Life Magazine’s Picture of the Week, May 22, 1944: “Arizona war worker writes her Navy boyfriend a thank-you-note for the Jap skull he sent her”. LIFE/Wikimedia Commons.
5. U.S. soldiers fighting in the Pacific mutilated the bodies of deceased Japanese and collected their skulls as trophies
Whilst the collection of war trophies has historically been an aspect of military service, the mutilation of the remains of fallen enemy soldiers during World War II remains an unpunished yet unquestionable war crime committed by Allied forces in the Pacific. Despite the activity sickening many senior American officials, including President Roosevelt personally demanding the repatriation and proper burial of a letter-opener made from a Japanese soldier’s arm gifted to him by U.S. Representative Francis Walter, and the formal proscription of the behavior from 1942 onwards by the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, American servicemen continued the collection of such trophies throughout the conflict; efforts continue to this day to properly return and intern the remains of Japanese war dead.
Not isolated to a single preferred body part, American servicemen are recorded as mutilating Japanese corpses for trophies including skulls, teeth, ears, noses, and arms. Historian James Weingartner concluded “it is clear that the practice was not uncommon”, an assessment echoed by Niall Ferguson who determined that “boiling the flesh off enemy skulls to make souvenirs was not an uncommon practice” among American GIs. So widespread was this behavior that nearly 60 percent of Japanese soldiers killed on the Mariana Islands were missing their skulls, indicating the “practice had started as soon as the first living or dead Japanese bodies were encountered”. In fact, it has been argued the appalling criminal behavior was mainstream and even celebrated within wartime American society, with LIFE magazine publishing in May 1944 a romantic picture of a young woman in Arizona with a Japanese “trophy skull” her boyfriend had sent her.
Expanding beyond just U.S. troops, although it should be noted who were responsible for the preponderance of said war crimes, during the Burma Campaign British soldiers were recorded as removing the teeth and collecting the skulls of Japanese fallen.
Canadian soldiers with a captured Hitler Youth flag at Friesoythe, 16 April 1945. Wikimedia Commons.
4. Canadian soldiers razed the German city of Friesoythe after the death of their commander in battle
In the closing days of the Second World War, on April 14, 1945, the Canadian Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders engaged German paratroopers in battle at the town of Friesoythe in northwestern Germany. Although ultimately victorious, during the fighting a small group of German soldiers flanked the Canadian positions and attacked the tactical headquarters of Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Wigle, a popular battalion commander of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders; after Wigle was killed in action by this maneuver, an incorrect rumor begun circulating among the surviving Allied soldiers that he was murdered by a German sniper in civilian clothing in violation of the rules of lawful engagement.
Incensed by the death of a popular officer and friend in such a presumed fashion, Major General Christopher Vokes reported to his superiors that Wigle was “sniped in the back” and that “I’m going to raze that goddam town”. Although the Allied soldiers had already begun burning Friesoythe in a spontaneous act of revenge, Vokes issued a formal order to “level the f*****g place” but “get the people the hell out of their houses first”. Using a combination of flamethrowers, Molotov cocktails, and grenades, over the next eight hours the city previously home to 4,000 German civilians was systemically destroyed; celebrated by the Allied soldiers, the war diary of the 4th Canadian Armoured Brigade proudly recorded that “when darkness fell Friesoythe was a reasonable facsimile of Dante’s Inferno”. It is estimated between 85-90 percent of the city was destroyed during the misguided reprisal, with a Canadian nurse writing a few days later that the only building left standing was a convent on the edge of the town.
A chamber containing the remains of victims from the KoÄevski Rog Massacre. Reuters.
3. Yugoslav Partisans were responsible for the executions of tens of thousands in the aftermath of the World War II
As previously mentioned, as part of the war settlement millions of persons were forcibly “repatriated” back to their former homelands; among these were thousands of individuals who had collaborated during the Nazi occupation and fled the advance of the Red Army. Upon their return, these people, encompassing but not limited to the Slovene Home Guard, non-Slavic collaborators, and Axis soldiers, along with their families, were systemically executed without formal charge or trial by Yugoslav Partisans. In total it is believed at least 70,000-80,000 people were killed in Yugoslavia following the Bleiburg repatriations, although this number remains difficult to confirm as discussion of the massacres remained strictly forbidden until after the fall of the Soviet Union and the locations of mass graves are still being identified.
One such massacre was the KoÄevski Rog massacre, occurring in late May 1945. In the wake of the armistice, the British repatriated more than 10,000 Slovene collaborators who had sought to retreat alongside the Germans. Under the oversight of Yugoslav leader Josef Tito, a close ally of British Intelligence during the war, an estimated 30,000-55,000 individuals, mostly former POWs, were summarily executed and buried in mass underground chambers sealed with explosives.
Similarly, the Barbara Pit massacre of May and June 1945 saw the mass executions of former collaborators, soldiers, and civilians by the 3rd Brigade of the Slovenian KNOJ (People’s Defense Corps of Yugoslavia) following the repatriations of supposedly displaced persons. Accounts of the massacre depict groups of 5-6 prisoners tied together with wire being forced to kneel above a mine shaft and systemically shot in the head; other accounts describe groups of 20-30 prisoners thrown in alive, with hand grenades dropped into the shaft after them. The entrances were enclosed in 400 cubic meters of concrete, preventing those still alive from escaping their eventual tombs. As of October 2017, 1,416 victims have been exhumed and reburied, although the total number is believed to be much higher.
A group of 307 Japanese POWs who surrendered during the last 24 hours of the Battle of Okinawa, June 1945. Wikimedia Commons.
2. Allied soldiers often refused to accept the surrender of Japanese troops, instead of engaging in the widespread and unlawful executions of POWs
Whilst the atrocities committed by the Japanese against POWs during the Second World War is common knowledge, the conduct of Allied soldiers towards Japanese prisoners is less so. Due to the horrific nature of the combat which occurred in the Pacific theater, front-line Allied troops grew to intensely hate their Japanese adversaries, which, in conjunction with propaganda exploiting the belief that Allied soldiers got little mercy from the Japanese, resulted in the mass preference to ignore their government’s stated commitments to uphold the Geneva Convention and to execute rather than accept the surrender of Japanese troops; it has also been suggested this was a strategic choice among U.S. senior officers, who “opposed the taking of prisoners on the grounds that it needlessly exposed American troops to risks” from Japanese soldiers feigning surrender to launch suicide attacks.
As a result of this attitude, by late 1944 the ratio of Japanese prisoners to dead reached 1:100 and despite efforts, including an extensive educational program and offers of ice cream by the U.S. military to encourage adherence to international law, at the Battle of Okinawa in April-June 1945 it remained a repeatedly observed practice to refuse quarter. By the end of the war the Japanese Government’s POW Information Bureau estimated just 42,543 Japanese had successfully surrendered to the Allies, contrasted with military deaths amounting to 2.1-2.3 million; to place this figure in context, 93,941 Americans were POWs just under German control in Europe during World War II.
Not isolated to American soldiers, historian Mark Johnson has detailed how “the killing of unarmed Japanese was common” at the hands of Australians fighting in the Pacific. In spite of attempts by Australian military command to take prisoners, “it often proved difficult to prevent [the soldiers] from killing captured Japanese before they could be interrogated” and the 1943 diary of Eddie Stanton, stationed at the time at Goodenough Island, near Papua New Guinea, reported that “Japanese are still being shot all over the place…Nippo soldiers are just so much machine-gun practice”. Major General Paul Cullen subsequently detailed how the killing of Japanese prisoners during the Kokoda Track Campaign was not uncommon, accounting that at the battle of Gorari “the leading platoon captured five or seven Japanese and moved on to the next battle. The next platoon came along and bayoneted these Japanese.”
1. The indiscriminate American bombing campaign against mainland Japan resulted in catastrophic civilian casualties and suffering
Whilst Allied air raids on the Japanese home islands were untenable for the majority of the Second World War and limited to small-scale missions such as the Doolittle Raid of April 1942, by mid-1944, with the deployment of the B-29 Superfortress, the strategic bombing campaign begun in earnest; the campaign expanded considerably from February 1945, after the Mariana Islands became available as a launch base for said bombing operations. Designed to soften up mainland Japan for the planned ground invasion, scheduled to begin October 1945, between January 1944 and August 1945 the U.S. dropped 157,000 tons of bombs on Japanese cities.
Whilst responsible for the successful annihilation of Japanese industrial output, crippling an already diminished armament production, the bombing campaign was also responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. An estimated 300,000-900,000 civilians were killed in U.S. bombing raids on Japanese mainland cities, a figure including the nuclear bombings which this author believes should be regarded as a separate issue to the wider bombing campaign. Moreover, the use of incendiaries, such as napalm, resulted in catastrophic and lasting damage to the targeted cities, with approximately 40 percent of the urban areas of the 66 cities subjected to Allied bombing destroyed and resulting in 15 million Japanese homeless from a population of 70 million.
Worthy of particular mention as a singular atrocity, the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9, 1945, far surpasses the more infamous bombing of Dresden a month prior. Dropping napalm combined with petroleum jelly, the raid resulted in the destruction of more than 40 square kilometers of the capital city and the deaths of more than 100,000 civilians; some of these victims were literally melted by the resultant inferno, with General LeMay later remarking that had the Allies lost the war he would have been charged with war crimes for authorizing the operation.