I have read that there was a disturbingly common practice of American soldiers in the Pacific theater of WWII to take the skulls of dead Japanese soldiers as trophies to take home, give to girlfriends, etc. A Wikipedia article on this can be found here.

My question is: In the years after the war, where did all these skulls end up? I imagine that as the wartime fervor subsided and Americans realized how the Japanese had been dehumanized, there would be a growing revulsion to keeping these human remains in their possession. What did people to with the skulls they had: bury them? throw them away? Was it talked about, or was it a dirty little secret that people disposed of quietly?

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    @Semaphore I do not have a specific source I can point to, but I remember my grandparents saying something like "During the war, we just thought of them as 'Japs' that we had to kill. We didn't think of them as people." I suppose that people get more introspective as time passes and wartime fervor dies down. – Mike Feb 9 '15 at 5:38
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    @Semaphore: Not limited to Americans and Japanese, unfortunately. – DevSolar Feb 9 '15 at 15:03
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    I've heard that a lot of the "japanese" skulls on the market are just native graves that got plowed up by bulldozers and the like during the war and marketed as Japanese. – Oldcat Feb 12 '15 at 0:19

They didn't end up in any one particular place. In more recent decades, discovered skulls are generally returned to Japan, or disposed of in various ways (lack of identification).

Certainly at least some would have been gotten rid of (through burial or otherwise) since WW2 was still ongoing. American authorities did not officially approve of the practise. Though enforcement of the ban was lacklustre, from the beginning some trophy skulls were ordered disposed of or reburied. In the early post war years, several skulls were discovered both thrown away as garbage or in the possession of former soldiers. Beyond moral implications, possession may provoke murder investigations or breach state laws, all of which encouraged quiet disposals.

Sometimes souvenir skull turn up when the houses of former G.I.s are legally searched for other reasons and other times are found at the local dump, having been disposed of during a move.

- Quigley, Christine. Skulls and Skeletons: Human Bone Collections and Accumulations. McFarland, 2001.

Equally certainly, not all felt such "growing revulsion" at keeping them - at least, not for many years to come. Those trophy skulls which weren't otherwise lost ended in a wide range of circumstances. Some were kept as prized family heirlooms. Others were donated to academia for study or used as teaching aids. At least a few ended up in museums as exhibitions or became apparently traded as collectibles. Several skulls were retooled into decorations; at least one was known to have been fashioned into a Halloween prop with an light bulb.

In one case, a large number of skulls were harvested by a navy doctor. In 1974 he donated them to UC Berkeley for osteological studies, where they eventually became a museum exhibit.

For a long time after the war, these trophy skulls were treated like souvenirs and memorabilia, or simply forgotten in a basement. As the decades passed however, custodians of Japanese remains increasingly sought to repatriate them to Japan. Often this came about as veterans began passing away and their surviving family went through their inheritance. Many veterans, too, began seeing their wartime souvenirs differently than their younger selves.

To some veterans in old age, or to their surviving relatives, their trophy eventually came to seem 'a soldier who rates a ticket home - the 'last prisoner of World War II' as M. expressed it to the Dallas columnist - an actual person wrongfully prevented for fifty years from returning to his own people.

Harrison, Simon. Dark Trophies: Hunting and the Enemy Body in Modern War. Berghahn Books, 2012.

Sometimes, the Japanese government made official requests for the remains, which seems to have generally found receptive ears. However, where the process was initiated privately, the return trip often turned out to be harder than it had been bringing the skulls into America in the first place. Bureaucratic red tape aside, both American and Japanese governments has been reluctant to transfer remains without clear evidence of origin. The US Naval Hospital in Okinawa almost destroyed a skull as medical waste before Okinawa prefecture was persuaded to accept the transfer, for instance.

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Good condition, complete human skulls sell for $500 to $1000. If they have some special provenance, like being a trophy of the war in the Pacific which is documented they can get even more, perhaps as much as $2000 to $3000.

Over the years such things tend to end up in the hands of collectors, the family members who inherit them selling them.

Most "osteologists" keep their hobby secret for obvious reasons, but there are a few that show off their collections.

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One of them ended up in north eastern Montana. It was found in an old tin building on my families property and when an anthropologist examined(per Law Enforcement) it they said that's what it was. I found it very creepy and odd that my father would have a human skull hidden away like that. Apparently it's more common then I thought.

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  • I remember the shellshocked WWII/Vietnam vet with an enemy skull and a lot of camo and weapons in his lair being a common theme of movies in the '70's and '80's. – T.E.D. Dec 22 '16 at 20:00

There are no statitics for this. Its impossible to know how many were destroyed or thrown away. But many are coming to light as inheritances. I saw an article about one such skull being put up for auction, along side other animal remains and exotic items: Eccentric’s eclectic collection goes under the hammer.

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My father fought in the Philippines during WW-2 . On island of Luzon acquired a Japanese skull. Sent to Japan upon their surrender as part of the occupation. He did not bring the skull home but left it in the barracks when he left to return to the U.S.

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