Allied Headhunters — Research Explains Origins of Wartime Trophy Taking

A sailor an American PT boat with the skull of a Japanese soldier.

In the spring of 1944, Life magazine ran a picture that touched off a firestorm of controversy. It wasn’t an image of some grizzly wartime atrocity, nor was it a shot exploiting the misery of a soldier or marine. It was a photograph of a young woman  gazing upon an autographed souvenir sent to her from her sweetheart serving in the Pacific. So, what was the controversy? The keepsake itself was what caused the stir — it was the skull of a Japanese soldier.

The civilian public was shocked to learn that GIs, sailors and marines fighting the Japanese were collecting and trading the ears, teeth and heads of enemy dead. So strong was the outrage, that the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Chester Nimitz, issued orders banning the practice. But it wasn’t just Americans who were doing it; Australian and British troops engaged in the gruesome activity as well.

Yet despite the numerous cases of this sort of trophy taking in the war against Japan, there is little if any evidence that such practices were ever popular among Allied troops in Europe or North Africa. According to a study published last month by the U.K.’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), wartime propaganda might explain this discrepancy. While the Germans, Italians and Japanese were all vilified in the Allied media, the messages focusing on the European enemies stressed political or ideological differences. On the other hand, propaganda about the Japanese, portrayed the enemy as being something less than human, even animalistic. According to Simon Harrison, lead researcher on the study, a fair portion of wartime posters and other media depict Japanese soldiers as vermin or ape-like and called for them to be hunted down and exterminated like beasts or pests.

“The roots of this behaviour lie in a social history of racism,” says Harrison in a press release. “Although this misconduct is very rare, it has persisted in predictable patterns since the European Enlightenment. This was the period when the first [notions] of race began to appear, classifying some human populations as closer to animals than others.”

There are earlier examples throughout history of this same phenomenon. For example, trophy taking was a common practice among native North American tribal warriors and the colonists who fought them. In the 1700s, the Massachusetts Bay colony offered a bounty of $60 for every native scalp taken. During the French Indian War, native warriors sought rewards from agents in Quebec for every English colonist scalp taken.

During World War Two, Allied soldiers would hang onto their morbid trophies, trade them among themselves for other sought after goods, or send them home to their families. Some would fashion enemy body parts, such as bones, into other items like knife handles for example. President Roosevelt himself was even given a letter opener made from the arm bone of an enemy solider. The White House quickly realized the optics of such a gift and returned it to the donor.

It wasn’t just Americans who took part in the practice. Australian and British special forces units organized tribesmen of Borneo into a 1000-strong head hunting army during the war in hopes that the practice would terrorize the enemy. However, much like the widely-reported atrocities committed against Allied prisoners at the hands of Japanese troops outraged Americans, these stories only served to provide the Emperor’s soldiers with a grim resolve. Propagandists in Japan eagerly reported these stories to encourage those at home and on the front to keep up the fight against a savage and inhuman western enemy.

A typical example of wartime propaganda that cast the Japanese as animals.

According to Harrison’s study, the veneration of such trophies didn’t last very long after the peace. In the weeks and months after the war, military commanders occupying Japan quickly re-cast the Japanese people as members of an ancient and honourable civilization. Accordingly,  many owners of skulls and other trophies were quick to part with their disturbing keepsakes. In some cases, the researchers note, then when relations improved between the U.S. and Japan, many servicemen attempted to make contact with the families of the deceased soldiers in hopes of returning the remains to them.

To read the full article about the research, click here.


7 comments for “Allied Headhunters — Research Explains Origins of Wartime Trophy Taking

  1. 13 June, 2012 at 11:27 am

    I am well aware of these events – it occurred within any army. It would be wrong for us decades later to judge these young men on their actions.

    Only those men – and only those men – will fully understand what it was like out there on the battlefield. As my good friend and WWII combat veteran said before passing is, “War is no good.”

    • MHN
      13 June, 2012 at 11:38 am

      True enough. Thanks for your thoughts!

    • 15 August, 2015 at 6:38 pm

      What they did was wrong. Ripping out people’s gold teeth was unacceptable back then too.

  2. MHN
    13 June, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    I was debating whether I should run this story or not. I found it a little disturbing.

    • 14 June, 2012 at 12:16 am

      If feel that if you found it NOT disturbing, you should be concerned…notwithstanding today’s “PC” world.

      I did not get drafted for Viet Nam but I am surrounded by those who did – and came back suffering. One friend told me of a Marine who took the sandals off his kills (if the dead enemy had them on, I suppose) for “count”. One day, that Marine went into the jungle and didn’t return.

      Our family (both here and in Hiroshima) never found out how or when my dad’s youngest brother was killed by the Allies on Leyte as part of the Japanese Army. No, I am not inferring that skull is my uncle at all… But you are quite sane in finding these “souvenirs” to be disturbing. 🙂 But it is a fact of history.

      Thank you once again.

  3. 14 June, 2012 at 10:47 am

    Well done. Academics in Canada are only starting to understand war-trophies (and only focused on WWI). There primary attention seems to focus around governmental policies on taking war-trophies and the display of such bounty. Much of this research has much to be desired. I had the opportunity to interview Canadian WWII vets from various campaigns.

    Two stories that stick out in my memory is by a FOO and radio operator. They remember that after almost every battle in Normandy, support infantry stationed in the rear would go to the front lines to capture anything of value such as: helmets, lapels, medals, wedding rings. Anyways, these two soldiers, one of which, went on one of these trophy hunting parties, almost got shot. He went into a bunker, where some of the assaulting infantry were, and was greeted with hostility for trying to take some German mementos. He said he was never so scared then being in a room with a bunch of dead Germans, and some pissed off soldiers. Shows that were some rules even in trophy hunting in WWII

  4. MHN
    14 June, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    Hi Matt:

    Thanks for the feedback. Glad you liked the post. Speaking of souvenirs, I have a crate of old German artifacts from ww2 brought home by a grandparent who served in Holland. Helmet, a bayonet, maps and a flag. It must have been a booming industry back then — scavenging trophies.

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