Book Review: Japan's Secret War: Japan's Race Against Time to Build Its Own Atomic Bomb (Robert K. Wilcox): WWII | HistoryNet

Book Review: Japan’s Secret War: Japan’s Race Against Time to Build Its Own Atomic Bomb (Robert K. Wilcox): WWII

8/12/2001 • Reviews, World War II Reviews

‘Shortly after World War II had ended,” writes Robert K. Wilcox in the introduction to his reissued book Japan’s Secret War:Japan’s Race Against Time to Build Its Own Atomic Bomb (Marlowe & Co., New York, 1995, $12.95), “Americanintelligence in the Pacific received a shocking report: The Japanese, just prior to their surrender, had developed andsuccessfully test-fired an atomic bomb.”

Could that have happened? Did the Japanese possess a weapon on par with those developed by the U.S. government’sManhattan Project? Wilcox’s book gives convincing evidence that the Japanese were not just bystanders in the race to build anatomic bomb.

In the fall of 1940, the Japanese army concluded that constructing an atomic bomb was indeed feasible. The Institute ofPhysical and Chemical Research, or Rikken as it was known to the United States, was given the contract. A brilliant scientist,Dr. Yoshio Nishina, headed the top-secret project.

At the same time, the Japanese Navy was also diligently working to create its own “superbomb.” The project was dubbedF-Go.

One of the biggest problems facing both branches of the Japanese military was the scarcity of Uranium 235, or U-235. Thisisotope was present in minute amounts in natural uranium and was essential to the fission process. Another major obstacle waselectric power. The home islands of Japan generated very little in the way of electricity. Enter one Jun Noguchi, a Japaneseindustrialist, who offered a solution. A real visionary, Noguchi had built an industrial empire on the Korean peninsula, nearKonan. His factories churned out gunpowder, dynamite, nitroglycerin and magnesium. To achieve the massive amount ofkilowatts needed to run his industries, he had the Fusen and Chosin rivers, tributaries of the Yalu River, dammed. Then heconstructed hydroelectric plants to provide the electricity.

In addition, Noguchi, who was a graduate of Tokyo University with a degree in electrical engineering, was also making heavywater, water composed of heavy isotopes of hydrogen and/or oxygen. Heavy water could be used as a moderator in a nuclearreactor. He also realized the enormous value of the rich uranium fields on the Korean peninsula.

Did the Japanese use Noguchi’s facilities in Korea to manufacture the heavy water they desperately needed to build theiratomic bomb? In Japan’s Secret War, Wilcox states: “Box 2 of the SCAP [World War II Army intelligence files and recordsof occupation] records, Entry 224, mentioned that Noguchi’s company was making heavy water for Arakatsu [Dr. BunsakuArakatsu, head of Japan’s Imperial Navy atomic project at the end of World War II], and reported that Army investigatorshad impounded ‘360 cc’ of heavy water from his cyclotron lab….Former Noguchi employees, Saburo Tashio, director of oneof Noguchi’s labs on the mainland, and Masao Kubota…by the end of 1942, using glass electrolytic equipment, were able to produce 8 liters of 1.2 percent heavy water per month….In January 1944, 3 step constant volume continuous electrolysis equipment…was completed [and] by April 1944…it became possible to produce approximately 50 cc of 90 percent or purer heavy water per month.”

The preceding report concentrates only on the Japanese mainland. What of Noguchi’s plants near Konan? Those buildings,according to Wilcox, “were not subjected to Allied bombing.” Were they producing heavy water at a much faster pace?

Another interesting facet to the Japanese atomic bomb efforts is the apparent coverup by the U.S. government. Why? Whywere Japanese cyclotrons hastily destroyed at the end of the war? The U.S. military had dismissed the idea that the Japanesecould build an atomic bomb. Were American military and government officials embarrassed upon being proved wrong?

Army Major Joseph O’Hearn was one of the officers who oversaw the destruction of the Japanese cyclotrons. On November27, 1945, he wrote, “In the course of my recent mission…a number of factors…convince me that further investigation of thisfield is essential.” He further stated, “There are a number of other devices…existing and in some cases operating in laboratoriesthroughout Japan…related to Atomic Energy research….Certain Japanese scientists have stated quite openly that they arecurrently engaged in Atomic Energy research. They are using equipment…not visited by my party nor to my knowledge by anyother agency.” O’Hearn finally concluded, “My mission uncovered a hidden supply of uranium…but I believe the material…isUranium Oxide, from which Uranium can be readily separated.”

Despite all his research, Wilcox is still unable to prove beyond a doubt that the Japanese did use Konan as a base for makingheavy water and actually test-fired an atomic bomb just after the war’s end in the Sea of Japan. Some of the material that couldshed light on this subject is still classified or, sadly, has been destroyed. If grisly experiments, performed by Japanese doctorson Allied POWs in Manchuria more than half a century ago, could be hidden from the public with the knowledge andassistance of the United States, then why not atomic bomb development?

With all the hoopla surrounding American use of the atomic bomb to end the war against Japan, maybe the question should beturned around to ask if the Japanese would have used an atomic bomb against the United States if they had possessed it?Wilcox, in the epilogue to Japan’s Secret War, states quite emphatically: “The Japanese, in fact, tried to make the bomb [and] got farther than the Germans did. And certainly, as all the documents about their coming Defense of the Homeland indicate, theJapanese would have used the bomb in their defense had they been able.”

Wilcox adds that the Japanese “are not solely the victims of the bomb, as they have been portrayed for so long. They werewilling participants in its use, and only losers in the race to perfect it.”

Even a decade after I first read it, Japan’s Secret War is still spellbinding. It is intriguing and disturbing, and Robert Wilcoxdeserves high praise for his meticulous research. He has traveled the world to interview many of the participants and scouredarchives to unravel a mystery that is as relevant today as it was more than 50 years ago–nuclear proliferation.
Al Hemingway

6 Responses to Book Review: Japan’s Secret War: Japan’s Race Against Time to Build Its Own Atomic Bomb (Robert K. Wilcox): WWII

  1. […] also Japan was trying to make its own A bomb to use against us. just as Hitler was link link […]

  2. Bill Streifer says:

    Japan’s Secret War was just the tip of a giant iceberg. Bill Streifer and Irek Sabitov’s upcoming book, The Flight of the Hog Wild, will step the reader a bit further toward the proof “beyond a doubt” that everyone seeks. Visit the following website for a sneak peek …

    • Kim Jung gang says:

      It is the tip of a head of iceberg lettuce wilting in the mind of people that are big on theories while not big on proof, that have no back ground in historical research processes, that do not understand physics, that take things out of context, that allow no discussion that does not agree with their thesis that cannot answer the questions….

  3. Simon Gunson says:

    Kim Jung Gang why not be specific what your complaint is? What physics do you dispute?

    I know Bill Streifer quite well and have corresponded with Robert Wilcox over the years. Unlike you, both men made considerable efforts to interview living witnesses from Konan in 1945. Neither professes to be nuclear physicists. They simply cite facts which you dislike and can’t adjust to. If you have an objection, state it objectively and give them an opportunity to respond.

    Like Nazi Germany which developed advanced particle accelerators (advanced cyclotrons to keep it simple) as artificial neutron sources Japan shared Germany’s research ideas. As early as 1943 Germany was using Cyclotrons to transmute Thorium 232 via Protactinium into Uranium 232.

    Here’s the proof… When the Soviets invaded Korea in 1945 and captured Konan they found Monazite being stockpiled and refined to Thorium. There was a heavily guarded facility at Konan which remained in use and heavily guarded by the Soviets. If you bother to read research material on Soviet use of Monazite from Korea you will discover they too were processing Monazite to obtain Uranium 233. You should simply Google: NORTH KOREA’S SECRET WEAPON, by Izzy Goyimfeld. He said Quote:

    “The Japanese military built thorium extraction facilities in Korea and planned to build a thorium stockpile as part of Japanese military’s failed endeavor to build an atomic bomb to counter the nuclear threat posed by Manhattan Project in the United States…The monazite mined in North Korea would be processed in refinement facilities before being shipped to the Soviet Union. The Soviets extracted Thorium-232 from the processed monazite and placed it within nuclear reactors. When Thorium-232 is bombarded by neutrons within a nuclear reactor, it transmutates into fissionable weapons grade material known as Uranium-233. ”

    Izzy Goyimfeld incorrectly assumed the only way to obtain 233U was with a nuclear reactor, but he was unaware that particle accelerators are a superior method to obtain fissile material. The superiority of the Axis method in WW2 was they avoided the unwanted production of Uranium 232.

    • Dwight R. Rider says:

      What are your sources? Nichitsu did not build a thorium processing center at Hamhung until 1942. This plant never made any thorium metal. It only produced thorium for use in lantern mantles. There was never a thorium stockpile at Hamhung. What heavily guarded facility might you be talking about? POW reports from the area mention no facility within the area that was so heavily guarded that they could not either enter as they wished, or without escort…. Lastly the Soviets never really processed Monazite for Thorium after the found out that it was more-or-less useless. There are tons of Monazite in Russia that was shipped there from 1945 to about 1962. It is currently an environmental threat that has yet to be dealt with.

  4. Bill Streifer says:

    Silence is golden…………

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