgorge the vectors from its several compartments as it touched the groundfleas, spiders, flies, beetles and so on.  Except for the materials recommended for the outer casing, it was a replica of the canisters that were being picked up everywhere after the insect drops in North Korea.  When challenged, the Americans said these were “leaflet bombs”.

Suspicions of Japanese-American collaboration on the development of germ warfare weapons became an absolute certainty in November 1976 when the Tokyo Broadcasting System ran an hour ­long documentary on the secret germ warfare experiments on live victims which brought about the death of at least 3,000 Chinese and Soviet prisoners.  Some of the 20 participants in the operation tracked down by the indefatigable Miss Yoshinaga who made the documentary, admitted to receiving immunity from prosecution as war criminals on condition that they collaborated with the United States.  “Some of them trembled and shook when I questioned them” she said in her introduction, “and were so shocked that they couldn’t speak.”

The film necessarily goes into some historical background, covering the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the setting up of 731-Corps (the germ warfare unit under Major Shiro Ishii, who had the obsession that insects and bacteria could be Japan’s war-winning weapons against countries with greater populations and economic resources), and the reorganization of 731-Corps in 1941 with a staff of 3,000 including many young doctors and scientists and known as the “Epidemic Prevention and Water Supply Headquarters”.  Its headquarters were at a place whose Japanese name is given as Heibo, in Manchuria, and a reconstructed version of the headquarters based on descriptions from the Japanese who worked there is flashed on the screen as the narrator explains:

The 731-Corps was one of the biggest germ factories in the world.  They studied plague, cholera and typhoid germs, then mass-­produced very strong strains.  Daily production was 300 kilograms of plague and 1,000 kilograms of cholera bacteria.  They also studied the distribution of such germs and bred 145 million fleas per month.  We visited one of the doctors, a Dr 0hti [and the camera switches on to a very unhappy individual]:

“I refuse to talk.”

“Please tell us why.”

“There’s still no peace treaty agreed.”  [He was apparently referring to the lack of a peace treaty between China and the Soviet Union and Japan.]

He ran away from our camera lens, refusing to talk.  We identified an exarmy doctor, Major Kawashima, who was in charge of production.  We had many questions, mainly to confirm whether POWs were sacrificed in live tests.

“Were tests performed on live bodies at 731-Corps?”

“Ah…  Maybe some.”

“Was there a special laboratory for that?”

“MaybeI wasn’t in a position to know.”

“But it was there, wasn’t it?”

“Well…  perhaps.  I suppose so.”

“Have you seen those tests?”

“No.  I was never involved in them.  My job was the preparation of germs and samples.”

“Was there a jail in the compound?”

“Well…  there was a place to accommodate POWs.”

“Did you see inside it?”

“It was kind of offlimits.”

“But was proper care taken of the POWs?”

“That point could be argued.  The Americans did the same sort of thing in the Philippines.”

There was no clarification of what Dr Kawashima was referring to, but it was known that the US Army conducted experiments with various types of gas on “volunteer” life-term American common law criminals on an island off the Australian Great Barrier Reef in the late 1940s.  The bargain was that those who survived would be returned home with free pardons!

“Are tests on live bodies indispensable?”

“Biologists prefer that, if possible.”

The documentary continues with interviews with half a dozen others from 731-Corps, most of whom begged not to be questioned.  “It’s all part of the past, why bother me” was a frequent reaction until Miss Yoshinaga and her team buttonholed a certain Arita, described as an “executive officer” of 731-Corps.  After assuring him that he would face no criminal charges after the lapse of three decades, he agreed to say something about germ warfare tests on human beings, referred to in the scientific reports as maruta (logs):

“First, about germbomb tests on human beings?”

“They tied the marutas to stakes at distances of one, five and ten metres from the germ bomb.  After the explosion the marutas disintegrated.

“Did you actually see this?”

“Yes.  Once.”

“Was it awful?”

“Yes, dreadful to see…”

At the Khabarovsk Trial similar evidence was given of human guinea pigs tied to stakes with germ bombs and shells exploded at varying distances and medical control of the progressive stages of the various diseases with which the victims were infected.

The film continues with an ex-officer of 731-Corps named Akiyama, who described the closing down of the germ warfare centre:

This man told us about the last days of 731-Corps on condition that we didn’t show his face.

“When the Russians started to attack, we killed all the marutas by poisoning their breakfasts.  We were ordered to burn their bodies with gasoline.  It took 30 hours to reduce them to ashes.”

An extract from a Chinese film on investigations into germ warfare in North Korea and Northeast China is then shown and the narrator continues with what happened to 731-Corps personnel after the marutas were disposed of and the installations were destroyed with dynamite charges:

They hurried home before the war ended.  Fearing charges of war crimes they had to live like deserters.  Some changed their names, others kept moving from one place to another.  Meanwhile, germ-bombs were secretly transported into Japan and the occupation forces immediately started an active investigation.  Executive officers of 731-Corps were ordered to present themselves one after another.

One called Eguchi appears before the camera:

“I was the second one to be ordered to the [US] General Headquarters.”

“Did you speak up?”

“I did, and they took it all down.”

Ex-sergeantmajor Takahashi is interviewed:

“I went to the G.H.Q. twice in 1947.  Investigators made me write out reports after promising that they would protect me from the Soviets.”

Interview with exflight engineer Kumamoto:

“Do you know what happened to Mr Ishii?”

“He went to the United States, either alone or with several others.  He took his research data with him and begged for a pardon for all of us.”

Shiro Ishii suddenly disappeared at the end of 1949.  The Korean War started in 1950.  During the war strange insects appeared and people died of plague in North Korea.

Among those interviewed is a doctor, who was still practising and who had some twinges of conscience about his participation.

We were very surprised to learn that Dr Akimoto, one of the most conscientious of doctors, was also in 731.  When we proposed an interview, he was already prepared for it.

After Akimoto describes various experiments on POWs with the injection of serums, in which all of the victims died for the simple reason that the experiments were aimed at determining the fatal dose, the dialogue continues:

“It was a death factory, in fact?”

“It was a graveyard to bury the living.”

“Did it take courage to agree to this interview?”

“My sense of guilt was more powerful.  This thing has been haunting me ever since the war.  I am one of the dead returned from the graveyard.  I testify so that it may never be repeated.  Doctors should be aware that potential guilt exists in their privileges and their professionalism.”

The narrator then adds, referring to those who like Dr Akimoto had worked in the 731-Corps:

In fact many of them, working in governmental agencies, universities, medical institutes or pharmacological companies, have substantial influence in Japan.

The film closes with a second appearance by “executive-officer” Eguchi defending Shiro Ishii for his “great contribution” and affirming that the contribution was “still greater” because he had conducted his experiments on human guinea-pigs and assuring the narrator that the “spirit of 731-Corps is still alive”.

So much for official United States refusals to hand over Shiro Ishii, Jiro Wakamatsu, Masajo Kitano and others to be tried as war criminals on the grounds that the Japanese had never prepared for, or waged, germ warfare.  The evidence presented in the TV documentary justifies the suspicion that United States development of germ warfare was specifically based on a continuance of Japanese methods.  In fact, it is on the record that American research started immediately after the US Embassy in Chungking received the confidential report on germ warfare attacks at Changde referred to earlier.  This was revealed in what is known in specialised circles as the Merck Report, which dated the start of US research into bacteriological warfare to the end of 1941 (2).

The counter-measures that went into effect in North Korea almost simultaneously with the government’s first announcement of drops of infected insects and the outbreak of plague and other diseases provided impressive evidence that the authorities treated the matter as of life and death importance.  Every military unit, every town and village was required to set up insect reconnaissance units and special sanitation squads to deal with them.  Reports on insect drops had absolute priority on all civilian and military communicat­ion channels.  All-out war was declared on rodents, flies, mosquitoes, spiders and other disease carriers.  The entire country was mobilised to fight germ warfare.  There was no panic, which the Americans in charge of the project might have counted on to spread the insects.  For instance, instead of fleeing the area where an outbreak of plague was reported, the house was isolated, the occupants staying on to help their neighbours exterminate the rats and fleas instead of spreading them in all directions by flight.

Not only the people but the most prestigious Korean and Chinese scientists were mobilised.  Firstclass modern laboratories were quickly set up in caves hewn out of the mountains.  Among the 16 leading Chinese bacteriologists who played a major part in the fight, four were Research Fellows from Harvard University’s Department of Bacteriology, three were graduates of New York State University, two were from the London National Research Institute and others came from the Rockefeller Institute in Paris.  All of them held science degrees from Western universities, and their reputations were international.  Two had been decorated by the United States government for their work on the Anti-Typhus Commission in Burma in 1946 (both returned their decorations after the Americans launched germ warfare).

After an insect drop the local people, organised in first aid teams, did their best to sweep them up into heaps to be burned.  Later would come truckloads of sanitation squads cloaked in white with knee-high rubber boots and equipped with insecticide sprays.  They went from home to home, office to office, ensuring that anti-germ warfare measures were rigorously applied.  Vaccines and serums had been rushed from China and the Soviet Union within days of the first announcement, and inoculation centres were set up all over the country.  It was impossible to approach market places or any place where people gathered without producing up-to-date certificates showing immunisation against the various diseases being spread.  Regular check-points were set up on every North Korean road, where certificates had to be produced or inoculations were given on the spot and the persons concerned isolated for the incubation period.  In one case of which I was an eyewitness, a Chinese general returning to Peking was held up at the frontier because he had forgotten his certificate.  Despite his indignation he was inoculated and isolated until an aide could return from his headquarters with the missing certificate.  At the road checkpoints travellers and vehicles were sprayed with DDT, cars and trucks being driven over DDT-soaked rice straw matting to disinfect the tyres.  Trains were emptied of passengers at certain points and the same checks madeprecautions included spraying the soles of the boots of all travellers.  Goods trains were shunted into special tunnels and doused with DDT through a hastily improvised system of piped sprays.

To organize all these counter-measures in the middle of a brutal war in which virtually every habitable structure north of the 38th parallel had been destroyed, including all hospitals and public health establishments as they existed at the war’s outbreak, required an enormous diversion of civilian and military energies.  It was not done as some propaganda stunt to impress the West.  Indeed, our handful of journalists at Kaesongreinforced by two Poles and a Hungarian by thenwere requested not to reveal the extent or nature of the precautions taken.  Captured South Korean agents sent in by the Americanssome of whom we interviewedwere given the specific task of checking on what countermeasures were being taken and on the effectiveness of the germ warfare campaign.  Details of the counter-measures were obviously in the category of top military secrets.

Those who directed the germ warfare actions could never have dreamed that North Korean authorities could act with such energy and efficiency and on such a vast scale.  It is a natural assumption that they counted on the poor sanitation and backward public health services associated with underdeveloped countries, especially those in Asia.  The discipline and mass mobilisation of the North Korean people could not have been conceived by those directing a campaign in an area where epidemic disease usually spread like wildfire from any focal point of infection.

The main method used was to drop a wide range of infected insects, flies, mosquitoes and fleasthe latter with their rat “hosts”in the bomb-shaped canisters described earlier.  These floated down on parachutes, opening as they touched the ground.  The various types of insects and animals were carried in separate compartments and were almost invariably found in the region of the canister drops (as a flash-forward, I discovered during a brief visit to Washington in December 1977 that a top-secret and toppriority Pentagon order was issued in late 1951 for the mass production of such canisters.  If these were only to serve as “leaflet bombs” as claimed, such secrecy and high priority put a severe strain on a journalist’s credulity!)

Winnington, Chu Chi-ping and myself, although in Korea to cover the ceasefire talks and not the war, obviously wanted to get at the facts of germ warfare.  We would have been strange journalistsand strange human beingsto have acted otherwise.  Our first chance came about two weeks after the initial North Korean foreign ministry statement.  There was a reported insect drop at the village of Chukdong, only six miles southwest of Kaesong.  As it was fairly promptly reported, we were able to be on the spot within 24 hours.  We would have been there earlier but for differences of opinion within the North Korean-Chinese delegations.  Those responsible for conference affairs felt this was an excellent chance to expose the facts of germ warfare, the drop having occurred within the neutral zone around Kaesong.  Those responsible for military affairs were against bringing in their American opposite numbers, field glasses and all, to inspect their military positions at a few hundred yards’ range, Chukdong being on the border of the neutral zone and close to important Korean-Chinese military positions.  Unfortunately the military view prevailed!

All we found by time we got to the spot was a long strip of ground on which rice straw had been burned, and a few round clumps of burned straw adjacent to the strip with charred, pinhead-sized remains of insects.  The only eyewitnesses were Chinese soldiers and Korean schoolchildren.  As their languages are entirely different they had not been able to communicate, but through our interpreters we could question them independently.

Chukdong consisted of two tiny hamlets separated by a hump­backed hill.  The leader of a Chinese unit stationed near one of the hamlets gave the following accountof historic interest as the first description of a germ warfare raid of that period confirmed by outsiders, even if we were not ourselves eyewitnesses of the event.  At about 11 a.m. on 9 March 1952, men from the Chinese unit had watched a plane flying so low that they thought it must have been hit by anti-aircraft fire.  It disappeared behind the humpbacked hill.  A patrol was sent to the hamlet on the other side of the hill and found, on a strip of paddy field about two hundred yards long by twenty wide in a direction corresponding to the flight of the plane, hundreds of separate clumps of flies and mosquitoes swirling around on the ground in such density that “if you put your foot down you would kill a hundred or so of them” as the patrol leader expressed it.  A patrol had been along the same path two-and-a-half hours earlier and there had been no sign of insects.  Sentries were posted to keep an eye on the insects and the rest of the patrol returned to report to Company headquarters.  Within 80 minutes of the discovery, Chinese troops were on the spot with cans of gasoline.  By the time they arrived many of the mosquitoes were hovering about three feet above the ground but the flies were still swirling around in clumps which were beginning to disintegrate.  Samples were taken and the Chinese, helped by the village children, gathered rice straw and laid it over the whole area, including some insect clusters which had fallen off the main strip.  Gasoline was poured over the straw and set alight.

When we asked if anyone had seen containers being dropped, the Chinese said they had not because the humpbacked hill was between them and the plane.  They had not been able to converse with the children or peasants who would be the only ones to know.  The children spoke of a “brown stream, like smoke” issuing from the tail of the plane as it came down low, raising the question as to whether a new method of direct release of insects had been tried.  Subsequently the North Korean-Chinese investigators came to the conclusion that the “brown stream” was probably DDT being sprayed on the UN side of the lines to deal with any of the insects that wandered south.  The children and peasants who had quickly gathered around the investigating team had all seen the plane but had dived into air-raid shelters until the sound had faded away.  They were surprised that it was a single planethey usually appeared in twos or threesand that having come so low it did not bomb or strafe.  When they saw the Chinese gathering straw they went over to see what was happening.  They also saw the insects, describing them just as the Chinese had done.  They helped in gathering and spreading out the straw.  One child took us over to where a swarm of mosquitoes had settled on the warm, white wall of a cottage.  The children had twisted some of the burning straw into torches and jabbed them at the mosquitoes.  The smoke marks were clearly on the wall and stubs of improvised torches lay nearby.

I cabled my first report on germ warfare to Ce Soir, based on the investigation (a few days later, huge mosquitoes made their appearance at the Panmunjom talks site, only a couple of miles distant from Chukdong.  As the whole area was still under heavy snow, their appearance had a sobering effect on US journalists who had been following the official line of ridiculing the idea of germ warfare).  It was difficult for Winnington and myself to accept at first that the most powerful nation on earth was using flies and mosquitoes to wage war under the flag of the United Nations.  In reporting such facts as we had gathered at Chukdong we knew we would be the object of scorn and ridiculewhich we were.  But we had been subject to the same treatment in reporting the August 22 bomb attack on Kaesong and the related attacks, until one was finally admitted, and the same had happened when I reported the after-effects of the A-bomb on Hiroshima.

One of the objections raised by many responsible people to the charge that germ warfare was being used was that the US authorities would have used more efficient methods such as the aerosol technique of spraying germs directly from the air.  There were several good reasons why this was not suitable.  In a relatively small country like North Korea there was no way of ensuring that the germs would not be blown back across the battlefront to the “UN” positions.  At that time also there was controversy among the specialists as to the efficacy of the aerosol method, especially the reaction of the germs during their passage from the spraying mechanism to the ground, the effect of environmental changes and other factors.  Most importantly, there would be an enormous public outcry at home and abroad once it was known that germ warfare was being used (instead the outcry was diverted against those of us who claimed that it was!)had the aerosol method been as effective as its protagonists hoped, it would have been impossible to keep the secret.  It was more than 14 years later that the British Science Journal openly discussed the advantages of germ warfare and the use of insect vectors.  It set forth the 16 diseases most suitable for dissemination, and animal or insect vectors are listed as two of the three most effective means of disseminating for 12 of those diseases.  The third method listed was aerosol spraying from specially adapted planes.  The article was specifically concerned with the type of agents that could be used and how they could be disseminated:

Delivery of the agents would not require an expensive force of nuclear bombers, missiles or submarines; they could be dropped from a small aircraft, introduced by saboteurs into ventilation systems or the public water supply, or simply be spread by introducing natural carriers or vectors, such as the mosquito, deliberately infected with the required disease.  Furthermore, the results of the attack would affect only the population; communications, bridges, roads and buildings would be left unharmed.  For this reason BW has been termed “non-destructive” warfare in the United States.  (3)

My own very personal experience of a germ warfare attack, which I reported at the time, was on 6 June 1952 as I was on my way to visit POW Camp 5 on the Yalu River.  Just before crossing a branch of the river by ferry there was an air alert and our small group withdrew into shelters hacked out of a roadside cutting until the planes passed.  Although they came down fairly low there was no bombing or strafing.  When the “all-clear” was sounded the Jeep was driven aboard the handpropelled ferry and we started to cross.  In mid-stream I noted that some schoolchildren aboard were excited and that the two ferrymen were gazing fixedly at the water.  Thinking it must be a shoal of fish I left the Jeep to have a look.  Drifting down toward the ferry was a large patch of insects, covering an area of about 200 by 50 yards.  When our paths met many of them started clambering aboard the ferry, staggering around and shaking their wings.  They were of two types, both winged.  Once was an inch-long with a trailing abdomen and pincerlike jaws, the other was smaller, like a very slim house-fly.  They were obviously not at home in the water and as the sun dried their wings, some of them shook themselves and flew off.  We all did our best to avoid contact except for one of the ferrymen.  Using scraps of paper, he gingerly edged a number of each into a small bottle, corked it and asked my interpreter to take it to the nearest laboratory.  Ferrymen and passengers agreed that they had never seen either type of fly in the area before.

Later that day came reports that insects had been dropped around two POW camps.  In Camp 2 they had dropped squarely within the camp compound; at Camp 3 a container was seen to drop into the water a few hundred yards upstream (the Yalu at that point was a almost a lake, the water backed up by a dam at the huge Suiho hydroelectric station).  Early next morning there were reports that winged insects were swarming ashore along a 50-yard stretch of the beach at Camp 3.

I visited both camps and interviewed US POWs who had helped destroy the invaders.  The airdrop had taken place during the two-hour siesta period after lunch so that while many had heard the planes none had seen anything dropped.  At Camp 2, however, schoolchildren who shared the camp’s basketball court with the POWs had seen “shining globes like outsize baseballs” floating down.  An International Scientific Commission later presumed these to be the “egg-shell bomb” described by Major Ryohei as made of a calcareous material, porous enough to allow insects to breathe and with the advantage of shattering into thousands of fragments on impact to destroy all evidence.  At Camp 2 the insects had been swept into heaps and burned; at Camp 3 the POWs had dug “insect traps” along the beach and most of the invaders had been caught there, covered with petrolsoaked straw and burned.

The sensation at Camp 3 when I arrived was that one Negro prisoner, in an excess of patriotic disbelief in germ warfare, had picked up one of the flies and swallowed it.  A Chinese interpreter immediately made him sign a statement that he had done this; other POWs signed as witnesses.  Towards evening he was taken ill and next morning, by the time I arrived, he had a very high fever and had difficulty in breathing.  He confirmed the story, except he said he had only “made believe” to swallow the fly.  “I only rolled it round in my mouth and then spat it out.”  He then had a fever of 104°F and the doctors were unable to diagnose the illness.  A Jeep arrived to take him off to a hospital and I learned later that the doctors had a difficult fight to save his life (he was so impressed with his treatment in a Chinese hospital that he was one of 23 American POWs who refused to be repatriated at the end of hostilities).  By the time I returned to Camp 5, laboratory reports on the smaller of the flies that had clambered aboard the ferryand the same which had invaded Camp 3had been identified as belonging to the anthomyiid (hylemya) species and was infected with anthrax.  The larger one had not been identified nor did it appear to be infected.

I discussed my personal experiences with an American specialist who was strongly opposed to germ warfare, and he gave his opinion that it was impossible for the Negro POW to have fallen ill so quickly because of the longer incubation period for the type of germs developed for biological warfare.  He thought the man was sickening for an illness and that the contact with the fly must have been coincidental.  Many years later I came across the following passage in Hersh’s Chemical and Biological Warfare:

Pulmonary anthrax… occurs in intestinal and cutaneous versions, but it is its pulmonary or pneumonic form that has been the main source of study at Fort Detrick.  In the pulmonary version, anthrax can have an incubation period of less than 24 hours, and be up to 100 percent fatal, often in 18 to 24 hours.  Its implications as a quickstriking warfare agent are obvious.  The disease’s onset is mild, resembling most respiratory infections.  This generally is followed by collapse, cough, high fever and difficulty in breathing…  (4)

The latter condition is precisely that in which I found the Negro soldier.  Because of his cough and trouble in breathing there was difficulty in getting from him the crucial confirmation that he had put the fly in his mouth.  According to Science Journal anthrax is “one of the most stable agents”, suitable for dissemination by animal and insect vectors, and “because of its extreme stability, anthrax is one of the diseases likely to be considered for BW.  The fact that few, if any, measures have to be taken to ensure its survival would considerably simplify its production and dissemination…”  (5)  Other scientific documents name the anthomyiid species of fly as a suitable “host” or “vector” for pulmonary anthrax.

At the time I was reporting on what I was seeing and hearing of germ warfare there was no background material available; practically nothing in written form existed.  When I learned that the flies picked out of the Yalu were infected with anthrax it meant nothing to me beyond the fact that the Americans were indeed dropping insects, that there was the usual high-level lying going on about this, and that Chinese scientists said they were carrying anthrax germs.  I had only vaguely heard of anthrax as an animal disease (in fact it is the oldest recorded disease among animals; Moses, Homer, Hippocratesthey all wrote about it).  But it was considered the height of treacheryand I have suffered from it ever sinceto suggest that the United States would stoop to such baseness as to deliberately spread anthrax or any other disease.  The fact that the Merck Report had been immediately withdrawn because of the horrified reaction from American scientific circles speaks for itself.  Without being able to know the full implications, when I saw the swirls of insects floating down the Yalu and clambering aboard the ferry, shaking their wings like ancient warriors flexing their muscles or sharpening their swords, I felt as I had in the hospital ward at Hiroshima.  Here was a new terrible threat to mankind.  Another weapon of mass destruction even more awesome than the A-bombwhich was the ultimate horror that we knew of at that timebecause disease spreads beyond immediate target areas and knows no frontiers.

That I have an insatiable appetite for being at the “hot spots” where history is being made I have never concealed.  But sometimes my presence was accidental.  If I happened to be crossing a branch of the Yalu on 6 June 1952 it was because two captured US pilots had created a world sensation by admitting, with a wealth of detail, that they had been dropping insect bombs.  After reading the handwritten statements of US Air Force Lieutenants Kenneth Enoch and John Quinn, I set out for POW Camp 5 where they were being held, it having been agreed beforehand that I could talk to them separately and alone, without the presence of guards or interpreters.  Thus history caught up with me as I crossed the branch of the Yalu leading to Camp 5.

At the first meeting I told each of them in turn that I had read their statementswhich had already been broadcast over Korean and Chinese radioand asked if the information they had given was correct.  Each said “yes”.  Enoch, a softspoken, taciturn man, replied “yes” or “no” to the various questions without elaborating.  Quinn, of Irish background, was the opposite.  He spoke freely and eloquently and at our first and subsequent meetings, during which we went for long walks along the banks of the Yalu, he told me of his deep shame that the US had become involved in this type of warfare.  He also contrasted the destruction which the US Air Force was engaged in, as he had seen it on the ground on his way to the POW camp, with the decent treatment he had received from the moment of capture.  Both Enoch and Quinn agreed without any hesitation to make separate recorded interviews based on their written statements.  Both said that up to the time they arrived in Korea they had no idea they were to take part in germ warfare missions.  Officially they were on “anti-aircraft suppression” missions.  Each described the briefings he had received, the base from which he operated, the depots in which the germ bombs were stored and the details of the missions in which he had participated.  Dates and places coincided with those that North Korean authorities had listed on charts recording germ warfare attacks.

My idea was to give a copy of the tape recording to the “UN” journalists at Panmunjom and let them check the details as to depots and bases and names of briefing officers.  But my return to Kaesongand continuing investigation of germ warfarewas interrupted by the news that Vessa was on her way to join me in Peking.  We had been in constant contact and, after her Bulgarian exit visa had been granted and it became certain that the Korean ceasefire talks were going to continue for a long time, I had sounded out the possibility of her working as a style-editor for the French language publications of China’s Foreign Languages Publishing House.  She had also made arrangements to be accredited as the correspondent of Literaturen Front, the weekly journal of the Bulgarian Writers’ Union.  Letters and cables had been exchanged and while I was visiting the POW camps on the Yalu a telegram arrived saying now she was actually on her way on the Trans-Siberian Express.  I made a quick dash by Jeep to Antung and thence went by train to arrive at Shenyang (Mukden) when there was a momentary electricity blackout due to American bombing of the Suiho hydroelectric complex through which I had passed 12 hours earlier.

A hurried conference with railway officials established that the train was passing through that same night.  Help was promised to locate my wife and get her and her baggage out of the sleeping car during the train’s brief stop.  An astonished Vessa, expecting to meet me in Peking, was awakened, clothes were thrown into bags and bags were handed out through compartment windows.  The train puffed off towards Peking, we headed in the opposite direction by Jeep, and within a few hours we were crossing the battered Yalu Bridge into wartorn Korea.  It was a most unmannerly way to greet a wife after two and a half years of marriage, only the first month of which we had spent together!


1. As mentioned earlier, for many years after the Kuomintang regime was driven off the Chinese mainland, Tsiang Tingfu was Kuomintang China’s ambassador to the United Nations.

2. George Merck, who wrote the report, was former Chairman of the Biological Warfare Committee of the US Army Chemical Warfare Service. At the time he published his report on the progress in research and development of germ warfare weapons and their potential, Merck was director of the Fort Detrick Bacteriological Warfare Centre in Maryland, USA, which had been set up under terms of strictest secrecy in 1943 following a report by a US War Department special committee that germ warfare was possible.  Detailed reference to this is found in Seymour H. Hersh, Chemical and Biological Warfare – America’s Hidden Arsenal, Bobbs Merrill Co., New York, 1968.  The Merck Report was published in the March 1946 issue of the Military Surgeon and the October 1946 Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.  It was quickly withdrawn on security grounds.

3. Brian Clark, “Biological Warfare”, Science Journal, Vol. 2, No. 11, pp.  74-5.

4. Seymour H. Hersh, Chemical and Biological Warfare – America’s Hidden Arsenal, Bobbs Merrill Co., New York, 1968.

5. Science Journal, op.   p. 76.


Wilfred Burchett was an Australian journalist, who covered World War II, the Korean War and the war in Vietnam. His many books include Shadows of Hiroshima, Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist and Vietnam Will Win. Burchett died in 1983.