How Killer Rice Crippled Tokyo and the Japanese Navy
One stubborn doctor pioneered a cure.
IN 1877, JAPAN’S MEIJI EMPEROR watched his aunt, the princess Kazu, die of a common malady: kakke. If her condition was typical, her legs would have swollen, and her speech slowed. Numbness and paralysis might have come next, along with twitching and vomiting. Death often resulted from heart failure.
The emperor had suffered from this same ailment, on-and-off, his whole life. In response, he poured money into research on the illness. It was a matter of survival: for the emperor, his family, and Japan’s ruling class. While most diseases ravage the poor and vulnerable, kakke afflicted the wealthy and powerful, especially city dwellers. This curious fact gave kakke its other name: Edo wazurai, the affliction of Edo (Edo being the old name for Tokyo). But for centuries, the culprit of kakke went unnoticed: fine, polished, white rice.The Meiji emperor and his family. TRIALSANDERRORS/CC BY 2.0
Gleaming white rice was a status symbol—it was expensive and laborious to husk, hull, polish, and wash. In Japan, the poor ate brown rice, or other carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes or barley. The rich ate polished white rice, often to the exclusion of other foods.
By 1877, Japan’s beriberi problem was getting really serious. When the princess Kazu died of kakke at 31, it was only a decade after her former husband, Japan’s shogun, had died, almost certainly from the mysterious disease. Machine-milling made polished rice available to the masses, and as the government invested in an army and navy, it fed soldiers with white rice. (White rice, as it happened, was less bulky and lasted longer than brown rice, which could go rancid in warm weather.) Inevitably, soldiers and sailors got beriberi.
No longer was this just a problem for the upper class, or even Japan. In his article British India and the “Beriberi Problem,” 1798–1942, David Arnold writes that by the time the emperor was funding research, beriberi was ravaging South and East Asia, especially “soldiers, sailors, plantation labourers, prisoners, and asylum inmates.”
Into this mess stepped a precocious doctor: Takaki Kanehiro. Almost immediately after joining the navy in 1872, he noticed the high numbers of sailors suffering from beriberi. But it wasn’t until he returned from medical school in London and took up the role of director of the Tokyo Naval Hospital that he could do anything about it. After surveying suffering sailors, he found that “the rate [of disease] was highest among prisoners, lower among sailors and petty officers, and lowest among officers.”A crude machine for polishing rice. PROJECT GUTENBERG/PUBLIC DOMAIN
Since they differed mainly by diet, Takaki believed a lack of protein among lower-status sailors caused the disease. (This contradicted the most common theory at the time: that beriberi was an infectious disease caused by bacteria.) Takaki even wrangled a meeting with the emperor to discuss his theory. “If the cause of this condition is discovered by someone outside of Japan, it would be dishonorable,” he told the emperor. Change couldn’t come soon enough. In 1883, 120 Japanese sailors out of 1,000 had the disease.
Takaki also noticed that Western navies didn’t suffer from beriberi. But instituting a Western-style diet was expensive, and sailors were resistant to eating bread. An unfortunate incident, though, allowed Takaki to make his point emphatically. In late 1883, a training ship full of cadets returned from a journey to New Zealand, South America, and Hawaii. Out of the 370 cadets and crewmen, 169 had gotten beriberi, and 25 had died.
Takaki proposed an experiment. Another training ship, the Tsukuba, would set out on the exact same route. Takaki leveraged every connection he had to arrange for the Tsukuba to carry bread and meat instead of just white rice. So while the Tsukuba made its way around the world, the doctor spent sleepless nights fretting about the result: If crew members died from beriberi, he would look like a fool. Later, he told a student that he would have killed himself if his experiment failed.A man with legs affected by beriberi stands with a walking stick. WELLCOME COLLECTION/CC BY 4.0
Instead, the Tsukuba returned to Japan in triumph. Only 14 crew members had gotten beriberi, and those men had not eaten the ordered diet. Takaki wasn’t exactly right: He believed the issue was protein rather than thiamine. But since meat was expensive, Takaki proposed giving sailors protein-filled barley, which is actually rich in thiamine. In the face of this evidence, the navy began mixing rations with barley. Within a few years, beriberi was almost totally eradicated in the navy.
But only in the navy. Takaki became navy surgeon general in 1885, yet other doctors attacked his theories and questioned his results. The sad result was that while the navy ate barley, the army ate only rice. According to Bay, the use of barley smacked of discredited traditional Japanese medicine to many Western-trained doctors. Plus, recruits were enticed into the army by promises of as much white rice as they could eat.A Japanese battlefield hospital during the Russo-Japanese war. WELLCOME COLLECTION/CC BY 4.0
The result was deadly. During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, beriberi killed 27,000 soldiers, compared to 47,000 men killed by actual war wounds. Finally, barley became a vital battlefield ration. The source of a disease that had ravaged Japan’s leadership and kneecapped the military was identified. It was the country’s staple crop, everyday meal, and cultural touchstone: simple white rice.
Vitamins had yet to be discovered, and the debate over the true cause of beriberi lingered for decades. But few could deny that Takaki had uncovered white rice’s deadly secret. Takaki, for his efforts, was made a member of the nobility in 1905. Charmingly, he was given the nickname “the Barley Baron.”
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New post on F-4 Phantom II
by George E. Nolly
July 11, 1972
I turned off my Big Ben alarm clock at 0230, the usual wake-up time for our Linebacker mission. When the scheduling board simply indicated “Special”, we knew it would be a 0400 mass briefing at Wing Headquarters for a bombing mission over North Vietnam. We wouldn’t know our target until the mission briefing. The schedule was normally posted at the end of each day’s flying, and the previous day I had seen my name listed for the number four position in Jazz Flight for today’s Special. My Weapon Systems Officer would be Bill Woodworth.
F-4 pilots quickly become creatures of habit mixed with ritual, and I walked the short distance to the Ubon Officer’s Club to have my standard breakfast: cheese omelet, toast with butter, and coffee. I had successfully flown thirty-one Counters – missions over North Vietnam – and I wasn’t about to change anything without a pretty compelling reason. A few weeks earlier, the Thai waitress had misunderstood me when I had ordered, and brought me a plain Omelet. I politely ate it, and the mission on that day was the closest I had come – up until then – to getting shot down.
After breakfast, I walked to the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing Headquarters building, and performed my usual routine of stopping by the Intel desk and checking the Shoot-down Board. The Shoot-down Board was a large Plexiglas-covered board that listed the most recent friendly aircraft losses, written in grease pencil. We could tell, at a glance, if any aircraft had been shot down the previous night, the call sign, aircraft type, and survivor status. There were no friendly aircraft losses over North Vietnam to enemy action in the previous day.
That was not surprising. The Special for the previous day had been canceled when the strike leader, my Squadron Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Brad Sharp, crashed on takeoff when his left tire exploded at 160 knots. He aborted, taking the departure end barrier, and his aircraft caught fire when pieces of the shredded tire pierced his left wing fuel tank. Brad’s emergency egress was delayed when he got hung up by his leg restraint lines. As he sat in his seat, seeing the canopy melting around him, his WSO, Mike Pomphrey, ran back to the burning aircraft and pulled him out, saving his life. As Mike dragged him to a drainage ditch 100 yards away to hunker down, the ejection seats, missiles and, eventually, bombs cooked off. Ubon’s only runway was out of commission, and the entire Linebacker mission, for all bases, was canceled. Overnight, the runway at Ubon was repaired, and our mission was on for this day.
The mission briefing was in a large auditorium. The Wing Commander led the Mission Briefing, followed by an Intel Briefing and Weather Briefing. Slides were projected onto the screen to show the targets on a map of North Vietnam, then reconnaissance photos of the individual targets for the strike flights. Jazz Flight’s target was POL (Petroleum, Oil, Lubricants) storage near Kep Airfield, north of Hanoi. During the briefing, we all received our mission line-up cards, showing our Estimated Times Enroute (ETE), fuel computations, strike frequencies, and flight de-confliction information.
A mass strike over Route Package Six, the area of North Vietnam covering Hanoi, Haiphong and points north, required a massive orchestration effort. The run-in directions, Time Over Target (TOT), and egress plan for each of the sixteen four-ship strike flights, plus all of the same information for support flights, such as MiG-Cap, were designated to exacting specifications.
After the mass briefing, we assembled in our respective squadrons for our individual flight briefings. When I walked into the 25th Tactical Fighter Squadron, my first order of business was to check the Flight Crew Information File Book. The FCIF was a book that had last-minute changes to procedures and other instructions for aircrews. After reading the latest entries in the book, each crewmember would initial his FCIF card and turn the card over in the vertical card file so that the green side of the card was facing out, instead of the red side. That way, the Ops Officer could instantly see if all the crews were flying with the most current information.
The briefing for Jazz Flight lasted about 45 minutes. Our Flight Lead briefed engine start and check-in times, flight join-up, frequencies, tactics, and our munitions load. Today we would each carry two 2,000-pound Mark-84L laser-guided bombs. After the briefing we waited our turns for the most important part of the preflight.
The building that housed our squadron had not been designed for a mass launch of 32 crewmembers all needing to use the latrine at the same time. It was a three-holer, and everyone always badly needed to use the facility before a mission up north. It was a major bottle-neck to our individual plans.
After that essential stop we went by the Life Support section to leave our personal items, such as wedding rings, wallets and anything else we wouldn’t need for the flight, in our lockers. The only thing I would carry in my pocket was my ID Card and my Geneva Convention Card. And, of course, I had my dog tags around my neck. Then we would pick up our G-suits, helmets, survival vests and parachute harnesses and board the “bread truck” for transportation to the flight line, with a quick stop at the armory to retrieve our .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolvers. Our Thai driver always had a cooler stocked with plastic flasks of cold water, and we would grab several and put them in leg pockets of our G-suits. I also grabbed several piddle packs.
The F-4 did not have a relief tube, so we carried piddle packs. The piddle pack was a small plastic bag with a 2 inch by 6 inch sponge inside and a spout at one end. When you used this portable urinal, the entire assembly would expand to about the size of a football. This flight was scheduled to be a bit longer than the standard mission, so I grabbed three piddle packs.
There were two ways to get to Pack Six from Ubon: right turns and left turns. With right turns, the missions are about 45 minutes shorter. Head north over Laos, refuel on Green Anchor, make a right turn at Thud Ridge and proceed to the target. Left turns takes us to the east coast of Vietnam, and proceed north “feet wet”, then make a left turns toward Vinh to strike our targets. Today we would make left turns.
We launched off at dawn and headed into the rising sun. Our route of flight took us east across Laos to DaNang, then north to the Gulf of Tonkin, then northwest to our target in the area of Kep. Our refueling would be along Purple Anchor as we headed north for pre-strike and south for post-strike.
One of my rituals during every refueling, in between hook-ups, was to break out one of the water flasks, finish off an entire pack of Tums, and fill one of the piddle packs. Using the piddle pack in the seat of the Phantom was easier said than done. It required a bit of maneuvering.
I handed the jet over to Bill, my WSO, as I loosened my lap belt, loosened the leg straps on my parachute harness, and unzipped my flight suit from the bottom. Then I did my best to fill the piddle pack without any spillage. Our route was already taking us feet wet, and I wasn’t looking forward to becoming feet wet in any other respect.
Bill flew smoothly, and I finished my business with no problem, and took control of the airplane again for our refueling top-offs. We conducted our aerial ballet in total radio silence as our four airplanes cycled on and off the refueling boom, flying at almost 400 knots, as we approached the refueling drop-off point.
When we finished refueling, we switched to strike frequency and headed north-northwest to the target area. Typical for a Linebacker mission, strike frequency was pretty busy. There were “Bandit” calls from Disco, the Airborne Early Warning bird, an EC-121 orbiting over the Gulf of Tonkin. And SAM breaks. And, of course, the ever-present triple-A (Anti-Aircraft Artillery)that produced fields of instant-blooming dandelions at our altitude. We pressed on. In the entire history of the Air Force, and the Army Air Corps before it, no strike aircraft has ever aborted its mission due to enemy reaction, and we were not about to set a precedent.
Weather in the target area was severe clear, and Flight Lead identified the target with no problem. We closed in to “fingertip” formation, with three feet of separation between wingtips. “Jazz Flight, arm ‘em up.”
We made a left orbit to make our run-in on the designated attack heading. Then a left roll-in with 135 degrees of bank. My element lead, Jazz Three, was on Lead’s right wing, and I was on the far right position in the formation. Our roll-in and roll-out was in close fingertip position, which put me at negative G-loading during the roll-out.
During negative-G formation flying, the flight controls work differently. I was on the right wing and a little too close to Element Lead, so I needed to put the stick to the left to increase spacing. Totally unnatural. At the same time, I was hanging against my lap belt, which I had forgotten to tighten when I had finished my piddle-pack filling procedure. My head hit the canopy, as dust and other detritus from the cockpit floated up into my eyes. But I maintained my position.
We rolled out on the correct run-in heading, and reached our delivery parameters right on profile. Five hundred knots at 20,000 feet. Lead called our release. “Jazz Flight, ready, ready, pickle!”
We all pushed our Bomb Release “pickle” buttons on our stick grips at the same time, and eight 2000-pound bombs guided together to the target that was being illuminated by the laser designator in the Lead’s Pave Knife pod, guidance performed by his WSO. Immediately after release, we performed the normal 4-G pullout. And I was instantly in excruciating pain. I screamed out in pain on our “hot mike” interphone.
“Are you okay?” Bill called. “I think I’ve been shot in the balls!” I screamed.
Then, I realized what had happened. I had carelessly neglected to tighten my lap belt and parachute harness leg straps after relieving myself during the refueling. My body had shifted, and my testicles had gotten trapped between the harness and my body. With a 4-G pull, my 150-pound body was exerting 600 pounds of pressure on the family jewels.
As soon as I knew what the problem was, I unloaded the aircraft to zero Gs, to try to readjust myself. But I was still headed downhill, and Mother Hanoi was rushing up to me at 500 knots. And I was getting further out of position in my formation. So I gritted my teeth and pulled.
When we got onto the post-strike tanker, I adjusted myself, but the damage had been done. I was in agony all the way back to Ubon.
As soon as I landed, I went to see the Flight Surgeon and told him what had happened. He told me to drop my shorts and show him my injury. “Wow! I’d heard you guys had big ones, but these are even larger than I expected.” I looked down, and saw that my testicles were swollen to the size of large oranges. The Flight Surgeon put me on total bed-rest orders, telling me I could only get out of bed to use the bathroom until the swelling subsided. While I was flat on my back, waiting for the pain to subside, I couldn’t get that stupid old joke out of my head, the one where the kid goes into a malt shop and asks for a sundae with nuts, and the clerk asks, “Do you want your nuts crushed?” And the kid has a wise-crack answer. All of a sudden, it didn’t seem so funny.
After about five days I was feeling much better. The Flight Surgeon had offered to submit my injury for a Purple Heart, but I declined. For starters, my injury was not due to enemy action, it was due to my carelessness. And I wasn’t too keen on standing in front of the entire squadron at my next assignment while the Admin Officer read the citation to accompany the award of the Purple Heart. “On that day, Captain Nolly managed to crush…”. No thanks!
A few months later, the Flight Surgeon showed up at our squadron. “You’re famous, and made me a famous author,” he beamed, as he held up the current issue of Aerospace Medicine magazine. In the article, he recounted how a 27-year-old pilot had experienced a strangulation injury to his testes that came very close to requiring amputation.
Castration! “There was no use in telling you and making you worry, when there was nothing we could do for you other than bed rest, and wait to see if you healed,” he commented.
Well, it’s been 41 years now, and I’m at an age where I don’t embarrass as easily. More important, I sired three healthy children several years later, so the equipment works just fine, thank you. Lots of guys have great “There I was” stories of their time in Vietnam. I racked up 100 missions over the north, and had some exciting missions. This mission was not the most exciting, but was certainly the most memorable.
George Nolly is a retired Air Force pilot and retired from United Airlines as a B777 Captain. He currently instructs in B777s and B787s, and is the author of the Hamfist novel series, available at Amazon in Kindle and printed formats.