Mitsubishi: Empire of Exploitation

Mitsubishi! > Slave Labor > Unjust Enrichment

Extract (Chapter 9) from Unjust Enrichment: How Japan's Companies Built Postwar Fortunes Using American POWs, by Linda Goetz Holmes. To learn more about this author and her work, visit her website:

Published 2001 by Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA.

Copyright 2001 by Linda Goetz Holmes. All rights reserved. No re-use without express permission from author.

Mitsubishi occupies a unique place in the history of corporate Japan's use of POW slave labor during World War II. This company built, owned and operated at least seventeen of the merchant "hellships" which transported prisoners to their assigned destinations; and this company profited from prisoner labor over a larger range of territory than any other. From the mountains of northern Honshu to the jungles of Thailand and the outer reaches of Manchuria, Mitsubishi made money from the use of Allied prisoners of war.

According to official Japanese government records, thousands of American prisoners were requisitioned by Mitsubishi over the course of the war, to work at its ancient copper mine at Hanawa; its mines at Hosokura, Kozukura and Ikuno; its airplane factory at Nagoya; its shipyard at Nagasaki; its steel mill at nearby Zosenjo; and the complex of factories in Manchuria which the company took over in the 1930s: the huge machine tool factory at Mukden; and the Manshu leather and textile factories nearby at Hoten.

Mitsubishi also supplied the wooden cross ties for the 225-mile Burma-Siam Railway, which was built between Thanbyuzayat, Burma and Kanchanaburi, Thailand at such a great cost in prisoner lives. In all, some 668 Americans toiled on the railway's construction.


The Osarizawa Copper Mine at Hanawa has been in continuous operation for 1300 years; and some of the 503 Americans forced to work there for Mitsubishi during the war claimed mining methods were as primitive in the 1940s as they were centuries earlier. The company's POW camp at Hanawa, in the mountains of northern Honshu, was designated as Sendai POW Camp #5. Americans destined for Hanawa were among 1035 prisoners crammed aboard the Noto Maru, built, owned and operated by Mitsubishi, which arrived in Japan from Manila in September 1944. [The company also used its merchant ship Haru (Haruna) Maru, which the POW nicknamed the "Horror Maru", to bring 1100 POW Japan for work in its Hosokura mine and elsewhere, a few weeks later.]

"The mine was cold and damp and had icicles hanging from the ceiling", Kenneth Calvit recalled. The prisoners had to walk over two miles up a steep mountain road to get to the mine. "On one stretch of the road there was a cut in the mountain where the wind and snow were blinding, so we used a rope and would go hand by hand to keep from getting lost", Calvit said. During the few months when snow wasn't on the ground, the POWs would try to catch grasshoppers along the way, in a desperate search for protein to add to their watery soup. They had no mid-day meal from the company. Calvit also remembered the time ammonia leaked from pipes in the company's refrigeration plant into the vat of soup -- which was served to the POWs anyway.

But what the prisoners remembered most was the terrible cold, how they were only allowed two hours of heat per day, and how, when they tried to bring a few scrap timbers from the mine to put in the little barracks stove, the company guards would take it from them. "At times I thought I was going to freeze to death", David Summons said.

"We weren't even expected to live", Robert Johnston stated bitterly in a 1998 letter to the author. "Today I'm totally disabled thanks to the Japs and especially Mitsubishi. It was a terrible three and a half years. I can't describe it fully and I know most people can't imagine it."

The prisoners at Hanawa were so incensed by their brutal treatment, the primitive mine conditions, their constant exposure to cold, the high death rate just from pneumonia, and their constant hunger -- that the minute they learned the war had ended, they seized the camp commander, Lt. Toshinori Asaka, placed him under arrest, brought him with them to Yokohama, and turned him over to the Shore Patrol of the United States Navy.


Things weren't any better for the 250 American prisoners at Sendai POW Camp #3, Mitsubishi's Hosokura mine not far from Hanawa. John Boswell got pneumonia there, and was unconscious for two weeks. Company employees insisted he go back to work in the mine a few days after he had regained consciousness. "I was too weak to walk to and from the mine, so other prisoners would carry me", he said. "We called our barracks 'the ice box' because it was so cold. We burned our wooden pillows for heat. There was no soap, no toilet paper, no toothbrushes or toothpaste."

On August 10, 1945 a Swiss Red Cross representative arrived in the camp and told the POWs about the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki earlier that week. Boswell recalled that the company guards immediately disappeared, and "The Japanese commandant gave orders for all of us to gain weight!" When B-29s tried to drop oil drums full of food and supplies, the topography made accuracy difficult. Three newly-free prisoners were killed by falling supply drums. It took nearly a month for liberating troops to reach the camp and set the POWs free.


Prisoners in camps of the Mitsubishi factory complex at Mukden, Manchuria had the distinction of being set free not by American troops, but by the Russians; and the newly-liberated POWs had the satisfaction of watching a team of Russian workers, mostly women, strip the factory bare of all its machinery, which the prisoners had spent so much time sabotaging to slow Japan's war production.

But the Mukden POW camps designated as POW Branch #1, Manshu Machinery Manufacturing company; POW Detachment #1, Manshu Leather; and POW Detachment #2, Manshu Tent -- have another, more sinister distinction because of their proximity to the infamous Unit 731, officially designated the Anti-Epidemic Water Supply and Purification Bureau building in nearby Harbin, where medical experiments took place. Much has been written and filmed about the secret work which went on at Unit 731. And a certain ambivalence has prevailed, until very recently, about whether Allied prisoners were included in these experiments.

After interviewing dozens of ex-POWs from the Mukden complex, it seems apparent to this writer that on several occasions, medical personnel from elsewhere were allowed to visit the POW hospital and some barracks at the Mitsubishi Mukden camps, and that after they left, a certain number of POWs became very ill or subsequently died in a short time. It is equally apparent that many ex-POWs who were at Mukden were not aware of, or suspicious about, unusual medical activity, but this is not surprising. The Japanese doctors had a lot of subjects to choose from: Mitsubishi brought over 2,000 Allied prisoners to its base camp at Mukden of whom the majority, 1,485, were Americans.

The company was so anxious to have as many prisoners as they could get to this large complex of factories that the first group of POWs who arrived in November, 1942 found that no accommodations had been prepared for them. In Manchuria, where the temperature hovers around 40 degrees below zero in the long winters, lack of shelter can be life-threatening. And winter had already arrived.

Nearly 2000 American prisoners sailed from Manila to Pusan, Korea aboard the Tottori Maru, a vessel built in Glasgow, captured in Singapore, and re-named by her new owner, Mitsubishi. 1500 POWs, many of them barefoot, stepped onto the Pusan docks in three inches of snow. They were given scratchy new woolen uniforms and put on a train, with the shades drawn, for the three-day ride to Mukden. At least the POWs weren't still wearing tropical clothes when they entered their temporary living quarters: old Chinese Army earthen huts, half above ground, with sod roofs and brick floors below ground level. The prisoners were cold all the time.

"When we got up in the morning, the frost on the bricks looked like it had snowed", Gene Wooten recalled. [6] Then they had to walk five miles each way to work. Three hundred prisoners perished at Mukden that first winter of 1942-43.

Housing improved considerably the following June, when three two-story brick barracks for the POWs were completed. Even the food improved somewhat, but the beatings and daily abuse never stopped. The weather was as much their enemy as their captors; being forced to stand at attention, naked, outdoors for long periods of time was a ritual which went on all year long, even in sub-zero temperatures.

The MKK (Manchu Kosaki Kai Kibasha Mi Kaisha) Machine and Tool Factory wasn't ready, either, so the POWs had to spend the next five months setting it up,pouring the concrete floor and bolting the American-made machinery inplace. Anything they could do to slow or interfere with production, the prisoners did. There are more sabotage stories from Mukden than almost any other facility.

"Every time we poured concrete, we buried as many tools as we could", Leo Padilla remembered with a proud, mischievous grin. "We must have buried a hundred shovels under that factory floor." And somehow, the machinery kept breaking down.

Over at the textile factory, where the prisoners were supposed to be making tents for the Japanese Army as well as bolts of heavy-duty fabric, some learned to move a lever when the company guards weren't looking, and all of a sudden they were weaving something that looked like cheesecloth. Wesley Davis showed his fellow POW how to pull the levers all at once and bend the framework of the machines. "The Japanese transferred me to warehouse work", he dryly remarked.

The worst offenders -- over one hundred fifty of them, all Americans -- were sent to Mitsui's lead mine at Kamioka, Japan as punishment in June 1944. Walter Schroeder was among those transferred out of Mukden. "We had to wear red armbands to identify us as troublemakers", he remembered. "We wore them the whole time we worked at Kamioka."

Even with the worst saboteurs supposedly weeded out, there were still about 1100 Americans remaining at Mukden, finding ways to interrupt Japan's war production. The prisoners were aware that they were making parts for field artillery and aircraft at the MKK factory, so the incentive was very high to turn out a weapon that might jam when fired. POWs tried to make sure that on their shifts, no product left the MKK Machine and Tool factory in good condition.

One POW did create something useful at the factory, but it wasn't intended for the Japanese. Vernon La Heist invented a combination padlock for his tool box, because the night shift of Chinese and Japanese workers were stealing his tools. He made several more for his friends. The next thing he knew, Mitsubishi executives were admiring his padlock and wishing they had the materials for him to make 1000 more. Several years after the war, La Heist was walking by a locksmith shop in Tokyo. There, in the window, was one of his padlocks for sale. "Did you buy one?" He was asked. "No". There were too many memories attached to the item.

Air raids, especially when the awesome B-29s appeared overhead, were thrilling and terrifying at the same time for the prisoners, because the factories at Mukden city were a primary target. On December 7, 1944 (a date no doubt selected on purpose), two B-29 bombs hit within the camp. The prisoners had spread out, lying down, on the parade ground, because until that time they had been forbidden to build any sort of air-raid shelters. Nineteen POWs were killed and thirty-five were wounded. Prisoners immediately began digging slit-trenches, without waiting for permission.

The Japanese wasted no time in making propaganda advantage of this incident. Five days later, the Vice-Chief, General Staff sent a secret message to the attaché in Budapest, titled "Part 1, Propaganda Notice #103". It read:

"On the 7th in the Mukden raid by B-29's the prisoner of war shelter was hit, causing about four deaths. In the future please propagandize the fact that such indiscriminant bombing will result in self-destruction of the enemy."

The discrepencies contained in this cable are worth noting.

Some of the most frightening times for prisoners at Mukden were at night. That was when Japanese medical personnel would enter the barracks while the men were sleeping, to conduct their medical experiments. Wilson Bridges told his wife that three prisoners would move their cots together, trying to keep warm. He was the one in the middle, and credited that fact with his survival. Many nights, he said, he would see a Japanese approach and give shots to the two men on the outside cots. When Bridges awoke the next morning, his two buddies would be dead.

W. Wesley Davis also spoke of nighttime disturbances by Japanese medics:

I was asleep on a straw mat on the platform (our beds) in our barracks. At about 4 a.m. I was awakened by a tickling sensation. I awoke with a start to see the face of a Japanese unfamiliar to me [i.e. not one of the Mitsubishi company employees or guards he knew by sight], holding a feather under my nose. When I awoke, he quickly said "excuse me" and moved away, before I could ask what he was doing.

Later, the men compared notes and we found similar experiences had happened to others: awaking in the middle of the night to find an unfamiliar Japanese face moving among us, sometimes with the feathers, at other times tying a tag with a number on it on a man's toe. In each instance, when the Japanese saw that we had awakened, he would say "excuse me" and move on, before we could ask questions. We all believed they weretrying to take us by surprise, and do things to us while we were asleep.

Davis also said his full service records were never released. He believed this is because the U.S. Army knew of the experiments at Mukden. Without his full records, Davis has been unable to show the possible cause of his lifelong illnesses and disabilities. "I lost 92 pounds in captivity and weighed 80 pounds when I was liberated," he said.

Navy seaman Peter Locarnini told of all the injections he was given, supposedly vaccines against cholera -- but he didn't believe it.

Army Bataan survivor Frank James remembered being sprayed in the face by Japanese doctors, in addition to receiving numerous injections. "Everybody had six or seven blood samples taken, " he said, adding that he believed "All of us at Mukden were directly or indirectly used for experiments. I had constant diarrhea. Medical data was being constantly taken [on POWs] by Japanese doctors."

Army airman Robert Brown was a medical technician in the POW camp hospital at Mukden. He recalled that during the winter of 1942-1943, a team of Japanese medical personnel arrived on a truck, wearing white smocks and masks. They gave injections to some of the prisoners, who subsequently became sick. When a prisoner died, he could not be buried until the Japanese doctor had performed an autopsy, according to Brown. When asked if the Japanese medical team came from Unit 731, Brown replied: "I don't know what medical facility they came from. There was also a hospital nearby in Mukden. All I know is they arrived by truck, they were in medical garb, they were not part of the Japanese medical staff at our POW camp, and they visited our facility several times."

On one of those occasions, fellow Bataan survivor Art Campbell recalled,

"A crew of Japanese we hadn't seen before lined us up. They were dressed in white and gave each of us half an orange. Two or three days later, everybody was very sick. I had a high fever. Later, we figured out the oranges must have been doctored with something. I know I'd have eaten it anyway because I had scurvy so bad.

They took nine of us and put us in a special ward. They tested our blood, everything. They started giving us shots regularly, 500 cc's at a time, and said it was horse urine and would be good for us because it had vitamin C in it."

As mentioned earlier, there are many Mukden survivors who disclaim any first-hand knowledge of medical experimentation at the camp. It was a very large facility; there were nineteen barracks units at the base camp. Incidents occurring at some locations would not necessarily be common knowledge, especially among a population of 2,000 men. And there are some former officers at Mukden who rather strongly dispute the medical experimentation stories, saying they would have surely known of them. But the officers were billeted separately from the enlisted men, and the contact was not that close, most of the time.

For this writer, the journalists' rule of thumb applies: if several sources, independent of one another, tell the same story, it has a certain amount of credibility. Especially if the individuals are not interviewed at the same time, or at the same gathering. Several of the men who told of medical experiments, or what they surely believed to be medical experimentation forced on them at Mukden, did not know one another. On many occasions, they volunteered the information as part of a lengthy, wide-ranging interview. And it was always as part of their personal experience.

Although there appeared to be an unusually high level of Japanese medical activity at the Mukden POW camp, incidents of Japanese medical personnel giving injections to POWs in an unusual way at several locations in the home islands have already been cited. Just as John Aldrich mentioned the Japanese medic at Hirohata using one needle on a large number of prisoners, Sidney Farmer said that at his camp in Taihoku,Formosa (Taiwan), "We were given three inoculations for cholera and typhoid, and two smallpox vaccinations, or so we were told. The Japanese [medics] used three needles for 450 men."

Army Corregidor survivor Floyd Smith said he was given a shot in the chest at the Electric-Chemical Co. POW camp at Aomi. Shortly afterwards: "A Japanese guard came for me. He gave me an outfit of Japanese Army pants, an English shirt, a Japanese Army overcoat, an Australian hat and a mask over my mouth and nose, so I would not be recognized as an American. He took me on a train. We arrived at 2 a.m. at the Shinagawa Hospital in Tokyo." [20] After the war, Smith spent 13 months in a U.S. hospital. At least four American POWs were taken to Shinagawa from Aomi for medical experiments, according to other POWs at the camp.

Gleneth Berry was selected from the ranks of POWs at the Kawaminami Shipyard POW Camp #2, Fukuoka, and sent to the Shinagawa Hospital. "My three months of time there is a complete blank. I was quite ill," Berry said. From Shinagawa, he was sent to the Hidachi Manufacturing company at Jinsen (Inchon), Korea, where he spent the rest of the war sewing buttons on hospital garments -- hardly a typical POW work assignment.

As in the Mukden interviews, the incidents just discussed were mentioned by ex-POWs who contacted the author to relate other, specific details about their slave labor work at a number of Japanese company worksites. They were not sought out because of this writer's prior knowledge about their role in medical experiments as prisoners of war. Despite the frequency of anecdotes from other locations, the impression remains that the Mitsubishi facility at Mukden was the site of the most frequent and systematic incidents of medical experimentation on American prisoners of war.

One of the POW hospitals at Mukden was the site of the only visit the camp ever received from a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and it occurred less than two weeks before the war ended. Dr. Marcel Junod had been newly appointed as the ICRC head delegate to Tokyo, and on his way there via the Soviet Union and Manchuria, Dr. Junod was determined to visit the Mukden prisoner camp, as well as the undisclosed site where General Jonathan Wainwright, last commander of Corregidor, and Britain's highest-ranking prisoner, General Percival, were being held.

After much red tape and delay, Dr. Junod arrived at Mukden on August 5, 1945. No words more graphically describe the humiliation and complete subjugation to which Allied POW were subjected by their Japanese captors than Dr. Junod's narrative of that day. Dr. Junod, a physician, was accompanied by Colonel Genji Matsuda, the commander of all prisoner of war camps in Manchuria. Dr. Junod could hardly control his anger:

At the top of the steps stood four men in shirts and shorts at attention. They were the first prisoners of war I had seen in Manchuria. As our procession mounted the steps after [Col. Matsuda] the four men bowed low, their arms kept tightly to their sides, until their heads were almost on a level with their knees.

In a low voice, and making an effort not to show the indignation which was boiling up in me, I said: "That's not the manner in which soldiers of an occidental army salute."

"No, it's the Japanese manner," replied Colonel Matsuda.

We were taken along a corridor with sick-rooms on either side. Standing by the wall near each door were three or four sick prisoners, all of whom bowed low as we approached. Those prisoners who were unable to arise were seated [cross-legged] on their beds, their arms crossed on their chests, and they too bowed as low as their bandages, wounds or mutilations would permit. When the last Japanese officer had passed they resumed the upright position, their eyes raised fixedly on the ceiling. Never once did their eyes meet ours...This was indescribably horrible. Matsuda tried to lead us on but I stopped before a group of four prisoners, three British and an American.

"Is there a doctor amongst you?" I asked, trying to keep my voice firm and not betray the emotion I felt. No one answered, and the Japanese behind me kept silent. I stood directly in front of a big fellow who towered above me. I could see only his chin and his stretched neck as he looked up at the ceiling. Not a muscle stirred and I repeated my question. There was still no reply and I turned grimly to Matsuda.

"Why doesn't he reply?" I asked. "Isn't he allowed to?"

The Japanese were stupefied at my audacity, but Matsuda was evidently unwilling to risk an unpleasant incident and he indicated one of the men standing against the wall with the others. "This Australian is a doctor," he said.

I went towards my Australian colleague with outstretched hand. I had to overcome a lump in my throat to get out the banal words: "How do you do?"

The man lowered his eyes, but not to me. It was at Matsuda he looked. It was the colonel's permission he sought. After several seconds which seemed incredibly long his hand slowly rose to mine. I took it and shook it warmly, trying to convey to him all the emotion and sympathy I felt and hoping he would afterwards communicate them to his comrades.

I told him as briefly as possible who I was and why I had come, and I tried to get into conversation with him. He replied slowly and in monosyllables and each time before he spoke I could see that he silently sought the approval of Matsuda over my head.

"Will you accompany me on a tour of the wards?" I asked finally. This time Matsuda intervened. "No," he said. "A Japanese doctor will accompany you."

I felt it was impossible to insist any further and I let go the man's trembling hand which stiffened back to the attention against his sides whilst his eyes rose again to the ceiling.

Dr. Junod was equally appalled when he was taken to Seihan, where the "important prisoners" were held. He had insisted upon being allowed to speak to General Wainwright:

I had difficulty in realizing that I was about to come face to face with the hero of Corregidor, the defender of Singapore, the Governor of the Dutch East Indies and twelve other soldiers of high rank whose armies were still fighting everywhere in the Pacific. And suddenly a disturbing sight presented itself.

There they stood upright and motionless in the middle of the room. I should not have been able to distinguish their faces even if I had not involuntarily turned my head away because they bowed low, their arms close to their bodies, as soon as the sabre of Matsuda tapped on the floor. The last man in the row refused to submit to the humiliation and remained upright.

"General Wainwright". My emotion was so great that I could hardly utter the words I had to speak. He maintained an icy reserve towards the Japanese around me. Nothing, it seemed, had broken his spirit. His voice was still vibrant as he replied to the pitiful and absurdly abrupt questions which were all I was allowed to ask him...

"Have you any request to make?"

"Certainly. Can I make it now?"

"No," put in Matsuda at once. "It will have to be made in writing to Tokyo."

The ghost of a skeptical smile passed over General Wainwright's lips. [23]

The date of this brief interview was August 6, 1945. None of the parties involved were aware that 1000 miles away, the atom bomb was being dropped on Hiroshima. Three weeks later, General Wainwright, in full uniform, greeted Dr. Junod in Tokyo with these words: "Now we can talk in peace."

But Junod's visit to Mukden haunted him. In 1951, writing his memoir, he said: "I can still see the camp at Mukden with the bowed backs of its slaves."

Mitsubishi also profited from prisoner labor as a contractor supplying materials for the Burma-Siam Railway, a project which might never have been undertaken had the Imperial Japanese Army not found itself with an expendable labor force of 61,000 Allied prisoners of war, including an entire Australian engineering battalion captured on Java. British engineers had considered constructing a railroad along this same route in 1936, but abandoned the idea as not feasible -- too much dense jungle; too much risk of malaria and other diseases. But the Japanese considered no such impediments. So 13,708 POW died building the railway and "Bridge on the River Kwai", including one hundred thirty-three of the 668 Americans who toiled there.

Mitsubishi supplied the heavy wooden cross-ties, or sleepers, which were laid along the 225-mile route, profiting handsomely from the lucrative contract. Otto Schwarz, a sailor off the USS Houston who swam ashore to captivity on Java when his ship was sunk offshore early in 1942, remembered how heavy and sharp those beams were. Unlike the tree trunks the prisoners used for bridge work, Mitsubishi's cross-ties were "Very well made, perfectly cut at the ends [by saw mill equipment], and very sharp. We used to try and find rags to put on our naked bodies, so we wouldn't cut ourselves so badly lifting those heavy pieces of lumber." Schwarz said he believed there was no equipment along the railway which could have manufactured those sleepers. "They had to have been brought in from somewhere else."

Nagase Takashi, a Japanese interpreter who was part of the military police (kempei tai) unit supervising all the Imperial Japanese Army discipline, criminal investigations and anti-espionage operations along the Railway throughout the war, confirmed that Mitsubishi supplied not only the railway lumber, but also foodstuffs to the Japanese staff there. The company had personnel stationed at the town of Kanchanaburi, where the construction base was located, to keep track of supply needs and deliveries for the company. Nagase recalled that he was told several years before by an aide to the commanding officer of the 4th Battalion, 5th Railway Regiment in charge of collecting materials for the project, that the aide had on one occasion overheard the major shouting at a Mitsubishi clerk in a rage at the exorbitant price the company was charging the Army for its cross-ties.

From slave-ship transports to slave-labor projects, Mitsubishi seemed ready to provide goods and services, for a handsome profit, during World War II.

Copyright 2001 by Linda Goetz Holmes. All rights reserved. Endnotes not included in this extract.