I wrote this script for Frontier Media’s YouTube channel The Front in 2022. I did not write the title or thumbnail. As of November 2022, the video has gained over 200k views.


It’s always nice to grab a souvenir or two to remember a holiday. Keychains, T-shirts, jewellery, gold teeth, human skulls—you know, the usual. Those last two might have surprised you, but they sure didn’t surprise US customs authorities during and after the Second World War.

Many GIs returned home with the bones of dead Japanese soldiers or posted them to their wives and girlfriends from the field. The practice was common, and some would say inevitable. After all, why shouldn’t they mutilate Japanese corpses, when the Japanese were doing the same to them? Well, that was one take, at least.

But in this video, we’re going to delve far deeper into this gruesome subject. You might say we’re going to get to the marrow of it.


The practice of removing and keeping human body parts has been going on for thousands of years. Amazonian tribes shrunk the severed heads of their enemies. Samurai cut the noses from Koreans slain in the 16th-century Japanese invasion. European colonists scalped Native Americans, and they scalped them in turn. While body parts were kept for a variety of purposes, they were often displayed as trophies—as tokens of victory and warnings to would-be foes.

This all sounds pretty primitive, to be honest, so why were the Americans doing it in the 1940s? What exactly was going on?

Well, it all started in the Pacific, where Imperial Japanese and US forces clashed most. It’s unclear exactly when it started, or exactly why, but American soldiers sought out three Japanese body parts in particular: ears, gold teeth, and skulls.

According to American historian John Dower, ears were the most common trophy taken, probably due to the ease with which an ear can be removed. After the war, US Marine Donald Fall described how Marines on Guadalcanal would stick Japanese ears to their belts to safety pins, for instance.

The taking of gold teeth is pretty self-explanatory, but we can’t go on without mentioning a quote collated in Bruce Petty’s Saipan: Oral Histories of the Pacific War. Here, one US Marine describes what one of his comrades did to a Japanese soldier who wasn’t even dead:

“[The Japanese soldier] had been wounded severely in the back and couldn’t move his arms. [His captor] put the point of his kabar on the base of a tooth and hit the handle. The knife point glanced off the tooth and sank into the victim’s mouth. The Marine cursed him and cut his cheeks open to each ear. Blood poured out of the soldier’s mouth. He made a gurgling noise and thrashed wildly. Another Marine ran up [and] put a bullet in the enemy soldier’s brain. The scavenger grumbled and continued extracting his prizes.”

Grim stuff.

As for skulls, they took a bit more preparation. The flesh had to be removed, of course, so most trophy hunters took the skulls from corpses that had already started to decay. According to historian Niall Ferguson, “Boiling the flesh off [Japanese] skulls was not an uncommon practice.” In fact, there are photos of American soldiers undertaking this procedure.

Another skull-cleaning method was detailed in a poem by American poet Winfield Townley Scott. In this, a sailor skins a Japanese soldier’s head, polishes it by towing it behind his ship in a net on the voyage home, and then gives it one final scrub with lye.

A few lines from the poem read:

peeled with a lifting knife the jaw and cheeks
ripped off the black-haired scalp
gutted the dead eyes to these thoughtful hollows


But why go to all this bloody effort?

As it turns out, US soldiers mutilated the Japanese dead for a variety of reasons.

One of the big ones was revenge.

Returning to veteran Donald Fall’s description of trophy-taking on Guadalcanal, he said, “[We] found a lot of pictures of Marines that had been cut up and mutilated.” It was after this incident that Fall started to see Marines pinning Japanese ears to their belts. To quote Fall again, “You get into a nasty frame of mind in combat. You’d find a dead Marine that the Japs had booby-trapped. And they mutilated the dead. We began to get down to their level.”

It probably didn’t help that the Japanese were depicted as vermin in US propaganda. According to James Weingartner’s Trophies of War {On-screen text: The full title is Trophies of War: U.S. Troops and the Mutilation of Japanese War Dead, 1941-1945.}, “To many Americans, the Japanese adversary was no more than an animal.” This notion was supported by a US war correspondent, who said, “I gathered that the Japanese were looked upon as subhuman and repulsive; the way some people feel about cockroaches or mice.” The aforementioned author Niall Ferguson went as far as to liken the American view of the Japanese to the German view of the Slavs in the USSR—as Untermenschen.

Some anecdotes suggest that American GIs mutilated dead Japanese because they themselves were treated as animals. In other words, the horrors of combat had reduced them to savagery. In Darwin and international relations: on the evolutionary origins of war and ethnic conflict, author Bradley Thayer refers to a quote by Guadalcanal campaign veteran Ore Marion:

“At daybreak, a couple of our kids, bearded, dirty, skinny from hunger, slightly wounded by bayonets, clothes worn and torn, wack off three Jap heads and jam them on poles facing the ‘Jap side’ of the river.

[Their] colonel sees [this] and says, ‘What are you doing? You’re acting like animals.’

A dirty, stinking young kid says, ‘That’s right Colonel, we are animals. We live like animals, we eat and are treated like animals—what the fuck do you expect?'”

In Skull Trophies of the Pacific War: Transgressive Objects of Remembrance, author Simon Harrison offers another interesting explanation as to why American GIs mutilated Japanese corpses. In Harrison’s words, “Hunting was an important symbolic affirmation of American white male identity. It can have some qualities of a rite of passage for adolescent boys. Many servicemen brought [this ideology] with them into combat with an enemy which many of them viewed as subhuman.”

If we’re hearing Harrison properly, it could be argued that some American GIs claimed Japanese body parts in the same way they might claim the head of a deer and mount it on their wall.

Of course, some Americans simply claimed Japanese body parts as souvenirs, as proof that they had been there, while others took body parts so they could trade or sell them.

For example, in Skull Trophies of the Pacific War, Harrison refers to a soldier who made a string of beads from the teeth of Japanese soldiers and intended to sell this gruesome item of jewellery when he returned to the States. Another more famous example is that of Natalie Nickerson, whose naval officer boyfriend sent her a Japanese skull autographed by him and a dozen of his mates. Some words were inscribed on the skull as well:

“This is a good Jap,” they said, “a dead one picked up on the New Guinea beach.”

An image of Nickerson with this skull, which she named Tojo, appeared in a May 1944 issue of Life magazine, and her boyfriend was ultimately reprimanded—albeit not severely.

It very much seems that some loved ones back in the US were encouraging this sort of behaviour in American GIs.

Harrison refers to two examples of this; the first featured in an April 1943 issue of a Baltimore newspaper, the second in a Detroit newspaper. The Baltimore paper ran a story of a local mother seeking permission for her son to send her a Japanese ear, which she wanted to nail to her front door, while the Detroit paper ran a story about an underaged lad who bribed his chaplain with the promise of Japanese ears if the chaplain didn’t disclose the lad’s true age when he went to enlist in the army.


So the American public didn’t seem to have too much of an issue with corpse mutilation, but what about the US military, and what about the Japanese?

With the American military, it seems they weren’t bothered by it, turned a blind eye to it, or were concerned with it only on paper.

In September 1942, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet Chester W. Nimitz issued an order that condemned enemy body parts as souvenirs, while—according to the aforementioned Ore Marion—Marines caught doing this would face a court martial. In January 1944, the Joint Chiefs of Staff put their foot down, issuing a directive against body mutilation.

Still, the practice continued.

That photo of Natalie Nickerson and Tojo in Life magazine, for instance, was published after the JCS directive, and Harrison refers to an account by a pioneer aviator named Charles Lindbergh, who recorded a conversation he had with a Marine officer in the Marshal Islands in August 1944. In Lindberg’s words:

“The officer said he had seen a number of Japanese bodies from which an ear or nose had been cut off. ‘Our boys cut them off to show their friends in fun, or to dry and take back to the States,’ [said the officer]. ‘We found one Marine with a Japanese head. He was trying to get the ants to clean the flesh off the skull, but the odor got so bad we had to take it away from him.’ It is the same story everywhere I go.”

This anecdote is important because it shows that, rather than reprimanding the Marine, the officer simply confiscated the skull. In Harrison’s words, “[The JCS directive seemed] to have been implemented only partially and unevenly by local commanders.”

Returning to Charles Lindbergh, the practice of taking Japanese body parts as souvenirs had become so common that, when passing through Hawaiian customs in 1944, they asked him if he was carrying any bones in his luggage. It had become routine at this point. Mostly, though, they were looking for what they termed “green skulls,” which were skulls that hadn’t been cured properly.

Imagine trying to get one of those bad boys through customs today.

As for the Japanese, the mutilation only reinforced the portrayal of American soldiers in Japanese propaganda, which sought to demonize them {On-screen text: The Life magazine image of Natalie Nickerson and Tojo was heavily exploited by Japanese propagandists.}. We discussed this topic in detail in our video on Japanese perspectives of American soldiers, but this quote by historian Edwin Hoyt surmises the Japanese perspective:

“The thought of a Japanese soldier’s skull becoming an American ashtray was as horrifying in Tokyo as the thought of an American prisoner used for bayonet practice was in New York.”


But what’s your opinion? Did you know that American soldiers mutilated Japanese dead during the Second World War? Do you know anything about this topic that we didn’t cover in this video? And lastly, do you think the Americans should have been punished more severely? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.