The Horrific American War Crimes Against WWII Japan

“They sent forth men to battle, / But no such men return; / And home, to claim their welcome, / Come ashes in an urn.” —Aeschylus, Agamemnon

In A Nutshell

Government-initiated dehumanizing campaigns during World War II were so successful that the conflict in the Pacific theater was one of the most vicious ever recorded in human history. American soldiers, taught to revile the Japanese, would not merely kill their enemies, but defile their corpses as well. They even kept “souvenirs,” particularly gold teeth and severed ears.

The Whole Bushel

Since time immemorial, leaders have used a form of brainwashing on their citizens during times of war. The enemy is dehumanized through propaganda campaigns until they are no longer seen as people but as objects. They are no longer a “him” or “her,” but an “it.” This becomes psychologically necessary for soldiers fighting in the trenches—a mentally stable mind could not handle the killing if it spent too much time focusing on the humanity of opposing troops, as people with their own families and friends.

This campaign was particularly effective during World War II in the Pacific theater. American soldiers went to war against the Japanese with their hearts full of hate. The surprise “sneak” attack on Pearl Harbor provided the perfect opening. The mass media featured them as caricatures—monsters with yellow skin, slanted eyes, and enormous buckteeth. The US Navy even released a film that detailed the capture of the island of Tarawa that described the Japanese as “living, snarling rats.” Not people, but as vermin that needed to be wiped out.

There was such a massive gulf between physical appearance and culture that the Pacific part of the war was far more savage than anything going on in the European theater. Americans took very few prisoners, preferring instead to slaughter their enemies. The bodies were commonly desecrated. In Okinawa, soldiers were seen urinating into the mouths of dead Japanese. Like serial killers, they took “trophies” from the corpses, ripping gold teeth out of their mouths and hacking off their ears to be pickled. There were reports of soldiers taking souvenir skulls, using ants to strip away the flesh, or cooking the heads to clear off the meat. Customs officials found returning soldiers coming home with human bones in their luggage.

Shockingly enough, even Life magazine got in on the act. In February 1943, they published a horrifying picture from the Battle of Guadalcanal, which featured a charred Japanese human head propped up on a tank. A year later, they published another photograph (perhaps even more unsettling) of a young American woman at a desk with a skull on it. The chilling caption beneath read: “Arizona war worker writes her Navy boyfriend a thank-you note for the Jap skull he sent her.”

As these horrifying acts violated 1929’s Geneva Convention, the American military top brass tried to intervene, but their efforts largely fell on deaf ears. The Japanese media had a field day with this information, but the fact remains that their soldiers were no more humane. They were known to frequently cannibalize the bodies of enemy troops. Because of instances like these and more, many historians believe that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was for the best. While tragic, their death toll was miniscule compared to what would have happened if an invasion of mainland Japan had become necessary.

Show Me The Proof

University of California Press: Trophies of War: U.S. Troops and the Mutilation of Japanese War Dead
Life: Behind the Picture: ‘Skull on a Tank,’ Guadalcanal, 1942
LA Times: War is hell
Humanities and Social Sciences: A Heterology of American GIs during World War II
The Independent: Japanese troops ‘ate flesh of enemies and civilians’

  • inconspicuous detective

    you mean during war, one side isn’t immune to committing war crimes? damn. i’m shocked.

    hard to feel bad though when you consider japan honors its war criminals.

  • NHN

    The US-Soldiers did the same in Vietnam. Probably in most wars, and probably soldiers from most other countries keep it similar. That tells you a lot about human nature.

    • Nathaniel A.

      As the article said, dehumanization of a person is necessary in order to kill said person, though not to the extent the US took it to in this bushel.

      • Joseph

        It’s not just the US and not even the extent of the acts is unusual. There are many examples throughout history of the same kind of dehumanization. I’m not sure why this particular example is any more or less shocking. The Japanese treatment of the Chinese is one example that would seem relevant to me.

      • Erik Baran

        If you think the US was the extreme when it came to abhorrent behavior during war, then you know nothing of history.

    • Robert Downey

      It says a lot about the method we use to train our soldiers and to rally our people to war.

  • Missi

    I understand that a lot of the things we did were wrong in WWII but everyone pretends that Japans unit 731 didn’t exisit. If you look into unit 731 you will be disgusted with what the Japanese people did to chinese, americans, ect. Vivisections, and experiments that rivaled the nazi’s in cruelty. Seriously.

  • rincewind

    “As these horrifying acts violated 1929’s Geneva Convention, the American military top brass tried to intervene, but their efforts largely fell on deaf ears. The Japanese media had a field day with this information”.

    Japan didn’t sign the 1929 Geneva Convention. They used this as an excuse for their disgusting treatment of allied POWs.

    • Nathaniel A.

      But the United States did, which is why the American war crimes were illegal.

      • rincewind

        I know that but the Japanese media shouldn’t have “had a field day” when they did far worse themselves. When your pals are killed, would a piece of paper prevent you from getting revenge or, at the very least, not be too concerned with their rights?

        • Joseph

          That’s especially true for the ones that were eaten… What goes well with G.I Joe? Maybe a nice Pinot Grigio. Anyway, inappropriate joking aside I agree with you. It’s also kind of funny to argue the distinction between legal and illegal war crimes…

          • Dalton

            The Geneva convention doesn’t extend to the front lines.

          • Joseph

            I never claimed it did. As far as I’m aware Japan didn’t sign the Geneva Convention until sometime in the 50s anyway. Although, if they had signed it, they tortured and experimented on prisoners (including civilians).

  • Hillyard

    While the mutilation of the Japanese corpses is terrible, it pales in comparison to what the Japanese army did to the living POWs that they captured.

    • TheMadHatter

      I used to have nightmares of call of duty world at war 2. I’m sorry that I brought up COD. I slipped. I don’t want a lit cigarette to be shoved in my eye.

  • Mera P.

    We US Citizens concede that US Soldiers often get sidetracked from the job they were sent to do and do other less than admirable things.

    • Shinjitsu Ichiro

      In May 1945, Japan request to US to talk to end the war. US decided to ignore the request and dropped two bombs.

      • Kevin R. Cross

        Incorrect. Japan requested the USSR to act as a go-between to negotiate a cease-fire in place, despite knowing that the USA had virtually no interest in such a deal. The USSR did not pass on that information to the USA at all.

  • Enzo

    The belief that the atomic bombs ended up saving more lives has been disproven. That is what they said to try to justify their actions.
    Also, we all tend to fight about who did the worst war crimes, human rights abuses, etc. when we should be acknowledging that they are all horrible regardless of who did them. Peace

    • Dalton

      No YOU SAY it’s been disproven, present your proof sir.

  • jbird

    Google “Rape of Nanking”…Japanese soliders would cut unborn chinese babies from the mothers womb and leave her to die. Also, the Japanese media kept a running tally of a contest between two soliders. The contest? Who could kill the most people (civilians, women, children). I’m not trying to say I condone the actions of U.S. personnel. However, when you deal with such a vicious enemy, you better remove the kid gloves and put on your big boy pants.

  • Dalton

    There are no Geneva convention super police, if your fighting a war and your the aggressor, there is a 100% chance your going to ignore the deal and do whatever it takes to win. N if you don’t wanna get mud hole stomped as the defender, pretty sure you can’t be the only one playing by the rules. N if you ignore the Geneva convention are the aggressor n turn around n get your ass kicked, don’t expect leniency, it’s war not a board game.

  • Guest

    How much would a Japanese trophy skull taken by bonafide Filipino HEADHUNTER tribes? How much money could that fetch? I’ve seen various skulls on sale for $3000.00 to $15,000.00 USD-

  • David 13

    One of the things in my father’s trophy case is a dozen gold-filled teeth that he ripped from Jap mouths during the Soloman Islands campaign. He was a brute. just what the United States needed at that time. The Jap ears are kind of gross, but he said that only a few got through to my Mom in the US; the rest were seized. I have a picture of him with an ear necklace.