Halha River, Mongolia
I often traveled with Masaru into the war zone. Along the border of Mongolia and the Soviet Union, where thousands of our troops had been slaughtered along the bank of the Halha River, Masaru and I sat in an army jeep, a case of chocolate bars rested at the Colonel’s feet.
He had convinced the Army command to stage a counter attack at Halha and we were leading a contingent of 100 men who would install water filters in the war zone so that our troops could enjoy a clean water supply.
“It is crucial to provide clean water to our troops in the theater of war,” Masaru argued and our superiors authorized the expedition into Mongolia. What Masaru didn’t say was that our water filters were necessary to inoculate our troops from something Masaru had planned for our enemy.
“My suicide squad.” Masaru described his secret contingent of Japanese troops like they were something out of a spy novel. The more I learned about his squad the more I realized that’s exactly what they were – a group of spies ready to engage in biological sabotage. A covert operation so dangerous they may never return, that could likely kill them with infection if they ever did.
This was the business I had chosen.
I looked to the shoebox-sized case of chocolates at Masaru’s feet. “Are you sure you need those?”
He followed my glance and smiled when his eyes found the chocolate. “Pathogens are good. They don’t kill good people.”
Are you going mad? Pathogens are good? They don’t kill good people? What kind of logic is this? I remembered the piles of dead bodies sent to the incinerator and wondered where Masaru would place them on the scale of good and bad.
As we waited in our jeep near the river, waiting for the sun to set, I thought of my wife Kimiko in Nagasaki. What would happen if I were to abandon my duties at the facility and take her away to another place? To retire and forget about the epidemic prevention bureau of Imperial Japan.
“We’ve gathered a wealth of scientific information,” Masaru said as he opened his arms towards the Soviet land, which faced us just across the river. “We’ve discovered and developed methods to protect humans from contagious diseases.” He peered my direction. “This idea of yours has led to some very prestigious work, Major.”
He wants me to thank him but why does his compliment feel more like a curse? Sure, we were providing drinkable water to our Japanese soldiers but only because we were about to conduct biological warfare against our Soviet enemies.
The sun set, darkness fell and the river became quiet. We waited in the darkness until a young captain of the army approached our jeep. “The squad is ready to deploy, Colonel.”
Masaru had been napping quietly and now he sat up straight, adjusting his uniform and touching his hair. “Of course, Captain. Thank you, and proceed.”
The captain nodded and disappeared into the darkness.
Masaru lit a cigarette and handed another to me. “Come on,” he said as he hopped out of the jeep and walked towards the river. “Bring the chocolate.”
I complied and followed the colonel.
“Just imagine, Major, soon the land on the other side of that river will be in Japanese hands!”
And it will be polluted by anthrax and the plague.
We approached the river where a small fleet of rowboats was being tended by Japanese soldiers clad in black. I counted twelve boats in total, though in the darkness it was difficult to see across the black water. Soldiers on shore quietly handed wooden boxes to their counterparts on the boats. Some of these boxes were packed with metal tubes each the size of a thermos, which the soldiers handled carefully. The rest of the boxes were animal cages; inside were dozens of living rats.
The men were methodical as they loaded their cargo, only speaking when necessary and pointing or using hand signals whenever they could. I made it a point to remain as quiet as possible.
Once the cargo was packed, silently and stealthily the soldiers boarded the boats and set off rowing upstream.
“Captain!” Masaru called with a graveled whisper. “You forgot the chocolate!” Masaru pointed to the case of candy in my hands and the captain jumped from his boat and ran to take the package from me.
“Good luck, Captain,” Masaru said as the captain tossed the chocolates to a soldier on his boat, boarded the dingy and started rowing upstream. Five minutes later the boats had disappeared into the darkness leaving only a thin ripple of water in their wake.
Masaru watched contemplatively, ignoring the cigarette that dangled between his fingers as its orange glow dimmed and darkened. He flicked the butt into the river.
“Come,” he turned and walked back to the jeep. I sat beside him, said nothing and waited for Masaru to talk. Instead he opened the glove compartment and removed a sizable flask of brown liquid. “Have a drink, Major,” Masaru said as he unscrewed the cap and took a hearty swig before handing the bourbon to me.
I did as I was instructed and then sat quietly and watched the darkness. Half an hour passed without a word. I strained my ears for any sound of the boats, the paddle of an oar in the water, the voices of our men, the report of rifles being fired. But there was nothing. Only silence and blackness.
Finally Masaru spoke. “We are building another facility off an island in the Hiroshima Prefecture.”
I know this island: Ōkunoshima.
“Our mission will be to manage a poison production factory that will create mustard gas for the Imperial Army. Ōkunoshima was chosen for its secrecy, its isolation, and its distance from Tokyo. The island has already been removed from maps,” Masaru took another swig.
Most scientists would see any expansion of their work as a success, a great honor. Instead I took the flask from Masaru and swallowed a pair of mouthfuls. The sweet bourbon coated and burned my throat on the way down. I lit a cigarette.
Earlier that month I had conducted a vivisection on a young Chinese soldier, Log 897. I had removed his stomach while the subject was still alive. I had connected his esophagus directly to his intestines to observe how such a modification would affect the behavior of a man’s digestive track, and to time how long he could survive. Not long, it turned out. Within minutes Log 897 had expired.
Your work is a great honor for Japan. I imagined Masaru telling me in order to reassure me, to keep me invested in the business of Unit 731.
We remained quiet for another hour, finishing the flask and with it an entire pack of cigarettes. Eventually we heard a soft trickle of water from upstream and alerted ourselves for a possible attack, relaxing only when we saw our boats returning.
Masaru slid quietly from his seat in the jeep and approached the shore. The captain stood at the bow of the lead boat and with a long stride, he stepped onto the shore. “Mission accomplished, Colonel.”
Masaru grinned. “Good, good work! Join us in the jeep. We will debrief you on the ride back.”
The captain was straightforward and precise in his reporting. The metal canisters had been filled with a powder heavily laced with cholera, which had been dropped into wells and water mains around the Russian base. The rats had been released as planned and the captain described how they scurried into the base, a nearby village, into tents and alleys and buildings. These rats carried fleas infested with a potent form of the plague.
“And the chocolate. Tell me about the chocolate!” An excited Masaru could not contain his joy. The case of anthrax-laced chocolate bars had been his idea.
“We left it on a Russian railcar that was loaded with cargo. It will find its way into the supply line, Colonel. And hopefully into the mouths of hundreds of Russian soldiers.”
Masaru threw his head back and cackled. His bourbon-flavored breath infected the evening air. I had never seen Masaru so delighted.
Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.