Japan Dissected My Granddad Alive in World War II
Bob Bruner was a teen when he learned the word “vivisection.” Now a Japanese museum is shedding light on the monstrous wartime experiments on his grandfather and seven other U.S. POWs.
From Japan comes word of a university medical museum with a new exhibit detailing vivisections conducted at the school on eight American airmen captured in the final days of World War II.
The so-called experiments performed on the living prisoners at the Kyushu University medical school included the removal of a whole lung, a stomach, and a liver, as well as pieces of brain.
The first of the unlucky eight was Staff Sergeant Teddy Ponczka of Pennsylvania, who had been stabbed with a bamboo spear during his capture. He must have assumed he would be receiving treatment for his wound when he was brought into an operating theater.
Another prisoner was operated on later that day, followed by the six others during three more sessions. None of them had been injured, but apparently still did not imagine what awaited them.
“It’s because the prisoners thought that we were doctors, since they could see the white smocks, that they didn’t struggle,” Dr. Toshio Tono—then a medical student—would tell a reporter decades later. “They never dreamed they would be dissected.”
After taking out one prisoner’s liver, a surgeon was heard to say, “This is a removal of the liver and we are going to see how long the man would live without his liver.”
All of the prisoners died, no more than three months before V-J Day. The perpetrators hurriedly sought to conceal their crime after Japan’s surrender. They cremated the remains and faked records that said the prisoners had been transferred to Hiroshima and killed by the atomic bomb.
American authorities soon discovered the truth, and 30 suspects were arrested. But the prisoners’ families were initially told only that their loved ones were missing in action.
Then somebody sent the mother of one prisoner, 22-year-old Lt. Dale Plambeck of Fremont, Nebraska, a clipping from a Denver newspaper making a reference to the medical experiments. Gertrude Plambeck wrote the War Department letter after letter after letter.
“If it wasn’t every day, it was almost every day,” her granddaughter, Ginger Bruner, remembers. “She didn’t give up.”
No reply had come in June 1947, when the missing airman’s father, Albert Plambeck, died on what would have been his son’s 25th birthday.
That November, the families were finally notified that the prisoners “may have died” as a result of medical experiments.
A formal confirmation only came in January 1950, two years after the perpetrators were tried and five of them were handed death sentences that Gen. Douglas MacArthur then commuted.
The letter to Plambeck’s mother read in part: “Investigation has conclusively established that he was one of the victims of a series of experimental operations that were performed at Kyushu Imperial University on 17, 20 and 25 May, and 2 June 1945.”
“It was found impossible to ascertain the identity of the prisoners who were executed on any given date,” the letter continued. “It is necessary, therefore, to accept 2 June 1945, the latest date on which your son could have been alive, as the date of his death.”
One date Gertrude Plambeck knew for certain was March 25, 1945, the day her son’s daughter, Ginger, was born.
That had been two weeks after Dale Plambeck headed off to war, one month and 11 days before his B-29 bomber was brought down by a Japanese fighter over the island of Kyushu.
Two years after Dale’s death and Ginger’s birth, his widow, Toni, married his best friend. Merlin Anthony had served in Europe and been among the troops in the famous photo of the Americans marching through the Arc de Triomphe after liberating Paris. He suffered severe frostbite during the Battle of the Bulge.
Anthony now joined Toni in ensuring that Ginger maintained a connection with the father she had never known, who had never even glimpsed her.
After choir practice every Saturday, Ginger went to the Plambeck house for dinner. The talk revolved around one subject.
“Of course, it was always about Dale,” Ginger recalled to The Daily Beast.
The whole town knew what had happened to her father, and residents were outraged when she was friendly to a Japanese exchange student during her junior year in high school.
“How dare you even think about talking to him?” people asked.
Although she was not left hating all Japanese, Ginger also did not for an instant forget the Americans who had joined her father in going to war. She remained active in supporting veterans and gold star families such as her own.
“From the time I was old enough to hold a can and sell a poppy,” Ginger remembered this week.
Merlin Anthony arranged for a tombstone to be installed at an empty grave beside his friend’s father in Ridge Cemetery in Fremont.
“In Memory of Dale E. Plambeck
2nd LT US Army
World War II
Oct. 20 1924 - June 2 1945”
Ginger married a man named Steve Bruner. They had three sons, the older two of whom served during Desert Storm.
The oldest son, Bob, recalled this week that he had been in his mid-teens when he learned a new word.
“Understanding what ‘vivisection’ means,” Bob Bruner remembered.
The son said he wondered what the new museum will be displaying at the very place where that word took on such horrible significance.
“We would definitely be interested in knowing what they have,” he said.
He would also definitely be interested in knowing why MacArthur pardoned those convicted war criminals.
As for what was done to his grandfather and the seven other prisoners, Bob said, “It is very unbelievable.”