Wars of 20th Century: The Human Trophies

When you run down the memory lane into your childhood reminiscing the days where you tend to wait throughout the year for one day, that one day when you were treated like a prince, that one day where your naughty works use to get excused, the day you were pampered royally by all the members of your family, the day you were pounded by kisses and blessings from your elders (especially your parents and grandparents), the day you were showered by loads of gifts and that day is your ‘Birthday’.

 Imagine a day when you are excited to open all the gifts that you got and happen to open a box which contains a painted “Human Skull” or a chain of beads woven by “Human Teeth” or a pencil set made of “Human Bones” or a letter opener made of a “Human Finger”; what would be your reaction? A chain of curse words could slip from your tongue and you may experience shivers running down your spine, which is about the same that happened to me when I came across these bizarre stories of World War II.

The Word “Trophy” is derived from Greek “tropaion” which translates to arms, standards, other property or human captives captured in war and their body parts. These war trophies commemorate the military victories of a state, army or individual combatant. In modern day warfare, taking human trophies is discouraged and is considered as a punishable offence.

Collecting Human Trophies dates back to most ancient civilisations of Mesoamerica such as the Olmec, Maya, Mixtec, Zapotec and Aztec cultures; in 20th Century, this came into existence during the period of World War II when Americans started mutilation of Japanese war dead.

Skulls, teeth, ears and other body parts of Japanese people were modified by fashioning and turning them into artefacts. Heads of the wounded or dead soldiers were chopped and scalped; sometimes it involved cooking them before they were scalped and polished. Other body parts such as teeth were removed by hitting on the jaws with gun butts or pierced out using combat knives. Teeth are the most sought after body parts as most of the Japanese soldiers had teeth filled with golden caps. Their belts were also of prominence as they always carried money belts.

During the World War 2 period, many of the American Marines were seen walking around pinning the Japs ears to their belts using safety pins. Human bones were modified into either “Letter Openers” or an extension of “Trench Art”. Chopped heads were hanged to flag posts, skulls were used as a warning sign or turned into artefact’s like ash trays.


Tripped Out Fact: 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 given back and recommended it be buried instead. In, doing so Roosevelt was acting in response to the concerns raised by military officials.

Human trophy collection started due to U.S troop’s hostility towards Japanese opponents because of the war crimes committed against Americans such as the Bataan Death March, and other incidents conducted by individual soldiers. Some say it’s because of the surprise attack that the Japanese carried out on Pearl Harbour.

US Marine, Egene Sledge recounts few instances of fellow Marines extracting gold teeth from the Japanese soldiers including the one where the enemy is still alive. The Japanese soldier was not dead but was badly wounded and was in an immovable position where he resisted until his last breath. The soldier had a few teeth filled with golden caps and the captor wanted them. He placed the point of his combat knife on the base of the tooth and hit the butt of the knife, at first he didn’t succeed and whilst the soldier was writhing in pain, he continued. Sledge shouted to put the agony of the soldier  to rest and all he got was verbal abuse. Another marine ran and inserted a bullet into the Japs brain while the scavenger continued on extracting his trophies.

Many horrifying tales of same nature have been recorded by famous historians throughout the war. According to some, it’s not possible to determine the percentage of U.S troops that collected body parts from the dead, while others claim it’s been only a fraction of them and it purely relates to their attitude and behaviour. Some writers and veterans feel that collecting human trophies from the dead was the side effect of a harsh and hatred-filled campaign in the American media after the Pearl Harbour attack. Cartoons were published in Chicago Tribune few days after the Pearl Harbour attack, one among those shows a giant eagle sporting American flag attacking a reptile (Japan written on it) where a sign board next to it reads “The Yellow Peril”, another one where a muscular sailor carrying a naval gun aimed at the distant Japanese home islands with a tag line dangling from one of the guns reads “War without Mercy on a Treacherous Foe”.

U.S troops had revenge and loathe running through their veins, they started and continued this barbaric act throughout the period of WWII. Even the stern disciplinary actions taken couldn’t restrict this inhuman practise.

In present day war scene,you may hear instances of mutilating opponents but it can’t be compared to the extent that it happened during WWII. This will remain as the most brutal, inhuman and horrifying chapters of 20th Century War history, written with Japanese blood.


Image Sources: [1], [2], [3] 


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One comment

  1. Joseph A Machado

    It’s important to remember these stories to realize that war is not glamorous no matter how righteous it may be. Both sides are brutalized by the savagery of war. Even the most humane soldier is mentally scarred and dehumanized by the experience. The closer to the killing the deeper is the effect.

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