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June 29, 2022

Disturbing Picture of an Arizona War Worker, With a Human Skull, a Gift From Her Boyfriend

During World War II, some members of the United States military mutilated dead Japanese service personnel in the Pacific theater. The mutilation of Japanese service personnel included the taking of body parts as “war souvenirs” and “war trophies.” Teeth and skulls were the most commonly taken “trophies,” although other body parts were also collected.

On May 22, 1944, LIFE magazine published a photo of an American girl with a Japanese skull sent to her by her naval officer boyfriend. The image caption stated: “When he said goodbye two years ago to Natalie Nickerson, 20, a war worker of Phoenix, Ariz., a big, handsome Navy lieutenant promised her a Jap. Last week Natalie received a human skull, autographed by her lieutenant and 13 friends, and inscribed: “This is a good Jap – a dead one picked up on the New Guinea beach.” Natalie, surprised at the gift, named it Tojo.

“Arizona war worker writes her Navy boyfriend a thank-you note for the Jap skull he sent her.” LIFE magazine’s “Picture of the Week,” May 22, 1944.

The letters LIFE received from its readers in response to this photo were “overwhelmingly condemnatory” and the Army directed its Bureau of Public Relations to inform U.S. publishers that “the publication of such stories would be likely to encourage the enemy to take reprisals against American dead and prisoners of war.” The junior officer who had sent the skull was also traced and officially reprimanded. This was, however, done reluctantly, and the punishment was not severe.

The LIFE image was widely reprinted in Japan as anti-American propaganda. The photo also led to the U.S. military taking further action against the mutilation of Japanese corpses. In a memorandum dated June 13, 1944, the Army JAG asserted that “such atrocious and brutal policies” in addition to being repugnant also were violations of the laws of war, and recommended the distribution to all commanders of a directive pointing out that “the maltreatment of enemy war dead was a blatant violation of the 1929 Geneva Convention on the Sick and Wounded, which provided that: After each engagement, the occupant of the field of battle shall take measures to search for the wounded and dead, and to protect them against pillage and maltreatment.” Such practices were in addition also in violation of the unwritten customary rules of land warfare and could lead to the death penalty. The Navy JAG mirrored that opinion one week later, and also added that “the atrocious conduct of which some U.S. servicemen were guilty could lead to retaliation by the Japanese which would be justified under international law.”

On June 13, 1944, the press reported that President Roosevelt had been presented with a letter-opener made out of a Japanese soldier’s arm bone by Francis E. Walter, a Democratic congressman. Supposedly, the president commented, “This is the sort of gift I like to get,” and “There’ll be plenty more such gifts.” Several weeks later it was reported that it had been given back with the explanation that the President did not want this type of object and recommended it be buried instead. In doing so, Roosevelt was acting in response to the concerns which had been expressed by the military authorities and some of the civilian population, including church leaders.

In October 1944, the Right Rev. Henry St. George Tucker, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, issued a statement which deplored “'isolated acts of desecration with respect to the bodies of slain Japanese soldiers and appealed to American soldiers as a group to discourage such actions on the part of individuals.”

News that President Roosevelt had been given a bone letter-opener by a congressman was widely reported in Japan. The Americans were portrayed as “deranged, primitive, racist and inhuman.” That reporting was compounded by the previous May 22, 1944, LIFE magazine picture of the week publication of a young woman with a skull trophy, which was reprinted in the Japanese media and presented as a symbol of American barbarism, causing national shock and outrage.

Military history writer Edwin P. Hoyt argues that two U.S. media reports of Japanese skulls and bones being sent back to the U.S. were exploited very effectively by Japanese propaganda. These actions contrasted starkly with the Shinto religion’s emphasis on respectful treatment of human remains. This aspect of Shinto, combined with the propaganda spotlight on American atrocities, contributed directly to the mass suicides on Saipan and Okinawa after the Allied landings. According to Hoyt, “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.”


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