Sakura, or Japanese cherry blossom, is Japan’s unofficial national flower. With the lovely shades of pink and white, these blossoms create beautiful scenery. However, the Japanese Military’s Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night during World War II was far from being lovely. That was because it was a codename for their plan to attack civilians in the United States by delivering weaponized bubonic plague.

The Buds of the Plan

Shiro Ishii. (Masao Takezawa, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The plan was inspired by the Director of Unit 731, Surgeon General Shiro Ishii of the biological warfare unit of the Imperial Japanese Army located in Harbin, Manchukuo. There, they conducted research on the use of chemical and biological warfare agents by experimenting with the Allied prisoners of war, some of which were said to be survivors of the Bataan Death March. They tested them with bubonic plague, anthrax, smallpox, botulism, and cholera. They also dropped bombs of biological agents on Chinese military and civilian targets to further confirm their effectiveness. Unconfirmed reports suggested that around 500,000 Chinese were killed by Japanese biological warfare.

Early on, the Japanese forces wanted to use biological weapons against the US and Filipino forces defending the Bataan Peninsula by dropping bombs filled with plague-carrying fleas. However, the US troops surrendered even before the plan commenced.

Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night

In 1945, when situations were getting desperate for Japan, Ishii devised the plan that they codenamed Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night, although it was also known as Operation PX. The idea was to use five new I-400-class submarines, each with three Aichi M6A Seiran float-planes, to sail the Pacific ocean and launch the aircraft with either plague of flea-filled bombs that would crash into the cities of the West Coast, with San Diego being the first target, followed by Los Angeles and San Francisco. The submarine crews would also infect themselves and run to the shore in a one-way suicide mission. Chief of the Army General Staff Yoshijiro Umezu rejected the idea, mainly because they did not have five I-400 submarines. Apart from that, he said, “If bacteriological warfare is conducted, it will grow from the dimension of war between Japan and America to an endless battle of humanity against bacteria. Japan will earn the derision of the world.”