Swarm Of Accusations

The communists realized that the global audience was rolling its eyes during the fight scene between the Soviet and American diplomats. But they also knew that the western nations placed a premium on science. So in 1952, while the United Nations was embroiled in fiery political rhetoric, the Chinese were working in the wings to rewrite the script. By putting scientists in the lead role, they would make sure that the next act would take the world by storm.

To avoid the appearance of gross impropriety, China turned the production over to the World Peace Council.1 However, the council's bias was very thinly veiled, given that the Soviet-funded organization was founded by Frédéric Joliot-Curie, a winner of the Nobel Prize in physics—and a devout communist. The council drew together an International Scientific Commission for Investigating the Facts Concerning Bacteriological Warfare in Korea and China, thereby hitting all of the right notes ("international," "scientific," and "facts") to create an impression of rigor and objectivity.

The commission was chaired by Joseph Needham, a Cambridge University biochemist. Having been stationed in China in the early 1940s, he was familiar with the Japanese use of insects as weapons. As such, he made an ideal leader for the group: a western scientist experienced in precisely the sort of biological attacks that were under investigation. The cast of supporting characters making up the balance of the commission constituted five other scientists from Brazil, France, Italy, Sweden, and the Soviet Union—can't get much more fair than that, right?

The commissioners arrived in June and conducted a two-month investigation, listening to a slew of witnesses, interviewing captured American pilots, and reviewing reams of documents. However, the investigators did not conduct any field investigations of their own and relied solely on the evidence presented by the Chinese and North Koreans. In August, just weeks after the

United Nations had failed to reach a decision concerning the allegations, the commission called a news conference to issue its verdict: America had waged entomological warfare. The pro-communist French newspaper Ce Soir ran a cover story featuring the headline "The Bacteriological War in Korea and China," along with a close-up photograph of flies and a caption noting that the insects were coated with anthrax and cholera.2

When the commission's report was released, the findings comprised a concise 60 pages, but the appendices that supported the conclusions ran another 600 pages.3 The study validated the use of 14 different arthropods, infected with at least eight different pathogens, on 33 separate occasions (along with a weird incident of infected clams, a Hitchcockian tale of diseased voles, and a handful of cases involving fungal pathogens of crops). With science forming the backbone of the report, the authors then added a bit of political meat to the conclusions.

The commission took great pains to draw the link between the U.S. attacks and those of Unit 731. After all, the Americans had sheltered the Japanese culprits. Moreover, according to a Reuters wire report, Ishii and others of his staff were rumored to have been seen on several occasions in South Korea, presumably advising their allies.4 Three decades after the Korean War, Lieutenant Colonel Murray Sanders—the first of the U.S. government's investigators of Japanese war crimes—claimed that Ishii and one of his associates had been flown to the United States in the early 1950s to collaborate with scientists at Camp Detrick. This assertion has not been independently verified, but the notion is hardly farfetched.

Although the ultimate purpose of the report may have been political, the commission laid out a thorough and intriguing tale of entomological warfare. And the single question in the mind of every diplomat, general, politician, and scientist who read the report was, "Is this horrifying document an accurate account or a fanciful fairytale?"

The first task was simply to figure out what insects and pathogens had been used in the raids.5 Relying heavily on taxonomic expertise within the Chinese Academy of Science, the investigators derived a comprehensive list of six- (and eight-) legged conscripts and their pathogenic payloads:

• House flies (Musca vicina, a cousin of the common house fly, Musca domestica, and quite similar to this familiar nuisance) carried anthrax.

• Nonbiting or "false" stable flies (Muscina stabulans, a species resembling the blood-feeding stable fly but preferring to dine on excrement and other nasty stuff) carried typhoid and possibly a disease of pears and apples.

• Anthomyiid flies (Hylemyia, a genus similar to that of the house fly but primarily feeding on plants, although some live in dung) carried anthrax, cholera, dysentery, paratyphoid, and typhoid and possibly plant diseases.

• Green bottle flies (Lucilia sericata, a species of blow fly named for its coloration; as for its ecology, picture a carcass teeming with maggots); no associated pathogens were detected.

• Sun flies (Helomyza modesta, a common, run-of-the-mill fly found in many habitats, where its larvae feed on decaying organic material) carried paratyphoid.

• Midges (Orthocladius, a genus of teensy flies that often form swarms in the evening; their larvae are aquatic and the adults, although pesky, do not bite) carried typhoid.

• Culicine mosquitoes (Culexpipiens var. pallens, a mosquito that may transmit some types of encephalitis); no associated pathogens were detected.

• Aedes mosquitoes (Aedes koreicus, a species not known to vector diseases, although its relatives carry yellow fever); no associated pathogens were detected.

• Crane flies (Trichocera maculipennis, a species within a family of flies that look like giant mosquitoes, except they neither bite nor transmit disease) carried a neurotropic virus.

• Human fleas (Pulex irritans, a species that feeds on humans as well as many other mammals and is known to be a vector of bubonic plague) carried plague.

• Ptinid beetles (Ptinus fur, a small, uninspiring brown beetle that feeds on stored grain throughout the world) carried anthrax.

• Grouse locusts (Acrydium, a miniature grasshopper, about a half-inch long, with no known or imaginable potential for economic damage or disease transmission); no associated pathogens were detected.

• Migratory locusts (Locusta migratoria, a species found in Asia, Australia, and Africa and having an impressive capacity to form migratory swarms and ravage crops but no potential for disease transmission); no associated pathogens were detected.

• Field crickets (Gryllus testaceus, a commonplace cricket that some Asian entrepreneurs raise on "cricket farms" to market as fish bait and as pet food for birds and reptiles); no associated pathogens were detected.

• Springtails (Isotoma negishina, a minuscule, wingless insect that "hops" via a bizarre spring-loaded, pole-vaulting structure on its abdomen) carried dysentery and an unknown rickettsia.

• Wolf spiders (reported as Tarentula, but tarantulas and wolf spiders are in different families; the authors seem to have meant some sort of free-roaming hairy spider) carried anthrax and fowl cholera.

• Lycosid spiders (reported as Lycosa, which are the wolf spiders, but presumably this is a different species from the creature noted above) carried anthrax and fowl cholera.

• Stoneflies (Nemouridae, this family of pathogen-free, vegetarian insects spend their larval lives in streams with the clumsily flying adults emerging to find mates); no associated pathogens were detected.

Not satisfied that this was the entire scope of creatures, the commission queried the North Koreans as to accounts found in the earlier report by the International Association of Democratic Lawyers.6 The Minister of Health confirmed that ants (family Formicidae), bed bugs, and mealworm beetles (Tenebrio molitor) had been found, although they lacked any pathogens. The North Koreans corrected an earlier account, noting that a mistranslation had indicated that the Americans had spread ticks when, in fact, the creature was the mite that carries tsutsugamushi fever. The officials stuck with the earlier report of what had to be the strangest entomological weapons: nycteribiid flies, which are rare, wingless, spidery insects that parasitize bats. But merely finding weird flies—or most of the other insects constituting the purported potpourri of living weapons—was hardly grounds for establishing entomological warfare. The commission needed convincing eye-witness testimony and compelling circumstantial evidence to convince the world of American treachery.

The most damning evidence consisted of firsthand accounts provided by villagers within the American drop zones. For example, the commission recounted that on the afternoon of March 6, 1952, Shan Wen-Jung and Tu Kung-Chou, inhabitants of Tung-K'an-Tze, Antung, witnessed four American planes passing over, and about ten minutes later discovered objects dropping down like snow-flakes which after reaching the ground were found to be antho-myiid flies, midges, and spiders.

[Inhabitants of K'uan-Tiem] saw eight American fighter planes pass over the city about half-an-hour after noon. . . . From one of them there was distinctly seen to drop a bright cylindrical object. Immediately afterwards, and during the following days, the people of the town including schoolboys, organised searches in the region beyond the east gate where the object appeared to have fallen, and collected many anthomyiid flies (Hylemyia, sp.) and spiders (Tarentula, sp.).7

Of course, there were many instances in which the connections between low-flying aircraft and abundant insects were circumstantial, but sufficiently close in time and space. A typical account describes the passage of American planes and the subsequent appearance of insects:8

These insects were all discovered in places after American planes had intruded into the areas. For instance, in the morning of March 4th, three planes raided Hung-Shih-La-Tze village, K'uan-Tien hsien. In the same afternoon, large quantities of field-crickets were discovered by the inhabitants on the snow-covered ground outside the village.

Even without any association between a particular flyover and subsequent discovery of insects, the commission found a range of ecological anomalies that pointed to an unnatural source of the creatures. The North Koreans reported finding springtails (order Collembola; see Figure 15.1)—tiny, flightless insects that hang out in damp, shady habitats—"on the cement stadiums about 6m high in a race course at Fu-Shun and on the top of a neighboring cement silo about 12 m above the ground."9 On a larger scale, the commission also concluded that the midges and anthomyiid flies were entirely novel to the regions in which they were found. But even insects native to eastern Asia were not above suspicion.

The investigators placed considerable weight on the fact that a dozen of the suspicious endemic species made their appearance months before the normal time of their emergence, sometimes being found in subfreezing conditions. The commission provided mini-tutorials to drive home their point:

For instance, the migratory locust passes winter in the egg stage and the adult dies after laying eggs in the autumn. The eggs hatch out in April and May of the next year. However, at mid-night on March 15 following the

Figure 15.1. The springtail, Folsomia candida, is the "white rat" of this insect order, being easily cultured in the laboratory and serving as the standard test organism for the effects of pollutants on soil arthropods. The blind, unpigmented species is i/20th of an inch in length, and although this insect could be reared in enormous quantities, it seems—as with all collembolans—to have no potential for carrying diseases, despite accusations to the contrary during the Korean War. (Photo by Steve Hopkin)

Figure 15.1. The springtail, Folsomia candida, is the "white rat" of this insect order, being easily cultured in the laboratory and serving as the standard test organism for the effects of pollutants on soil arthropods. The blind, unpigmented species is i/20th of an inch in length, and although this insect could be reared in enormous quantities, it seems—as with all collembolans—to have no potential for carrying diseases, despite accusations to the contrary during the Korean War. (Photo by Steve Hopkin)

intrusion by American planes, a large number of locusts were discovered on cement ground still covered with snow inside the city of Shenyang.10

The report dismissed the possibilities that the warmth of an early spring or the heat of bomb bursts had accelerated insect maturation. And even if there were some instances in which local factors, such as south-facing slopes, may have hastened the development of insects, another ecological anomaly had no plausible natural explanation.

Insects often amass in impressive numbers, but some of the North Koreans' accounts exceeded the bounds of natural events. While clouds of gnats and swarms of bees are familiar insectan mobs, the investigators came across more startling phenomena:

Besides the anomalies in season and location, the number of insects discovered also shows important abnormalities. . . . For example, the anthomyiid flies discovered at Ku-Chia-Tze, Shenyang, were in tens of thousands, and in Ssu-Ping as many as 6000—7000 houseflies were found in a single group. Even more outstanding was the discovery of tens of thousands of field-crickets at K'uan-Tien on the surface of the snow.11

Just as strange in the judgment of the scientific team were the cases of bizarre associations. While some organisms might be expected to hang out together in natural communities, the Chinese and North Koreans reported dense assemblages of springtails and fleas, midges and crickets (family Gryllidae), and flies and locusts. Finding such odd combinations supported the argument that something villainous was afoot. But even more worrisome were the inexplicable pairings of microbes and insects.

Ptinid beetles are brown insects about the size of a typewritten "O." With six gangly legs and two long antennae, they resemble small spiders, hence the common name for this family: spider beetles. Their diet is repulsive, with moldy grain and dried animal excrement being at the top of the list. Despite this disgusting cuisine, these insects weren't known to carry any diseases—until villagers came across infestations in 1952.12

According to North Korean sources, American planes passed over several hamlets and dropped some sort of objects. When the curious residents went to see what had fallen, they found no containers but loads of ptinid beetles. In the next few days, several people came down with headaches, body pains, and nausea. When the symptoms escalated to raging fevers and continuous vomiting, the patients attracted the attention of medical authorities. The sputum of the afflicted villagers was rife with anthrax bacilli and at least ten people died.

As to why the Americans would have chosen spider beetles to carry deadly microbes, the Chinese reported that "under the dissecting microscope it was clear that the beetle Ptinus would be well adapted for disseminating anthrax by this [respiratory] route, for it has an abundance of brittle chitinous spines on its elytra [the hardened hind wings that encase the body] which could be inhaled."13 Presumably the hairiness of true spiders (order Araneae) explained why these creatures were also used to tote anthrax spores. But not all of the accounts in the commission's report were as incredible as these unprecedented associations of microbes and arthropods.

The centerpiece of the commission's report was use of plague-infected fleas—the modus operandi of Unit 731:

Above all, the fleas appearing were not the rat fleas [the oriental rat flea, Xenopsylla cheopis, would be the normal vector in region] which more usually carry plague bacteria in a state of nature, but human fleas (Pulex irritans). It was these which were used by the Japanese during the second world war.14

According to the commission, Korea had been free of plague for five centuries, with the nearest endemic regions 300 miles to the north. So American planes were the only conceivable source of plague-infected fleas.

In the most remarkable case, after an F-28 fighter flew over the hamlet of Kan-Nan in the middle of the night, the residents awoke to a most alarming sight: "In the morning, the villagers found [many] voles dying or dead in their houses and courtyards, on their roofs, and even on their beds, while others were scattered around the outskirts of the settlements."15 When the voles (creatures that look like stocky mice with short tails) were rounded up, they were found to be laden with fleas, and subsequent testing revealed that at least one of the rodent raiders was infected with plague. In most cases, the Americans apparently relied on the direct release of fleas from aircraft.

Both military personnel and civilians reported the sudden appearance of masses of fleas in unusual locations, including bare hillsides in subfreezing weather. The most detailed account came from Song Chang-Won, a farmer near the village of Kum-Song Li, who told investigators the following:

In the morning of March 25,1952, I went to Pak Yun-Ho's house to consult with him on farming. There I found Pak Yun-Ho returning from the well where he had gone to wash his face. He said there were many fleas floating on the surface of water in a water jar. We went together to the well situated about 80 meters [87 yards] from our houses. I found fleas floating as if dead on the surface of water in the water jar near the well. This reminded me of the fact that at about 4 a.m. this morning an American plane had circled at low altitude without strafing or bombing. I thought these fleas had been dropped by the American plane, and I informed the Village People's Committee of this fact.16

North Korean and Chinese scientists confirmed that the fleas were infected with plague, but the news came too late for Pak Yun-Ho, who died of the disease a few days after finding the fleas. Whether such eyewitness statements constitute rigorous evidence is debatable, but testimonials were persuasive, particularly when they came from Americans.

Air Force officers taken as prisoners proved the duplicity of the American military, at least in the minds of those seeking to condemn the west.17 The communist interrogators provided the commission with page after page of rambling, detailed, hand-written confessions from downed pilots. The writings revealed that the officers had attended secret lectures on the tactics of biological warfare, after which they had flown missions spreading infectious agents over North Korea and China. Based on conversations with the captives, the commissioners "unanimously formed the opinion that no pressure, physical or mental had been brought to bear upon these prisoners of war."18 For their part, the interrogators noted that the airmen were not themselves monsters but merely good soldiers following the directives of a bestial government. Not only did the communists conclude that the captives had participated in war crimes with the "greatest inner reluctance," but the American officers had even turned the moral corner with the support of their compassionate captors:

These declarations were made of their own free will, after long experience of the friendliness and kindness of their Chinese and Korean captors had brought to them the realisation that their duty to all races and peoples must outweigh their natural scruples at revealing what might be considered the military secrets of their own government.19

These accounts were bolstered by the testimonies of South Korean infiltrators who had been captured while gathering epidemiological data that UN forces hoped to use in assessing the effectiveness of their entomological exploits. The commissioners did not see these confessional statements but accepted the word of the North Koreans that such evidence existed.

The commission was fully aware that such hearsay accounts, along with the incredible scientific evidence, would be pooh-poohed by westerners. The investigators figured that the best way to deflate their detractors was to beat them to the punch. So the report laid out the most problematical elements of the case against the Americans and rebutted these objections before they could be raised.

The anticipated problems centered on the role of insects as weapons of war. One of the most obvious objections would be that the Americans were too smart to drop cold-blooded creatures in the midst of winter. Anticipating this concern, the commission proposed that selective breeding could have "specially endowed [the insects] with cold-resistance."20 Such genetic manipulations were plausible, but it might have been easier to simply wait a few months before launching an attack with regular insects. And if the Americans employed odd tactics in terms of timing, their choice of targets was no less in need of explanation.

Most of the accounts of entomological assaults came from the front lines, which meant that the Americans were dropping insects near their own forces. The commission observed that such an approach was actually rather clever, given that these were the areas with the highest concentrations of enemy troops and the Americans had means of protecting themselves. According to the report, American scientists had mastered the technology of vector control, with "new and ever more potent insecticides [and] machines of high efficiency for the dissemination of clouds of these substances in large amounts and minimum time."21 It is certainly the case that when a typhus outbreak threatened in the winter of 1950-51, the UN command mobilized lice-treatment units, dosing their troops with DDT, and when dysentery reared its ugly head, the Americans drenched the afflicted, fly-infested cities with insecticide.22 And if Americans were experts at killing insects, they were also proficient at producing them.

As to the criticism that entomological warfare on the scale asserted by the commission would have required enormous insect rearing capabilities, the investigators responded with complete faith in American innovation. They noted that "in the scientific literature there are descriptions of methods for the artificial production of insects and arachnids on a large scale."23 Although instructions for the mass production of springtails, stoneflies, and spiders could not be found in technical journals, the commission seems to have little doubt that Yankee ingenuity would have extended existing methods to these novel creatures. But all of this raises the question of why the Americans would have chosen to use insect vectors in the first place.

The commission had a simple and compelling explanation for the U.S. military's affinity for entomological warfare: Ishii Shiro.24 Not five years earlier, the Americans had sold out the rest of the world and traded justice for the secrets of the Japanese biological warriors. Given the effectiveness of Unit 731 against the Chinese, and in light of the tremendous head start that the Americans gained from their Japanese tutors, how could the United States have not used insect vectors against their enemies when the military situation became dire? But even allowing that the Americans had the wherewithal to develop and exploit entomological arms, the choice of insects was truly bizarre.

Springtails as weapons? The size of typewritten commas, these primitive insects aren't very hardy, they won't travel more than a few yards in their entire lives, and they don't bite, carry diseases, or destroy crops. However, the commissioners appealed to our ignorance of the enormous diversity of the biological world and argued that we can't be absolutely sure that springtails don't harbor pathogens.25 From this premise, they raised the possibility that infected springtails could pass along deadly microbes by becoming snacks for domestic animals (hungry ducks were suggested) or feral mammals, by falling into food and water sources, or by chewing on plants. And if one of these pathways worked for springtails, then extrapolating to other farfetched vectors, such as stoneflies, took no more imagination.

But if everything from springtails to fleas had rained down during dozens of American sorties, a skeptic might contend that the communists should have been able to document the consequent suffering and death. The doubter could be expected to demand epidemiological evidence, and the commissioners were ready with their response:

The Commission is not in a position to give the world concrete figures concerning the total number of Korean and Chinese civilians killed, nor the total morbidity, nor the fatality rate. It is not desirable that this should be done, since it would provide the last essential data for those upon whom the responsibility rests. The information is not necessary for the proof of the case upon which the Commission was invited to express an expert opinion.26

The report of the International Scientific Commission may have had a number of unconvincing and mistaken lines of argument, but the commissioners had one thing absolutely right—western politicians, scientists, and militarists were going to launch a withering counterattack.

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