The Violence Is the Victory

Trophy skulls and bones, fingers and skin, became objects of sentiment: they were carved into lamps and letter-openers, given pet names, or exchanged as love-gifts, while snapshots of trophies became nostalgic reminders of soldierly camaraderie.

On trophy skulls and American brutality

Richard Rohrbach Photograph collection, Center for the Study of the Korean War, Independence, Missouri, PP487.

Several years ago, I was sifting through a box of American soldiers’ Brownie camera snapshots from the Korean War in a small private archive an hour outside of Kansas City. Among the thousands of expected everyday scenes—buddies, bases, camps, landscapes, drinking—are images of soldiers posing with human skulls.

In one series, a soldier has wrapped a blanket around his head and holds the skull out of the top, pretending to be a walking dead man, while his friend grabs the blanket and smiles for someone outside the frame. Another image finds the skull adorned with an infantry steel helmet, held at waist level by a soldier dangling a cigarette from his lips. A third soldier cradles the skull near his stomach, smiling uncertainly. The scenes take place in camp during relaxed downtime, with other soldiers walking unconcernedly in the background.

The practice of collecting enemy body parts, particularly skulls, as trophies, and repurposing them into objects of delight emerges often in the history of the United States. Trophy skulls and bones, fingers and skin, became objects of sentiment: they were carved into lamps and letter-openers, given pet names, or exchanged as love-gifts, while snapshots of trophies became nostalgic reminders of soldierly camaraderie.

Highly public and prized objects during wartime, shown in traveling shows and photographed for the pages of Life magazine, trophies were also officially condemned by military and government authorities and subsequent wartime histories. Trophy bones and photographs moved easily between state sanction and state condemnation, private affections and private mourning, public display and public unease. In the aftermath of war, trophies shifted into private circulation, as family mementos in attics, in shoeboxes of snapshots, and in the footnotes of war histories. Over decades, they continually reemerge, vexing testimonies of the fundamental violence of American power and of the cultural forgetting that is its shadow.

The history of American expansion can be traced through the severed body parts left in its wake. Skulls, teeth, severed genitalia, fingers, arm bones, and skin marked who had won and who had lost, whose bodies could be dismembered and who could draw entertainment and reassurance from their display.

Wartime head collecting commercialized along with the New World economy: during the 1675–1676 wars, bounties were offered on all enemy Indian heads. Collecting heads for bounty was soon adapted into the less cumbersome (for the scalper) practice of scalping for bounty, which entered the legal systems of all New England colonies by 1717, as well as the French colony of Quebec. Trophy-taking also determined which bodies could be dismembered. During the wars of Indian extermination through the 19th century, Native people’s body parts were used as bureaucratic record-keeping, as spectacle, as victory marker. When future President Andrew Jackson supervised the massacre of 800 Creek Indians in Alabama in 1814, he ordered his troops to cut off their noses to keep count of the dead. Wild West showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody turned expansionist warfare into theater by incorporating the actual scalp of the Cheyenne warrior he killed, Yellow Hair, into a series of early stage performances in 1876 and eventually into his traveling Wild West exhibitions. Cody even went so far as to display the scalp in New England shop windows as a promotional display, which led the New England press and clergy to denounce Cody’s “blood-stained trophies.” The public outcry, though, stimulated ticket sales and promoted Cody’s legend.

Much of westward expansion was a debate over slavery’s spread, and slavery as a system was defined by the violent control, display, and exploitation of black bodies. Part of that mastery was displayed in death, and racial superiority was held to be present in the bones themselves. After Nat Turner was hanged in 1831 for leading a slave rebellion, he was hanged, decapitated, and skinned, with the skinner bragging about it for years afterward. During the Civil War, Confederate troops collected Union soldiers’ body parts, fashioning bone segments into rings and skulls into drinking cups, while Northern skulls were reportedly sold in Confederate camps for $10 apiece. Civil War trophy hunting had distinct racial overtones, for this largely Confederate practice was especially common when the corpses were black Union soldiers.

Trophy collecting and its attendant race-making also entered medical science: bones and skulls from the Civil War and from Native American burial sites were avidly collected by doctors and surgeons for the new Army Medical Museum. The cataloguing of skulls and bones, “donated” (stolen) and purchased from the thriving market in skulls, helped to define the kinds of surgeries and injuries the war had occasioned, but were also used in the pseudoscience of phrenology and craniology.

As American empire swept across the Pacific, soldiers created a veritable cabinet of body-part curios to track their adventures. In 1901, the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition organized a “Philippine exhibit” to illustrate, through a display of industrial items, botanical specimens, “native life,” and weapons, the United States’ scientific conquest of the islands and its ability to narrate the islands’ history. In the United States’ bloody guerrilla war against Filipino independence fighters, American soldiers spoke of “hunting” the “bestialized” Filipino guerillas, and of exterminating these “niggers” and “gugus.” Waterboarding was a commonly used torture technique. Trophy collection was common, too. When Smithsonian Institution officials enlisted the aid of military officials to collect Filipino bones for the Buffalo Exposition, they found to their dismay that soldiers had snatched up many of the “curios” and “war relics,” with “every officer” “running his own collection.” One soldier, Private Toolman, had his portrait taken with his “collection of curios” from the Philippines, including a skull that Toolman had turned into a candle-holder.

In 1987, literary historian and World War II veteran Paul Fussell recalled asking his friend Robert Harper, a former Marine who had fought at Guadalcanal, for any artifacts Harper might have from his war experience. Harper quickly fetched “a shoebox of snapshots” of himself and his fellow Marines posing with Japanese skulls. Harper’s snapshots, reprinted by Fussell with an accompanying essay, show two bare-chested soldiers, smiling and in shirtsleeves, boiling a Japanese head to make a “clean” skull to keep and carry. Fussell found nostalgia in these photographs, and argued that “the marines were proud of their success in humiliating, punishing, and finally destroying an enemy who, violating a quiet American Sunday, had dared to bomb Pearl Harbor.”

The avid collection of Japanese body parts in World War II, though—as with Native scalps and Filipino skulls before—was not just about quiet American Sundays or the pride of a young Marine but about how much both relied on the racialized character of the war. If the Germans were hated for political reasons—as Nazis—the Japanese were hated not for their imperialism but for their perceived racial characteristics. As one marine on Guadalcanal told journalist John Hersey, “I wish we were fighting against Germans. They are human beings, like us . . . Germans are misled, but at least they react like men. But the Japs are like animals.” Recruiting posters and popular rhetoric likened the war against the Japanese to a “hunt” and the Japanese were referred to as “rats,” “rattlesnakes,” “yellow thugs,” and “dirty animals.”

Though soldiers scavenged dead enemy corpses in the European theater for souvenirs, money, and personal effects—sometimes cutting off German corpses’ fingers to get at gold wedding rings, possibly scalping and collecting ears for trade—reports of mutilating Italian or German body parts appear much less often in soldiers’ accounts and are very nearly absent in histories of the European theater of war. Atlantic Monthly journalist Edgar L. Jones, who had served forty months of war duty and then worked as a war correspondent at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, identified skull-collecting and the repurposing of bones into sentimental objects as an activity peculiarly confined to the Pacific theater.

American, Australian, and British soldiers collected gold teeth, bones, ears, scalps, skulls, and severed hands from dead or near-dead Japanese soldiers. Gold teeth taken from Japanese corpses were collected and used for barter. Some of the skulls were displayed on the battlefield or in barracks, and some were sent home as trophies or mementos to wives, girlfriends, and parents. “Green” skulls and bones in particular were repurposed into new objects: soldiers “cured” them by boiling the flesh off the bones and scrubbing with lye or laundry soap, while Navy sailors keelhauled theirs. Skulls were then polished and inscribed or carved into pencil holders and cups. At least one soldier, when back home, installed an electric light bulb inside the cured skull and used it as a Halloween lantern; many gave their skulls pet names.

US Marines on the way to Guadalcanal spoke of wanting to “pickle” Japanese ears and make necklaces of their teeth, and soldiers in Pearl Harbor reportedly terrorized Asian American shopgirls by showing them alcohol bottles full of Japanese ears and noses. The Marine monthly journal Leatherneck reported in June 1943, “The other night, Stanley emptied his pockets of ‘souvenirs’—eleven ears from dead Japs. It was not disgusting, as it would be from the civilian point of view. None of us could get emotional about it.” Skulls were reported missing from 60 percent of Japanese soldiers’ remains repatriated from the Mariana Islands in 1984, and in 1985, a Japanese priest who had conducted regular funeral services on Iwo Jima since 1952 noted that skulls had been taken from most of the bodies as wartime souvenirs.

An editorial in the periodical Christian Century in May 1943 argued against the growing “temptation” among Americans to match Japanese wartime atrocities with American barbarism. As evidence of the ways wartime sentiment has been “titillating diseased minds and sowing hate,” the editors cited a mother in Maryland who was petitioning county officials to let her son send her home a “souvenir” Japanese ear that he had collected for her in the South Pacific. The mother told the Baltimore Sun, “I’d like to nail [it] on the outside of the front door for all to see!” The Army print weekly Yank, written “by the men . . . for the men in service,” printed a cartoon of two parents receiving Japanese ears from their son “Junior” in their January 13, 1943 issue. If the practice was common enough to make a joke about, the punchline was the parents’ reaction: the mother has fainted, and the father, holding up a string of ears, looks bewildered.

Skull collecting became so routine that it ended standard military procedure and protocol. On September 14, 1944, as celebrity pilot Charles Lindbergh returned home from the Pacific War through the customs agent in the US territory of Hawaii, he recalled:

The customs officer asked me if I had any bones in my baggage. He said that he had to ask everyone that question because they had found a large number of men taking Japanese bones home for souvenirs. He said he had found one man with two “green” Jap skulls in his baggage.

Though only a minority of soldiers probably engaged in the practice, it’s likely that most American soldiers knew of it and accepted it as an inevitable part of the war. Because of the press coverage of trophy hunting, and its propaganda value in Japan, military officials sought to contain trophy collection. In January 1944, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a directive to military commanders in all theaters of war, ordering them to prevent American soldiers from removing Japanese body parts, skulls, and “similar items” from the war theater as souvenirs or trophies, an order that was largely unenforced or unenforceable.

In 1944, Life published a full-page “Photo of the Week” of Natalie Nickerson, an attractive, blonde, 20-year-old “war worker” from Phoenix who had received a “jap skull” from her “big, handsome Navy Lieutenant.” In the photograph, Nickerson gazes dreamily at the skull on her desk, which she nicknamed “Tojo,” while (presumably) writing a love letter to her lieutenant. The caption informed readers that the lieutenant and thirteen of his friends had inscribed the skull with the words “This is a good Jap—a dead one picked up on the New Guinea beach.”

One month later, in June, Pennsylvania congressman Francis Walter attempted to give President Franklin D. Roosevelt the gift of a letter opener fashioned out of a Japanese arm bone. Highly embarrassed, Roosevelt returned the letter opener and suggested that it be given a proper burial. If it was increasingly clear that the January 1944 military directive had no bearing whatsoever on soldiers’ trophy-collection (the letter-opener had entered the possession of a congressman), it was still too much for the president to officially accept a wartime trophy.

The Life magazine photograph occasioned a new round of outrage from American military officials, as well as a few disgusted readers and religious organizations. The Army’s judge advocate general, Major General Myron C. Cramer, sent a memorandum on June 13, 1944 to the War Department arguing that trophy-collecting was “repugnant to the sensibilities of all civilized peoples” and was a violation of the 1929 Geneva Convention, as well as the customary rules of land warfare. However, the War Department, no less than the US Navy or the Army, was not enthusiastic to issue new directives, and argued that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had already done so. It was ultimately recommended that the “big, handsome Navy Lieutenant” simply be sent a letter of reprimand.

But because this is an American story, there was more in it for Natalie. In 1944, she was an up-and-coming model. What better way to gain notice than by posing in the most-read photo magazine in the country? Natalie soon left Phoenix for New York, where she joined Eileen Ford at Ford Modeling Agency, became the highest-paid model in Manhattan, and reinvented herself as Nátalie Nickerson Paine. Things were not quite so rosy for the person whose skull she used to launch her career.

Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, US wartime barbarity continued to be explained away as an anomaly, as a few bad apples who are acting out. American veterans who participated in the My Lai massacre of 347 old men, women, and children on March 16, 1968 in the Quang Ngai province of Vietnam later testified about their comrades mutilating Vietnamese bodies, cutting off and keeping ears for display, and scalping. Invoking longer histories, soldiers referred to Quang Ngai as “Indian Country” and remembered of the My Lai massacre that “Some people were on an Indian trip over there.” According to later testimony of veterans as well as trophy snapshot photographs taken by soldiers in country, the trophy collection at My Lai was in fact routine: during Vietnam Veterans Against the War’s “Winter Soldier” hearings in 1971, soldiers recalled putting Vietnamese heads on stakes, collecting ears from living Vietnamese as a method of interrogation, posing with dead civilian corpses, and trading Vietnamese “ears for beers.”

More recent examples of trophy collecting continue to emerge out of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The Abu Ghraib digital photographs that surfaced in May 2004 showed American soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison, giving thumbs-ups in front of a human pyramid of prisoners, smiling and holding the end of a leash around the neck of an Iraqi man. In November 2011, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs was convicted by court-martial of leading an Army unit in the sport-killings of Afghani civilians, and the evidence included photographs soldiers took while posing with dead bodies. In January 2012, four Marines filmed themselves posing with and urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters.

And on April 18, 2012, the Los Angeles Times printed photographs leaked to them by an American soldier of 82nd Airborne Division soldiers and Afghani police posing for digital photographs with severed legs, heads, fingers, and mangled corpses of insurgent suicide bombers. Military officials and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta condemned the photographs and asked the Times not to publish them, arguing that such photographs were a “violation of Army standards.” Panetta attempted to explain the soldiers’ obvious delight in the photographs as evidence of the success of the anti-insurgency campaign. But he was wrong—this was in keeping with Army practice. By calling the violence aberrant, regrettable, and an excessive response to victory, he suppresses the obvious. The violence is the victory.

Periodically, veterans’ skull trophies, or snapshots of them, resurface in museums or libraries, in dusty attics, and in families’ collections of memorabilia, and make newspaper headlines as veterans, their widows, or their children attempt to repatriate or dispose of the old trophies, or as police seize them “for forensic investigation.” The shock and unease at their finding are real enough, but historically speaking, they are false, for this was widespread practice. In the shock and unease lies an intense historical amnesia.

On July 27, 2001, police in Waukesha, Wisconsin opened an investigation into a human skull they found at a house while investigating another minor complaint. The resident, Rick Kremer, kept the skull on top of his television set and told police that his father had brought it home with him from the Korean War, and that he believed it to be the skull of a Korean soldier. The police confiscated the skull and turned it over to the county medical examiner’s office. Sitting on his television, the skull had seemed normal to Kremer—a father’s memento of his wartime experience. The skull had become a decorative object, an unremarkable curiosity; it was only when it appeared suspect to the police that it became a remarkable event that required a thorough forensic examination and a newspaper report.

In a similar incident two years later, police searching a house for drugs in Pueblo, Colorado found a human skull in a small trunk, and confiscated it for analysis. The skull was inscribed with these words:


It was also signed by dozens of servicemen, and lacquered. The owner demanded its return from the police, identifying the skull as a family heirloom, nicknamed “Oscar,” that had been collected by his great-grandfather Julius Papas, a Marine, in the battle of Guadalcanal. Papas’s relatives argued unsuccessfully to US Army authorities that it should be returned to them. As Papas’s niece told a local journalist,

It was just somebody that was dead, and this was the way my uncle felt about it. Yes, nowadays people would be outraged about it. But then, we didn’t know any better, it was no big deal. It was war. Uncle Julius just thought he was doing what he was supposed to do over there.

Though the Papas and Kremer families argued that their skulls were benign heirlooms gained through proper military service—doing what he was supposed to do over there—the Marine Corps disassociated themselves from “Oscar” as quickly as they could, with a USMC spokesman arguing that this “violates all moral laws of everything I’ve been raised to know . . . it’s just wrong.” The skull was returned by authorities to Japan to be interred.

In 2005, gun dealer Ralph McLeod of Holden, Maine purchased a World War II trophy skull for $50 from a fellow gun dealer, who had himself obtained it from an estate sale in southern Maine. As McLeod told his local newspaper in 2010, he had spent five years attempting to repatriate the skull to Japan for proper burial. In the process, the state medical examiner found that the skull was likely that of a young female who had died prior to World War II, leading McLeod to believe that the skull had been taken by a Marine who had landed at Okinawa and used a Japanese burial crypt as a bunker. The skull, which had been emblazoned by its first owner with the words, “1945 Jap Skull Okinawa,” was collected in 2010 by Japanese officials and cremated before being sent to Japan. One aspect of McLeod’s story is particularly interesting: the skull circulated privately, changing hands from its original deceased owner through an estate sale, and from friend to friend. It was only when the skull became newsworthy, despite McLeod’s long attempt to repatriate it, that it became a public artifact, a news story that added local color.

When the skulls reemerge from private circulation into the public sphere, as they routinely do, they occasion official inquiries and popular disbelief—forensic examinations, local and national newspaper coverage and follow-up reports, repatriation efforts. There is a forgetting in this public uproar: the history lesson here should not be “the barbarity of a few American soldiers.” Kremer and the Papas family are depicted as suspect in these news stories (after all, why were the police investigating their homes?), but their possessiveness and explanation of these “family heirlooms” hint more clearly at the culture of imperial warfare in America than the Marine Corps spokesman’s disgusted disavowal. The Papas family was right: the soldiers were doing exactly what they were told to do. If one form of forgetting happened when these skulls were moved from public display to private, familial circulation, a second forgetting occurs when they reemerge and are thought to be exceptional.

This was the case with the most high-profile wartime skull trophies to emerge in the last few decades. A 2007 Washington Post article, entitled “Eerie souvenirs from the Vietnam War,” reported on six graffitied human skulls from Vietnam or Laos held at the Defense Department’s National Museum of Health and Medicine at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. One official told journalist Michelle Boorstein that these skulls are an “anomaly” at the museum. It may be that the museum has no other trophy skulls, but the official’s quote presents the skulls as inconsistent with the Defense Department’s understanding of bodies, health, and warfare. What makes these skulls “eerie” is that this practice has been pushed from public history to the realm of private circulation: basements, letters, personal memories. From these private realms, like the Freudian uncanny, they continually resurface and unsettle, ever present reminders of the country’s violent past.

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