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Episode 18 – Caligula versus Shiro Ishii

We’re back to the Villains bracket today with two people who are the epitome of the word, evil. One, the former Roman Emperor, part of the Judio-Claudian dynasty and the other, commander of the infamous Unit 731 during World War II, General Shiro Ishii.

Whenever we head into this bracket, it takes a bit of intestinal fortitude to research the history of some of these people and today’s episode is no different. In fact, Shiro Ishii was particularly hard as his crimes against humanity were unbelievable and the fact that he was not prosecuted for them is even harder to stomach.

Our first contestant is pretty well known to the world, Emperor Caligula. Actually, his name was Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus as he was the son of the popular Roman General, Germanicus. Born on August 31, 12 AD in Anzio, Italy, then known as Antium. His mother, Agrippina the Elder, was a powerful woman in her own right. They belonged to the most distinguished family in Rome, the Julio Claudiens. 

The name Caligula was a nickname which is Latin for “little boots.” He received the moniker when he was a young boy out on campaign with his father where he was dressed up in uniform with the little boots. When he became emperor, you would have been wise not to call him by his nickname if you wanted to live another day.

When the great Augustus died in 14, his heir was Tiberius, a somewhat surly and unpopular choice. Germanicus was considered a rival, so the new Emperor sent him off on another military campaign where he suddenly died. The historian Suetonius writes that Germanicus was poisoned in Syria, but many believe that this was unlikely. Agrippina passed rumors that Tiberius had something to do with his death which lead the emperor to imprison her on an island where she was starved to death. The same fate came to one of Caligula’s brother while the other committed suicide. 

The young boy spent some time with his great-grandmother, Livia until he was summoned in 31 to live with Tiberius on the island of Capri.  He had a deep hatred for the emperor but had to suppress it which some say caused his mental imbalance. Tiberius is to have said of the now young man, “I am nursing a viper for the Roman People.”

For six years Caligula lived like this until Tiberius died in 37. Some claim that the young man was actually smothered the emperor with a pillow which is possible but unlikely. Caligula was quickly named emperor by the Roman Senate. There was great jubilation in Rome as Tiberius was pretty much despised and they saw the young man as a breath of fresh air which was the case in the first six months. 

The new Emperor freed people who had been unjustly imprisoned by Tiberius and rescinded an unpopular tax. Another favorite thing that Caligula staged was chariot races and gladiatorial events.  Also, he gave bonuses to the army around the city, especially the Praetorian Guard.

Then in October, something went terribly wrong as he fell severely ill or, as some have claimed, he was poisoned. When he recovered, he was not the man who he was before. Caligula went on a murderous rampage, especially against friends and family.

Early on he had his cousin Tiberius Gemllus executed as he viewed him, and rightfully so, as a threat to his power. Then his and his cousin’s mutual grandmother Antonia Minor is likely to have been poisoned followed by his father-in-law Marcus Junius Silanus and brother-in-law Marcus Lepidus who were both executed.  Interestingly, he spared his uncle Claudius as he viewed him as a buffoon and someone he could make fun of without worrying about reprisal.

The people of Rome were still pretty happy with the way things were going with all of the games being held, taxes being lowered, and property being returned to some who had their land taken under Tiberius. There were rumblings about the high number of executions that were going on without a trial, something that disturbed many Romans, especially the upper classes.

Problems really began to come out to the forefront with the financial crisis of 38 and 39. With all of his giveaways, Caligula severely strained the treasury of Rome. Taxes were raised, wealthy people were accused of crimes they didn’t commit and had their property taken by the Emperor. Compounding things, a famine broke out in the city which further demoralized the people. 

Caligula by this time began to see conspiracies behind every corner, especially from the Senate. He had numerous men from the ruling class executed. Some of them were involved in plots against him, and many were not.

His madness was increasing by the day with him proclaiming himself a living god to be worshipped by the people and especially the Senate. He wanted them to call him, Neos Helios or the New Sun. Caligula was undoubtedly full of himself.

The next accusations against the emperor were his sexual deviance, especially incest. He was supposedly having affairs with his three sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla. That and his threat to make his horse, Incitatus a Senator made the Romans concerned about his sanity. We do have to take much of these accusations with a grain of salt. Many of the accusers were not contemporaries and may have embellished the stories. Whatever the truth is, by 40 AD, Caligula was hated by just about everyone. 

When he threatened to move the capital of the Empire from Rome to Alexandria in Egypt, it pushed his enemies over the top. The problem for the assassins was the emperor’s Germanic Guard. When they figure out how to separate the two, the plan was hatched by members of the Praetorian Guard and the Senate.

On either January 22nd or 24th, 41 AD, we have conflicting dates in the records, Emperor Caligula was stabbed to death some 30 times similarly to his ancestor, Julius Caesar. 

Now to go to the Putting it Into Perspective Segment.

During the rule of Caligula, Saint Peter founds the Church of Antioch, Saul of Tarsus converts to Christianity becoming Saint Paul and the Germanic Quadi’s settle into present-day Moravia and Slovakia.

Now is the time to move on to the Japanese microbiologist, General and director of Unit 731, Shiro Ishii. When doing my research, I came across two ways of representing his name. People like Sheldon Harris who wrote the book, Factories of Death as well as Gregory Dean Byrd is his PhD thesis on the man call him Ishii Shiro. 

Born on June 25, 1892, at Shibayama, Chiba Japan, to a wealthy family who ruled over the area like feudal lords. We know very little about his early years, but it is likely that he had an excellent education given his standing. He was also an imposing figure, some six feet tall, which is significantly taller than the average Japanese man of the time.

It is said that Ishii had a photographic memory which did him well in school although he was generally despised by his fellow students. While studying medicine at the Kyoto Imperial University, he is said to have used other student’s equipment after hours but did not clean up afterward. Ishii received his Ph.D. in microbiology at the age of 35 in 1927. 

1927 is an important year in Ishii’s life as it was here that he read an article about the Geneva Convention, signed in 1925. While the Japanese signed the treaty, the Diet, their version of Congress did not ratify it. The item that stuck out to Shiro was the ban on biological warfare. The fact that his country was not bound to it made him believe that he was destined to study the field. 

He began to develop theoretical models of the use of biological weapons which impressed members of the military. Ishii also viewed prisoners of war as somehow subhuman as no honorable Japanese soldier would ever surrender. The Japanese military shared this belief as was evidenced by their treatment of POW’s during WWII. The death rate in the Japanese prisoner of war camps was 27%. By comparison, those held by the Germans and Italians had a 4% death rate.

When the Japanese attacked China in 1931 using a staged event called the Manchurian Incident, Ishii was given a population with which to practice his gruesome experiments. Now, General Shiro Ishii, he was to head a group called Unit 731.

In researching this episode, I came upon a number of sources about Ishii. To say that it is the most disturbing thing I have ever read is an understatement. Mind you, I’ve read about the Holocaust and how depraved man can be but what the Japanese did to the people of Asia is of a level of evil unprecedented in human history. 

Unit 731 had a fortress known as Zhongma in the south. As Hal Gold puts it in his book, Unit 731: Testimony, “The ever-dependable and expanding South Manchuria Railway provided a means of transporting equipment and, more importantly, human lab materials.” He further writes, “The life expectancy of prisoners at the fortress was a maximum of one month.” Ishii viewed the people who he would experiment on as purely lab materials, nothing more. When you denigrate a people and call them animals or as the Japanese called their victims, maruta or logs, or as the Nazi’s called Jews vermin, you lower their status as humans and allow for the kind of barbaric treatment without feeling sorry about it.  

When I started the podcast, I told you that while I couldn’t tell you how people felt in their time but I would try to give you a sense of what they felt. I will share with you one incident from a Ph.D. thesis I found online written by Gregory Dean Byrd, describing one experiment conducted by Ishii and his men of Unit 731, I must warn you beforehand, it is graphic and profoundly disturbing.

“To determine the treatment of frostbite, prisoners were taken outside in freezing weather and left with exposed arms, periodically drenched with water until frozen solid. The arm was later amputated; the doctor would repeat the process on the victim’s upper arm to the shoulder. After both arms were gone, the doctors moved on to the legs until only a head and torso remained. The victim was then used for plague and pathogens experiments.”

As bad as that seemed, there were far worse tortures and experiments conducted by Ishii than this one. I cannot in good conscious repeat them here as they are far too disturbing. If you are interested, in learning more, you can go to Wikipedia, yeah I know, a bad source at times, but if you search for Shiro Ishii go to the references and the first one is the dissertation paper by Gregory Dean Byrd which is chock full of details about this truly evil man. 

What is absolutely staggering is that post World War II, Ishii was granted immunity from prosecution by General MacArthur and the war crimes tribunal. They wanted to find out what the Japanese learned from their experiments at Unit 731, and they did not want the Soviets to find out. There are conflicting stories of how much Ishii shared with the Allies, but we do have evidence that it was extensive.

After the war, in order to protect himself, elaborate death rituals were performed to promote the myth that Ishii had been shot in China. According to Sheldon Harris “Adding color to an otherwise commonplace announcement, village elders in Ishii’s home base collaborated with the Lt. General on 10 November 1945, by issuing a proclamation declaring him dead. They even staged an elaborate funeral in his behalf, complete with mourners, priests, burnt incense, and prayers for the departed soul.”

The American intelligence operative were not fooled and found him in January 1946. Interestingly, he was not arrested, only made to stay in his Tokyo home. Shortly thereafter, he was interrogated along with 25 others for 7-weeks. 

Shiro Ishii would live out his life in Japan in relative obscurity after the war, dying of throat cancer in 1959 at the age of 67. The Japanese government has, to this day, continued to deny the activities of this heinous monster.

Now on to the scoring. For the first 15 points on how long the contestants were evil, Ishii wins this one easily. Caligula was Emperor of the Roman Empire for 3 years and 10 months, with all but six of the months being depraved. Ishii was the monster he was from 1927 until the end of World War II in 1945 for a total of 18 years. Shiro 15, Caligula 5.

Next up, for 20 points, how they affected the rest of the world in their time. This is a hard one to judge as Caligula involved in expanding his empire both westward and eastward while Ishii’s torture and experimentation of the peoples of China were extensive. For these reasons, I give both the full allotment of points.

Next up their lasting effect on world history. Caligula is the poster boy for what an evil and depraved despotic ruler is. Ishii is far lesser known, so his impact is not as significant. Twenty-five points to Caligula and 15 to Ishii.

Now for the big score of how bad or evil they were to the people they controlled. In my mind, there is no one that I have ever come across that was much eviler than Ishii. He gets the full 40 points, more if the rules would have allowed. Caligula was a sadistic and evil bastard as well but not on the same level as his opponent. Forty points to Shiro Ishii with 35 going to Caligula. With a score of 90 to 85, the Japanese General moves on to face his second-round opponent, Ivan the Terrible.

Well, I hope you enjoyed today’s podcast, join me next week as we debate the contestants in the Leaders Bracket, The American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt versus the French Sun King, Louis XIV.

Don’t forget to review the podcast if you haven’t already, join the growing Facebook page at Battle Ground History and visit the blog site at battlegroundhistory.com. Until next time, remember, we are not the makers of history, we are history.

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