Asked • 06/21/19

Where did the skulls of dead Japanese soldiers end up?

I have read that there was a disturbingly common practice of American soldiers in the Pacific theater of WWII to take the skulls of dead Japanese soldiers as trophies to take home, give to girlfriends, etc. A Wikipedia article on this can be found [here.]( My question is: In the years after the war, where did all these skulls end up? I imagine that as the wartime fervor subsided and Americans realized how the Japanese had been dehumanized, there would be a growing revulsion to keeping these human remains in their possession. What did people to with the skulls they had: bury them? throw them away? Was it talked about, or was it a dirty little secret that people disposed of quietly?

Timothy A.

Well "common" is a very tricky word to use to describe this practice, which despite some well documented incidents, was very much not widespread. The vast majority of U.S. personnel, easily over 90%, had nothing to do with mutilations and atrocities. People who have to actually fight in hand-to-hand combat quickly get a belly full of blood and the ever present smell of death. The smell gets into everything, and you remember it forever. Just ask any cop. For the average soldier or Marine serving in the infantry, the absolute last thing they would want is to take yet another piece of death home. What gets lost in these stories is that a high percentage of skull smuggling wasn't from the actual U.S. ground combatants who killed them, but from rear-area administrative people (usually Navy) who came ashore weeks or months later from other services. They saw the skulls laying around and thought it was quite a novelty and a chance to polish their own macho war credentials, not having been in the close-up fight themselves. So it did happen. These occurrences were almost exclusively confined to the Pacific area of operations and it was done out of combined feelings of fear, revenge and hopeful intimidation towards the remaining Japanese left alive and still fighting. You have to remember that prior to the Guadalcanal landings in August of 1942, we had no U.S. troops on the attack anywhere against the Japanese and no reliable U.S. survivor accounts of the Japanese fighting ability on the ground. Because of this, much myth-making regarding the Japanese fighting ability abounded, and a lot of it was ill-informed racist in nature. In these 9 critical months after Pearl Harbor, much propaganda and half truths were circulated among U.S. infantry ground forces personnel as part of their training. Japanese soldiers were portrayed as supermen jungle fighters who could march further and harder and do so on less food and water. US Army and Marine personnel were constantly reminded that the Japanese they were going to meet were all battle-hardened experienced soldiers, and that they themselves were all rookie farm and city boys, and so they were trained and told to be ruthless and hard. After the first few pitched land battles took place on Guadalcanal (usually ending with terrifying nighttime Banzai charges) the Americans saw that the Japanese were very much beatable. There was a lot of relief in the air, and there were Japanese bodies everywhere as proof that they weren't invincible and so there was an urge to show this to the world a bit. Now souvenir hunting among fallen enemy bodies is a practice that goes back to the dawn of war. It doesn't take a lot to escalate from rifling your dead enemy's pockets for food, maps, lighters and cigarettes, to taking bits of body parts unfortunately. And then it can get REALLY crazy. Until you've been there, it can't be logically explained to folks who have never been in and survived close-quarters combat. On a psychological level of course, what is happening is that the the more you can dehumanize your enemy and confront your worst fear, the easier it is to kill them. And..... it works. Most skulls that were taken in the battle area, were used for local intimidation or bravado purposes while the shooting was going on, and the vast majority of skulls never actually left the battle area. There is a host of very practical problems involved in getting a skull back to the U.S. You have to sever the head completely, knowing that this is against US military regulations throughout this process and you can be caught. You then you have to find a means of de-fleshing the skull in manner that doesn't make you gag or drive everyone in your unit away from the smell. This can take hours or days. Then you have to transport it back from the jungle battlefield to your ship using only your green canvas seabag or backpack, which has only enough room for your clothes and immediate needs. Now before you would stick a large bulbous fragile skull in your seabag to take home, you would much rather use the space in your bag for other high value souvenirs instead, like captured battle flags, pistols, knives and the highest prized souvenir of all, a Japanese sword. Once your return US Navy ship safely transports you back to your rear area island, there is typically a line-up upon disembarking from the ship where everyone dumps all their bags open for inspection on the ground by officers. This has been standard practice since the Civil War for all troops returning from battle areas. The main purpose is to collect any souvenir grenades, explosives, guns and live ammo - and also any human bones. Most skulls would be caught here and disposed of. Military personnel are endlessly inventive though, and non-infantry pilots and ship driving type folks had their own means of self-contained smuggling with less scrutiny and so some skulls of course did get through. To get to your core question, what happened to the ones that did? Yes to all of the above for your suggested answers. The Greatest Generation won't talk and give us a good read on this subject. They were much smarter than us. They always kept stuff tight-lipped and took it to their grave and never felt the need to "share" like current generations have been conditioned to. Also, remember once you get the skull home, you still have a host of problems. How many wives would tolerate a skull in their home obtained from a bloody battlefield? How many pet dogs and curious children and grand-children would sniff out such things, no matter how well hidden? And if accidentally exposed, who wants to explain to the local cops years later it's a battlefield trophy and that you're not the local serial killer? Ultimately, we will never have reliable data on what happened to the skulls brought back. Being a veteran myself and having known hundreds of other combat veterans across 4 wars, my gut feel opinion is that such bizarre war trophies would wear out their welcome within 5 years of return, and additional maturity and the civilizing influence of time and perspective take their toll. My personal opinion is that most were probably quietly disposed of, probably on an anniversary date of some significance, and it would be done in a surprisingly respectful manner. There would be alcohol involved.


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