20 Forgotten Atrocities Committed by the Allies During World War II

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.