Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Skull Trophies of the Pacific War: Transgressive Objects of remembrance./Les Trophees De la Guerre Du Pacifique : Des Cranes Comme Souvenirs Transgressifs

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Skull Trophies of the Pacific War: Transgressive Objects of remembrance./Les Trophees De la Guerre Du Pacifique : Des Cranes Comme Souvenirs Transgressifs

Article excerpt

  When their enemies fall [the Gauls] cut off their heads ... and these
  first-fruits of battle they fasten by nails upon their houses, just as
  men do, in certain kinds of hunting, with the heads of wild beasts
  they have mastered.
  Diodorus of Sicily, Book V (1939: 173-5)

A small subfield of forensic anthropology concerns the identification and analysis of human skulls collected by military personnel as war souvenirs and trophies. Most of these relics originate in two twentieth-century conflicts: the Pacific War and the Vietnam War. (1) Many have come to light quite accidentally. In June 2003, for instance, detectives in the city of Pueblo, Colorado, searching a house for drugs, discovered a small trunk inscribed with the word 'Guadalcanal' and the date 'November 11 1942'. Finding a human skull inside, they seized it. Photographs taken by the coroner's office, and published in a local newspaper, showed that the skull bore many inscriptions. Across the frontal bone were the neatly lettered words:

  THIS IS A GOOD JAP
  GUADALCANAL S.I.
  11-NOV.-42
  OSCAR
  M.G. J.PAPAS U.S.M.C.

The skull also bore autographs of two or three dozen servicemen up to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and had been lacquered. The householder told the police that it was a family heirloom, and demanded its return. It was the skull, he said, of a Japanese soldier killed in the battle of Guadalcanal by his great-grandfather, Julius Papas. Papas and other members of his unit had signed their names and ranks on it and given it the nickname 'Oscar'. Forensic analysis by anthropologists at the US Army Central Identification Laboratory confirmed the probability of wartime Japanese origins, and in May 2004 the skull was handed over to the Japanese authorities for interment (Malone 2003a; 2003b; 2003c; 2004a; 2004b). (2)

In a newspaper interview after the discovery of the skull, a spokesman for the Marine Corps expressed shock at such reprehensible and unlawful treatment of the dead:

  As a God-fearing person, it violates all moral laws of everything I've
  been raised to know ... I don't need to look in the Uniform Code (of
  Military Justice) to tell you that you can't walk off the battlefield
  with the remains of the enemy. Has it ever happened? It has, but it's
  just wrong (Malone 2003a).

But the relatives of Papas, who died in 1960 after a long career in the Corps, spoke of their sense of loss. For them, the passage of time had transformed the skull into a cherished possession redolent with family sentiment and affection. The niece of Papas, for instance,

  has fond memories of the skull as a family heirloom. She said she was
  saddened that the artifact has been taken from her family and returned
  to the Japanese government.
    'Anybody that knew the family or went in (Papas') house saw it ...
  Whenever you walked in that house, it was right there in the middle of
  the shelf ... 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' (Malone 2004b).

The collection of skulls and other remains of Japanese soldiers for souvenirs by Allied servicemen is an aspect of the Pacific War that seems largely forgotten. (3) Yet several historians have shown that it occurred on a large enough scale to concern the Allied military authorities throughout the conflict, and was widely reported and commented on in the American and Japanese wartime press (Aldrich 2005: 14-15; Dower 1986; Fussell 1988; 1989; Hoyt 1986: 277, 357-9; Shillony 1981; Weingartner 1992; 1996). One problem these practices therefore pose is why they occurred to such a significant extent throughout the course of this war, and why they seem to have disappeared from public memory afterwards. …

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