Weird History The Morbid History of Keeping Skulls as Modern Warfare Trophies  

Cleo Egnal
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The act of collecting human skulls as war trophies has been around as long as wars have been being fought, which basically equates to forever on a human timescale. On their own, human war trophies are incredibly morbid and unsettling, but the fact that soldiers still participate in the gruesome tradition is even more so. The desecration of the bodies of foreign enemies was particularly common during World War Two and the Vietnam War. When the enemy could be seen as far removed from the soldiers – when there were Japanese or Vietnamese, for example – it became a sport to collect their remains, keeping their skulls as trophies to send home to loved ones.

These acts of dominance at the expense of human dignity are shocking, as is the lack of respect for the person to whom the head once belonged. As the word indicates, these human remains were seen as trophies, prizes gained from military prowess, rather than the body parts of dead human beings. One US Marine was quoted as saying: "I wish we were fighting against Germans. They are humans like us... But the Japs are animals."  

The Act of Human Trophy Collecting Stemmed From A Deep Hatred Of The Enemy – Especially When That Enemy Could Be Viewed As Less Than 'Human'

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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Two major examples of US troops collecting human skulls as trophies come from World War Two and the Vietnam War, during which the United States fought against non-European enemies – which had a direct effect on the practice. The most well-known instances in World War Two of human trophy collection were of Japanese soldiers by American soldiers, and these American soldiers justified their actions by pointing fingers at the very bodies they were mutilating.

One former US marine, Eugene Sledge, recalled that he and his fellow Marines felt this hatred toward the Japanese "deeply, bitterly," that it was "brutish [and] primitive," and that it "resulted in ferocious, primitive fighting." An American war correspondent once said that in comparrison to the more "human" Germans and Italians, "the Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman and repulsive; the way some people feel about cockroaches or mice." 

In Vietnam, too, the hatred the American soldiers felt for the Vietnamese led to the soldiers' ability to dehumanize the enemy even after they were dead. 

At Its Root, Skulls As War Trophies Are Really A Gruesome Show of Dominance

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Photo: US National Archives/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Some human skull collection has roots in ancestor veneration and religious traditions because of all the meanings human beings have attached to the human head over time. As Mercedes Okumura and Yun Ysi Siew put it in their 2013 study "An Osteological Study of Trophy Heads: Unveiling the Headhunting Practice in Borneo":

"For many cultures, the most important trophy is the head, and its collection can be associated with war, religion, social prestige or cannibalism. The oldest known references to this practice of collecting skulls is found in the Bible, and the practice seems to have been continued up into the 20th century when skulls of deceased enemies were collected during World War Two."

But it is evident that for the soldiers of World War Two and the Vietnam War, this was not the case. These US soldiers wanted to display dominance over their enemies – these are headhunting trophies. Like mounting a deer head on the wall of a log cabin, these skulls symbolize a triumph, a mastery of life, and an ability to rise above the enemy to success.   

During WWII, GIs Sent Their Ladies Skulls In Lieu Of Love Letters

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Photo: LIFE/Wikimedia Commons/Fair use

On May 22, 1944, LIFE magazine published a photograph of Natalie Nickerson, the girlfriend of a Navy lieutenant, gazing at a Japanese skull sitting on her desk. The skull had been promised to her by her boyfriend. Just sending along a letter with the skull wouldn't be sufficient, either. The skull itself was signed by 13 of the lieutenant's friends, and was inscribed: "This is a good Jap—a dead one picked up on the New Guinea beach." Nickerson named the skull "Tojo."  

Nickerson's boyfriend was just one of countless US soldiers over the course of centuries who eagerly snatched body parts from the ground, to give or keep as souvenirs. 

Skulls Were Collected As Souvenirs — And Some Were Never Returned Despite War Reparations

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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In the early 2000s, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland had half a dozen human skulls lining its shelves. These skulls were trophies from the Vietnam War, confiscated from the soldiers who tried to smuggle them home. Although the skulls are reportedly an "anomaly" at the museum, they still hold immense fascination because, well, they are still at the museum. The US government never made any effort to return these skulls to their countries of origin to be properly buried.

The movement toward reparations of human remains only really gained momentum in the 1980s, and museums still have difficulty figuring out their role in tracking down who these remains belonged to, as well as how to return them.