The Souvenir Hunter – US Marine, Pacific Campaign, WW2
One Marine was looking for no-longer-needed treasure inside the mouths of Japanese soldiers: “One of the marines went methodically among the dead armed with a pair of pliers. He had observed that the Japanese have a penchant for gold fillings in their teeth, often for solid gold teeth. He was looting their very mouths. He would kick their mouths agape, peer into the mouth with all of the solicitude of a Park Avenue dentist – careful, always careful not to contaminate himself by touch – and yank out all that glittered. He kept the gold teeth in an empty Bull Durham tobacco sack, which he wore around his neck in the manner of an amulet. “ (Leckie, pages 84-85.)
During World War 2, the taking of “war souvenirs” and “war trophies” in the Pacific theater of operations went to the extreme when dead Japanese service personnel were mutilated by some US military personnel. Gold teeth and skulls were the most commonly taken “trophies”, although other body parts were also collected. The depravity of warfare debased men fighting on both sides of the war, and I wanted to create a figure to depict this, to show how the brutalizing effects of a harsh campaign degenerated some men to such a level. But firstly, I had to gather as much research on this phenomenon to better understand the mindframe and behaviour of combatants in the Pacific theater of operations. This is a very sensitive issue and I apologise if I have offended anyone’s sensitivity. I have extracted a chunk of information from Wikipedia and placed these at the end of this article for those interested.
Envisaging the figure
Inspiration for realising a 1/6 figure can come from anywhere and at anytime; it can be immediate, or mulled over – tossed and turned – in one’s head for a period of time. Whatever the situation, it will lead to the projection of a particular viewpoint. This viewpoint may be of a favourite historical period, a certain enigmatic pose of a character, a specific nationality or some particular personal preference.
One of course has to first select a subject. Although movies can be inspiring, they are not completely accurate. I find that supplementary reading and viewing good documentaries of first-hand accounts of historical events, or narrative accounts focusing on individuals or battle engagement are ideal sources of inspiration. I would then ‘bounce’ the idea, visualising the scenario in my mind, whilst at the same time taking stock of the items required to realise the project. I tend to do lots of research on things I am not familiar with, and the 1/6 figure forums are a great source of assistance here with their friendly and supportive like-minded members offering expert advice. When I am confident I have most of the material, I always begin the project by first painting the headsculpt. Getting the headsculpt painted to my satisfaction is important, if I feel something is amissed after the paintwork, I will not proceed with the project.
This is a project I had in mind for some time now, and the headsculpt I’ve chosen is one by Tony Barton. It is an excellent sculpt from his latest “Expression” range and is sculpted in his well-proportioned and robust style.
Below is a step-by-step progress of how I painted the headsculpt using my current method of painting. This method, like those of many 1/6th scale painters is a combination of borrowed methods, modified approaches and some original ideas based on observation and technique. It is constantly evolving and always being refined; however, the techniques demonstrated here play only a part of the success of the project.
The phenomenon of “trophy-taking” was widespread enough that discussion of it featured prominently in magazines and newspapers, and Franklin Roosevelt himself was reportedly gifted a letter-opener made of a man’s arm (Roosevelt rejected the gift and called for its proper burial). The behavior was officially prohibited by the U.S. military, which issued additional guidance as early as 1942 condemning it specifically. Nonetheless, the behavior continued throughout the war in the Pacific Theater, and has resulted in continued discoveries of “trophy skulls” of Japanese combatants in American possession, as well as American and Japanese efforts to repatriate the remains of the Japanese dead.
A number of firsthand accounts, including those of American servicemen involved in or witness to the atrocities, attest to the taking of “trophies” from the corpses of Imperial Japanese troops in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Historians have attributed the phenomenon to a campaign of dehumanization of the Japanese in the U.S. media, to various racist tropes latent in American society, to the depravity of warfare under desperate circumstances, to the perceived inhuman cruelty of Imperial Japanese forces, lust for revenge, or any combination of those factors. The taking of so-called “trophies” was widespread enough that, by September 1942, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet ordered that “No part of the enemy’s body may be used as a souvenir”, and any American servicemen violating that principle would face “stern disciplinary action”.
Trophy skulls are the most notorious of the so-called “souvenirs”. Teeth, ears and other such body parts were occasionally modified, for example by writing on them or fashioning them into utilities or other artifacts.
Eugene Sledge relates a few instances of fellow Marines extracting gold teeth from the Japanese, including one from an enemy soldier who was still alive.
But the Japanese wasn’t dead. He had been wounded severely in the back and couldn’t move his arms; otherwise he would have resisted to his last breath. The Japanese’s mouth glowed with huge gold-crowned teeth, and his captor wanted them. He put the point of his kabar on the base of a tooth and hit the handle with the palm of his hand. Because the Japanese was kicking his feet and thrashing about, the knife point glanced off the tooth and sank deeply into the victim’s mouth. The Marine cursed him and with a slash cut his cheeks open to each ear. He put his foot on the sufferer’s lower jaw and tried again. Blood poured out of the soldier’s mouth. He made a gurgling noise and thrashed wildly. I shouted, “Put the man out of his misery.” All I got for an answer was a cussing out. Another Marine ran up, put a bullet in the enemy soldier’s brain, and ended his agony. The scavenger grumbled and continued extracting his prizes undisturbed.
US Marine veteran Donald Fall attributed the mutilation of enemy corpses to hatred and desire for revenge:
On the second day of Guadalcanal we captured a big Jap bivouac with all kinds of beer and supplies… But they also found a lot of pictures of Marines that had been cut up and mutilated on Wake Island. The next thing you know there are Marines walking around with Jap ears stuck on their belts with safety pins. They issued an order reminding Marines that mutilation was a court-martial offense… You get into a nasty frame of mind in combat. You see what’s been done to you. You’d find a dead Marine that the Japs had booby-trapped. We found dead Japs that were booby-trapped. And they mutilated the dead. We began to get down to their level.
Another example of mutilation was related by Ore Marion, a US Marine who suggested,
We learned about savagery from the Japanese… But those sixteen-to-nineteen-year old kids we had on the Canal were fast learners… 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… The colonel sees Jap heads on the poles and says, ‘Jesus men, 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?
On February 1, 1943, Life magazine published a photograph taken byRalph Morse during the Guadalcanal campaign showing a decapitated Japanese head that US marines had propped up below the gun turret of a tank. Life received letters of protest from people “in disbelief that American soldiers were capable of such brutality toward the enemy.” The editors responded that “war is unpleasant, cruel, and inhuman. And it is more dangerous to forget this than to be shocked by reminders.” However, the image of the decapitated head generated less than half the amount of protest letters that an image of a mistreated cat in the very same issue received.
In October 1943, the U.S. High Command expressed alarm over recent newspaper articles, for example one where a soldier made a string of beads using Japanese teeth, and another about a soldier with pictures showing the steps in preparing a skull, involving cooking and scraping of the Japanese heads.
Extent of practiceAccording to Weingartner it is not possible to determine the percentage of US troops that collected Japanese body parts, “but it is clear that the practice was not uncommon”.According to Harrison only a minority of US troops collected Japanese body parts as trophies, but “their behaviour reflected attitudes which were very widely shared.” According to Dower most U.S. combatants in the Pacific did not engage in “souvenir hunting” for bodyparts. The majority had some knowledge that these practices were occurring, however, and “accepted them as inevitable under the circumstances”. The incidence of soldiers collecting Japanese body parts occurred on “a scale large enough to concern the Allied military authorities throughout the conflict and was widely reported and commented on in the American and Japanese wartime press”. The degree of acceptance of the practice varied between units. Taking of teeth was generally accepted by enlisted men and also by officers, while acceptance for taking other body parts varied greatly. In the experience of one serviceman turned author, Weinstein, ownership of skulls and teeth were widespread practices.
ContextAccording to Simon Harrison, all of the “trophy skulls” from the WWII era in the forensic record in the U.S. attributable to an ethnicity are of Japanese origin; none come from Europe. (A seemingly rare exception to this rule was the case of a German soldier scalped by an American soldier, in accordance with Winnebago tribal custom.) Skulls from WWII, and also from the Vietnam War, continue turning up in the U.S., sometimes returned by former servicemen or their relatives, or discovered by police. According to Harrison, contrarily to the situation in average head-hunting societies the trophies do not fit in in American society. While the taking of the objects was socially accepted at the time, after the war, when the Japanese in time became seen as fully human again, the objects for the most part became seen as unacceptable and unsuitable for display. Therefore in time they and the practice that had generated them were largely forgotten.
Australian soldiers also mutilated Japanese bodies at times, most commonly by taking gold teeth from corpses. This was officially discouraged by the Australian Army. Johnson states that “one could argue that greed rather than hatred was the motive” for this behavior but “utter contempt for the enemy was also present”.Australians are also known to have taken gold teeth also from German corpses, “but the practice was obviously more common in the South-West Pacific”. “The vast majority of Australians clearly found such behaviour abhorrent, but” some of the soldiers who engaged in it were not ‘hard cases’. According to Johnston Australian soldiers’ “unusually murderous behavior” towards their Japanese opponents (such as killing prisoners) was caused by racism, a lack of understanding of Japanese military culture and, most significantly, a desire to take revenge against the murder and mutilation of Australian prisoners and native New Guineans during the Battle of Milne Bay and subsequent battles.
In the U.S. there was a widely held view that the Japanese weresubhuman. There was also popular anger in U.S. at the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor amplifying pre-war racial prejudices. The U.S. media helped propagate this view of the Japanese, for example describing them as “yellow vermin”.. In an official U.S. Navy film Japanese troops were described as “living, snarling rats”. The mixture of racism, propaganda, and Japanese atrocities led to a general loathing of the Japanese. (see alsoJapanese war crimes) And although there were objections to the mutilation from amongst other military jurists, “to many Americans the Japanese adversary was no more than an animal, and abuse of his remains carried with it no moral stigma.
According to Niall Ferguson: “To the historian who has specialized in German history, this is one of the most troubling aspects of the Second World War: the fact that Allied troops often regarded the Japanese in the same way that Germans regarded Russians – asUntermenschen.” Since the Japanese were regarded as animals it is not surprising that the Japanese remains were treated in the same way as animal remains.
Simon Harrison comes to the conclusion in his paper “Skull trophies of the Pacific War: transgressive objects of remembrance” that the minority of U.S. personnel who collected Japanese skulls did so as they came from a society which placed much value in hunting as a symbol of masculinity, combined with a de-humanization of the enemy.
Harrison argues that while brutalization could explain part of the mutilations, this explanation does not explain the servicemen who already before shipping off for the Pacific proclaimed their intention to acquire such objects. According to Harrison it also does not explain the many cases of servicemen collecting the objects as gifts for people back home. Harrison concludes that there is no evidence that the average serviceman collecting this type of souvenirs was suffering from “combat fatigue”. They were normal men who felt this was what their loved ones wanted them to collect for them. Skulls were sometimes also collected as souvenirs by non-combat personnel.
News of the Bataan Death March sparked outrage in the US, as shown by this propaganda poster
Bergerud writes that U.S. troops hostility towards their Japanese opponents largely arose from incidents in which Japanese soldiers committed war crimes against Americans, such as the Bataan Death March and other incidents conducted by individual soldiers. For instance, Bergerud states that the U.S. Marines on Guadacanal were aware that the Japanese had beheaded some of the marines captured on Wake Island prior to the start of the campaign. However this type of knowledge did not necessarily lead to revenge mutilations, one marine states that they falsely thought the Japanese had not taken any prisoners at Wake Island, and therefore as revenge they killed all Japanese that tried to surrender. (see also Allied war crimes during World War II)
The earliest account of U.S. troops wearing ears from Japanese corpses he recounts took according to one Marine place on the second day of the Guadalcanal Campaign in August 1942 and occurred after photos of the mutilated bodies of Marines on Wake Island were found in Japanese engineers’ personal effects. The account of the same marine also states that Japanese troops booby trapped some of their own dead as well as some dead marines, and also mutilated corpses; the effect on marines being “We began to get down to their level”.According to Bradley A. Thayer, referring to Bergerud and interviews conducted by Bergerud, the behaviors of American and Australian soldiers were affected by “intense fear, coupled with a powerful lust for revenge”.
 Souvenirs and bartering
Factors relevant to the collection of body parts were their economic value, the desire both of the “folks back home” for a souvenir and of the servicemen themselves to keep a keepsake when they returned home.
Pictures showing the “cooking and scraping” of Japanese heads may have formed part of the large set of Guadalcanal photographs sold to sailors which were circulating on the U.S. West-coast. According to Paul Fussel, pictures showing this type of activity, i.e. boiling human heads; “were taken (and preserved for a lifetime) because the marines were proud of their success”.
In many cases (and unexplainable by battlefield conditions) the collected body parts were not for the use of the collector but were instead meant to be gifts to family and friends at home. In some cases as the result of specific requests from home. Newspapers reported of cases such as a mother requesting permission for her son to send her an ear, a bribed chaplain that was promised by an underage youth “the third pair of ears he collected”. A better known example of those servicemen who left for battle already planning to send home a trophy is the Life Magazine picture of the week, whose caption begins:
- “When he said goodby 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,…”
Another example of this type of press is Yank that in early 1943 published a cartoon showing the parents of a soldier receiving a pair of ears from their son. In 1942 Alan Lomax recorded a blues song where a black soldier promises to send his child a Japanese skull, and a tooth. Harrison also makes note of the Congressman that gave president Roosevelt a letter-opener carved out of bone as examples of the social range of these attitudes.
Trade sometimes occurred with the items, such as “members of the Naval Construction Battalions stationed on Guadalcanal selling Japanese skulls to merchant seamen” as reported in an Allied intelligence report from early 1944. Sometimes teeth (particularly the less common gold teeth) were also seen as a trade-able commodity.
“Stern disciplinary action” against human remains souvenir taking was ordered by the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet as early as September 1942. In October 1943 General George C. Marshall radioed General Douglas MacArthur about “his concern over current reports of atrocities committed by American soldiers”. In January 1944 the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a directive against the taking of Japanese body parts. Simon Harrison writes that directives of this type may have been effective in some areas, “but they seem to have been implemented only partially and unevenly by local commanders”.[dubious – discuss]
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 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 done reluctantly however, and the punishment was not severe.
The Life photo also led to the U.S. Military to take 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 every engagement, the belligerent who remains in possession of the field shall take measures to search for wounded and the dead and to protect them from robbery and ill treatment.” 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. 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.”