HOLDEN, Maine — Ralph McLeod, a local gun and memorabilia dealer and Vietnam War-era veteran, got news Thursday that the World War II “trophy skull” he acquired five years ago so that he could send it back to Japan is finally on its way home.
Representatives from the Japanese government traveled to Maine on Thursday afternoon to get the skull, which had the words “1945 Jap Skull Okinawa” printed by hand in ink on its top, and will return it to the Land of the Rising Sun for a proper burial.
“Five years ago when I originally had the skull, my goal was to send it back to Japan,” McLeod said while sitting behind the counter of Buyers Guns. “We have MIA [missing in action] teams in Asia looking for remains. The proper thing to do is return it.”
McLeod purchased the skull for $50 in 2005 from a fellow gun dealer, who had obtained it when he bought a box of materials at an estate sale in southern Maine. Once he had the skull, McLeod contacted the Embassy of Japan in Washington, D.C., about returning it to its home country for a proper burial, and he was referred to the Japanese consulate in Boston.
The state medical examiner’s office in Augusta also got involved and had world-renowned forensic expert Dr. Marcella Sorg, the state’s forensic anthropologist, investigate the origins of the skull.
Sorg “determined the skull was that of a female with an age between 18 and 25,” said Jim Ferland, administrator with the medical examiner’s office.
Her investigation also determined that the skull originated from southern Japan and that the woman died several decades ago, likely before World War II, he said.
When the Marines first landed on Okinawa, they found burial crypts that looked like ammunition bunkers, so the soldiers searched them and oftentimes used the crypts for shelter, McLeod said, surmising the skull came from one of the crypts.
“She [may] have been in that tomb for 40 or 50 years,” he said. “Somebody found it and brought it home as a souvenir.”
“Trophy skulls,” or souvenir human skulls, have been collected by soldiers in wars dating back to before records were first kept, the gun dealer said.
The practice of sending home trophy skulls was spotlighted by Life magazine in a full-page photograph published May 22, 1944, in which a sailor’s girlfriend is seen looking at a Japanese skull she received from the Pacific war zone. The Life photo caption reads: “Arizona war worker writes her Navy boyfriend a thank-you note for the Jap skull he sent her.”
The two Japanese emissaries who came to Maine make up one group of four that are traveling the globe picking up their countrymen’s remains, Ferland said.
After leaving Maine, Shigeto Hirabayashi, director of the Toyko-based Social Welfare and War Victims’ Relief Bureau’s records division, and Tsuyuki Fujii, planning division chief of the bureau, will travel to Chicago to pick up items from that area.
The two Japanese officials on Thursday placed the skull inside a white brocade container — white to symbolize mourning — and will have it cremated before returning it to Japan, as required by that country’s laws.
“They have a big memorial park, similar to a veterans park, where the remains will be placed,” Ferland said.
McLeod said after waiting five years for all the paperwork and Maine’s investigation to be completed, he’s glad that his mission to return the human remains to the country of their origin is complete.
“The skull or ashes are going to be back where they’re from, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”