AUGUSTA, Maine — An unknown number of World War II veterans brought home so-called “trophy skulls” or other bones as souvenirs of their military service, and some of these items are beginning to surface in Maine.
“It’s all starting to show up because these guys are dying off,” said Ralph McLeod, owner of Buyers Guns in Holden.
The local gun and memorabilia dealer has handled two trophy skulls in recent years; one was returned to Japan earlier this year. He was contacted this week about a reported Japanese skeleton from World War II found in the Belfast area.
The practice of sending home trophy skulls was spotlighted in news stories of the time, including a full-page Life magazine photograph published on May 22, 1944, showing a woman with a Japanese skull her fiance sent her from the Pacific war zone.
The average age of surviving World War II veterans is about 85, and as they die, their relatives are finding items they brought back from the war.
Those who find trophy skulls or other human remains are being urged to contact their police department.
“They should call their local law enforcement agency,” Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said Wednesday. “Each department is different, … but what we would do is contact the medical examiner’s office and ask for assistance.”
Once contacted, the state medical examiner’s office would tap a forensic anthropologist to investigate, said Jim Ferland, administrator with the office.
“We would try to make a determination of the origin of the remains, and if we can do that we would try to get them back to where they belong,” he said.
World-renowned forensic expert Dr. Marcella Sorg, the state’s forensic anthropologist, has investigated the origins of the two skulls found in Maine that McLeod handled.
“Those are the only two ‘skulls of that particular type’ that we’ve come into contact with,” Ferland said, referring to the trophy skulls. “There are probably more of those out there.”
Markings saying a skull came from World War II don’t automatically mean it’s authentic. Sorg determined the second skull that McLeod handled was of a Caucasian. McLeod speculated it could be an American soldier who is listed as missing in action from the war, which ended 65 years ago.
An investigation is the only way to determine the true origin of trophy skulls or other remains, Bangor police Sgt. Paul Edwards said.
“There is no way of knowing” without investigating, he said.