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Grunden, Walter E. Secret Weapons and World War II: Japan in the Shadow of Big Science. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2005
If ray guns could have been the decisive weapon of World War II, Japan might have emerged victorious, becauseas this book about science and technology during the war demonstratesJapanese scientists devoted considerable effort to developing "death rays." Of courseas this book also provesdespite such misguided research there was no way those devices could have been feasible in the 1940s.
To begin with, an introductory chapter sets the basic pattern for the book. Grunden reviews the structure and organization of government-supported scientific research in other WWII belligerents, notably the US, UK, Soviet Union, and Germany. After establishing how those nations organized their scientists and research facilities, the chapter turns to the development of Japanese governmental policy in regard to science. This produces a bit of a mishmash of commissions, bureaus, committees, agencies departments, and institutes and will probably prove to be the least interesting part of the book for most readers. Nonetheless, Grunden fully demonstrates the fragmented nature of Japanese policies, the relative lack of governmental support, the "bottom up" (as opposed to "top down") structure of science in Japan, and the utter lack of cooperation between Army and Navy.
The Atomic bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 came as a great shock to the Japanese scientists involved in nuclear weapons research. Few of them had believed it possible for any nation to develop nuclear weapons during the war, even the United States. But the United States had several advantages that Japan did not share in common. The United States had access to plentiful supplies of uranium-bearing ores and graphite, and it possessed an expansive industrial infrastructure to process them in massive quantities. As shown above, Japan had neither sufficient resources nor the industrial capacity to succeed in such an endeavor. The lack of coordination in research efforts between the military services was also a critical factor. In the United States, it took the formation of special agencies at the highest levels of government, namely the NDRC and the OSRD, before the Manhattan Project could be established. Under the auspices of these agencies, General Leslie Groves managed research at numerous sites, including Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Hanford, Washington. Groves enlisted the aid of such industrial giants as Du Pont and Union Carbide to overcome the many engineering problems involved. Although various aspects of the Manhattan Project were compartmentalized for security, Groves worked closely with the project's civilian director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, to coordinate the disparate elements of the program.
The next chapter looks at radar and "death ray" research. As to the former, Grunden reminds readers that the Japanese scientific community was very much in the forefront of basic research and development of many aspects of radar in the pre-war years. Although not quite up to the level of the British Chain Home radar line, Japan took a fairly similar approach to utilizing the technology for military purposes. "A [radar] system for aircraft detection and warning later became operational in 1941. Some 120 sets of this type were erected along the coast on the Sea of Japan for defense against a potential air assault from the Soviet Union." However, Chapter Three goes on to point out that, comparatively, Japan's level of achievement in radar research, development, and production scarcely advanced during the war, and Grunden provides solid reasons for the Japanese failure in that arena. One of the reasons for failure was the diversion caused by the misguided attempt to develop a death ray.
Postwar U.S. military intelligence assessments of Japanese research and development of the death ray were mixed. Some investigators who examined the army's research data at the end of the war appeared not to have been very impressed with the project, stating, "While the results of the tests are interesting, there is nothing in them to indicate that Death Rays are likely to become an effective military weapon." Yet others stated, "With the development of higher-power and shorter-wave length oscillators, which has become possible through the Allied research on radar, it is possible that a death ray might be developed that could kill unshielded human beings at a distance of five to ten miles if these Japanese experiments are reliable indications of the potentialities of the death ray." One stated reason for the failure of the Japanese army program to develop a high-frequency electric wave weapon was that the Army Ministry and the army research staff did not give a "wholehearted effort" to this project. One impediment cited in U.S. postwar intelligence reports was the "improper dissemination of information by the army staff." Although competent civilian scientists had been brought into the project as consultants, they worked in "scattered localities" and were not kept informed of the development of the research. Moreover, Japanese informants stated that "a definite goal was not given to each scientist, and in some instances, the scientists did not know that the research was to develop a 'death ray' weapon." Such observations appear not to have considered the fact that none of the other belligerents had succeeded in developing such a weapon either, or even whether any of the major powers could have done so during the war.
While the Japanese were apparently the only belligerent to seriously pursue death rays, the same could not be said for development of rockets, guided missiles, and jet aircraftthe topics that comprise Chapter Four. In these fields, Japan began the war behind the other major powers and fell farther behind as the conflict progressed. Nevertheless, Grunden identifies quite a few interesting projects and charts their development: the I-go air-to-surface missile, Ke-go heat-homing air-to-surface missile, Funryu surface-to-air missile, Ohka rocket-plane, Baika and Shinryu "special attack" piloted missiles, Shusui rocket-propelled interceptor, and the Kikka and Karyu twin jet-engine fighters. Despite investments of brainpower and other resources, and despite transfer of technology from Germany, Japan simply failed to keep up with the pace of international technological advances in this arena.
With Japanese troops facing certain defeat, a small detachment from Unit 731 attempted to halt the advance of the enemy by contaminating the Khalkin-Gol River with typhus, paratyphus, and cholera while the remaining Japanese forces retreated. The effort met with only minimal success, but it was encouraging enough for Ishii to continue with his research agenda.106 His superiors agreed, and by December 1940, Unit 731 was further expanded with the formation of additional subunits in Hailar, Songo, Linkou, and Hailin (Mudanchiang). Throughout the war, Unit 731 and its affiliated branches conducted small-scale BW operations on at least six different occasions in China, in one instance resulting in a limited outbreak of cholera and bubonic plague in Changteh in the autumn of 1942.
Alvin Coox in his earlier Nomonhon seemed to interpret the facts somewhat differently. Here's an excerpt with an accompanying endnote:
After the Pacific War, several Japanese leftist writers retailed tales that at Nomonhan the Ishii unit was really engaged in spreading cholera, typhus, and plague from the upper reaches of the Halha, and that over 30 Japanese medical and civilian personnel were killed in the process. In December 1939, Ishii himself explained privately to the new Kwantung Army chief of staff, Endo, that the central authorities had directed him to undertake bacteriological warfare operations but that he had declined to do so because study of countermeasures had not been completed by that time. Endo, who agreed with Ishii, admits that it was theoretically possible to have hampered enemy pursuit at the end of the Nomonhan fighting by infecting the Halha; but Endo never heard that the Japanese actually employed bacteriological measures in 1939. In short, though the Japanese army, like the Red Army, certainly had developed a serious interest in bacteriological warfare, no responsible IJA source accepts or authenticates the allegations that the Kwantung Army tried to poison the precious river water upon which its own forces were as dependent as the Russians and Mongolians must have been.38
Whatever the precise nature of events at Nomonhon, contemporary researchers are in complete agreement that Unit 731 committed a variety of atrocities during the war years, and Grunden goes on to describe some of the more heinous examples of Ishii's work, including experiments conducted on human subjects. Japan even developed plans to use "balloon bombs" to carry BW payloads across the Pacific to attack the United States. Although touching on all those points, as always the text remains focused on the science, institutions, and personnel of Japanese biological warfare development. Interestingly, Grunden concludes that based on available evidence "...it is questionable whether the emperor would have remained in complete ignorance of [the work at Unit 731]." Furthermore, the author explains how Ishii and many of his scientists and technicians were able to avoid prosecution by the US for war crimes because they were able to gain immunity in exchange for "...extensive data on human experimentation produced by the Unit 731 researchers."
The preceding discussion would begin to suggest that the impact of science on the war for Japan was minimal, at least in the areas of the advanced weapons projects examined above. Japan lacked the natural and human resources as well as the industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Radar development remained at a comparatively low level, and although radar proved somewhat useful for Japan during the war, Allied progress in this field far outpaced the Japanese, especially after the British invention of the resonant cavity magnetron. A "death ray" was a pipe dream for all the belligerents, and although other nations ruled out its development early in the war, the Japanese continued to pursue this very impractical technology throughout. In the latter stages of the war, Japan was developing some innovative guided missiles and jet aircraft, but most of these remained beyond the nation's capacity to mass produce, while others were derivative of German designs and barely reached the production stage by the end of the war. The Japanese army used chemical weapons on a limited scale in China but did not use them more widely against Allied forces in the Pacific. Likewise, the Kwantung Army used biological weapons throughout China, mostly in the northeast, but they also do not appear to have been used against the Allies in the Pacific theater. For the most part, Japan fought the war with the same weapons that it had had at the outset, and no new, decisive technology was produced to change the tide of war in Japan's favor. Ironically, throughout much of the war, it was indeed the indomitable fighting spirit of the common soldier that proved to be Japan's most formidable weapon.
This is not the book for historical researchers seeking details of weapon deployments or tactical combat. Instead, Secret Weapons looks behind the curtain to see how the Japanese political, military, andespeciallytechnical establishments handled research and development projects for wartime purposes, with an emphasis on scientific mobilization and organization. Unlike some of the sensationalized books about Japanese secret weapons, Walter Grunden provides a very scholarly, heavily footnoted, factual examination of the subject without resorting to speculation and hysteria. While the author focuses on Japan, along the way he also creates a useful outline of scientific advancements in weaponry by the other major powers during the war. An appendix of about thirty-five pages includes a plethora of tables covering Japanese scientific institutions, projects, personnel, and weapons.
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Reviewed 24 July 2005
Reviewed 24 July 2005
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