My Story: Well, maybe I don’t like this picture so much as I am compelled to think about it. From a 1944 issue of Life magazine, the “Picture of the Week”. Here’s the caption:
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, and inscribed: “This is a good Jap – a dead one picked up on the New Guinea beach.” Natalie, surprised at the gift, named it Tojo. The armed forces disapprove strongly of this kind of thing.
But Natalie doesn’t show any sign of disapproval. I wonder what is going through her head.
The Facts: The armed forces definitely did not approve of “this kind of thing” and on several occasions warned US publishers that printing such pictures might result in retaliation against American soldiers. Nevertheless, the practice of taking skulls and other parts of corpses as souvenirs was widespread in the Pacific theater during World War II. A contemporary poem, “The US Sailor with the Japanese Skull”, by Winfield Townley Scott, actually detailed one method of cleaning a souvenir skull. Other methods were practiced by US servicemen.At one point President Roosevelt was presented with a letter opener made from a man’s arm. He is said to have received it warmly but to have had the item interred with other remains later. That story and the photo of Natalie and Tojo found their way into the Japanese press. Some historians have claimed that stories of US soldiers desecrating remains helped cause the mass suicide of civilians who leaped into the sea at Saipan and Okinawa. After the war, as Japan became a trusted US ally, souvenir body parts ceased to be respectable conversation pieces and were quietly put away. Sometimes they re-emerge to the consternation of police who have to determine their origin.
But the question remains, what is Natalie thinking? Is she pleased and proud? Is she mystified or confused? Is she writing a polite thank-you note to her Lieutenant or a excited demand for lots more skulls? Women’s attitudes toward combat were probably quite different in 1944 then they are nowadays with women serving as active warriors. The division between those who fight and those who need protection was part of the great gender divide of the day and helped bolster male demands for female obedience. But that is a topic that somebody else can analyze.