The Fallen: A True Story of American POWs and Japanese Wartime Atrocities

Marc Landas, Author John Wiley & Sons $32.5 (289p) ISBN 978-0-471-42119-1

In the summer of 1945, 31 American airmen captured by the Japanese were summarily beheaded, and another eight died in the course of medical experiments in which their internal organs were removed and seawater was injected as a blood substitute. These macabre atrocities led to a post-war war-crimes prosecution that included allegations of cannibalism and threatened to implicate civilian scientists in Japan's infamous biological-warfare program, as well as U.S. occupation authorities who were involved in the bio-warfare cover-up. Unfortunately, journalist Landas structures his plodding study of the crimes as an investigative procedural that chronicles the efforts of American agents to piece together events, identify victims, assign guilt, unravel cover-ups and pursue the case's many twists, turns, false leads and blind alleys. The result is a disorganized, sloppily edited exposition that often relies on lengthy and tedious reconstructions of conspiratorial dialogues, interrogations and trial proceedings; it doles itself out in the same confusing dribs and drabs that the investigators experienced. To juice things up, Landas inserts overwritten recreations of victims' inner monologues--""Heaven and God and paradise were all up there, hidden and waiting to reveal themselves,"" muses one doomed airman, before deciding that, in fact,""nothing but hell existed between the clouds""--and as well as shallow interpretive riffs on""the Eastern philosophies and kokutai ideologies that granted the Japanese a transcendental hall pass to cruelty and savagery against fragile-skinned gaijin underlings."" It's a gripping story, but Landas's treatment doesn't do it justice. Photos.