Friday, August 6, 2010


When the US occupied Japan at the end of World War II, it shipped back to Washington DC thousands of documents, many of them classified “Top Secret” that have provided fodder for researchers even today, nearly 74 years after the Pacific war ended.

A young research fellow from Yale University, Elizabeth Silliman, discovered this summer among the mountain of unsorted documents a map that she told us was folded into a square no bigger than a regular Post-It pad.

Since she specialized in Japanese studies, she quickly recognized it as a map showing American and Japanese forces on Leyte Island from October 20 to the middle of November, 1944.

The map was included in a special one-day exhibit of the Junior Fellows Summer Intern Program at the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

The map was hand drawn and titled in Japanese “Leyte Island Military Situation Sketch”.

Silliman surmised it must have been intended for some sort of high-level military briefing.

“The penciled notations on the map are quite interesting and one wonders how the Japanese were so precise in their intelligence gathering to know the number of divisions to be sent by member of the Allied forces serving with the Americans in the Philippine invasion,” wrote curator Reme Grefalda. Philippine specialist in the Asian Division of the Library of Congress.

The US and Japan waged the biggest naval battle in history in the waters off Leyte and Samar.

Both the Japanese and Americans saw the strategic importance of the Philippines. Arrayed against each other, the US deployed 34 aircraft carriers against Japan’s four; 12 battleships against Japan’s nine; and hundreds of cruisers, destroyers and submarines. The Japanese first used organized kamikaze attacks in the battle for Leyte.

It was part of a campaign to liberate Leyte to fulfill Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s promise to return to the Philippines after being driven out of Bataan and Corregidor three years earlier.

Following feinting attacks off Luzon, MacArthur chose Leyte because of its central location where he hoped to split Japanese forces in Luzon and Mindanao.

He adopted a leap-frogging strategy from Papua New Guinea, bypassing known Japanese strongholds, to get back to the Philippines and redeem what he saw as the loss of American pride and honor when the Japanese Imperial Army kicked them out of their Pacific colony.

The battle for Leyte was just the beginning of the liberation of the Philippines but it came at a cost of 3,500 Americans and 49,000 Japanese dead.

As the world marks the anniversary of the first atomic bomb attack in Hiroshima, it’s noteworthy that among the other documents discovered by Silliman were two original notebooks showing Japan’s attempts to build its own atomic bomb.

She also unearthed documents about epidemiological studies of diseases compiled by doctors in the notorious Unit 731 of the Japanese Kwanton Army.

Unit 731 was a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit in the Japanese Army. They performed horrific human experiments, mainly on Chinese civilians rounded up by the Kempeitai from 1937 to 1945. The bioweapons experiments reportedly killed as many as half a million people during that period.

Some accounts say Unit 731 physicians subjected men, women, children and even infants to unimaginable horrors, often operating on their subjects without anesthesia.

After the war, MacArthur reportedly offered some doctors in Unit 731 immunity in exchange for providing the US with their experiment notes and discoveries on developing bioweapons. Subsequent investigations showed some American survivors of the battles for Bataan and Corregidor may also have been used for human experiments.

Silliman told us there were many more documents just waiting to be discovered, possibly shedding more light on a chapter of history that is already overly illuminated with blood and gore.

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