BELFAST, Maine — Police would like to talk to the man who last month mailed human remains — which a typed, anonymous note identified as being skeletal bones of a World War II Japanese soldier — from the Belfast Post Office to the Consulate-General of Japan in New York City.
“It is not a criminal matter,” Belfast police Sgt. Bryan Cunningham wrote Wednesday afternoon in an e-mail. “But the wishes of the mailer were that the remains be returned to Japan. He felt this was a soldier who fought for his country in World War II and deserved a decent burial in his home country. The problem is that the Japanese consulate cannot accept these remains without a little more information.”
After the bones arrived at the New York consulate, staff there alerted local police, who are trying to determine whether the remains are in fact from 50-plus years ago and if they are of Japanese origin.
New York City police called New York’s U.S. Postal Inspector Tom Boyle as well as Michael Desrosiers, Maine’s postal inspector.
“All kinds of crazy stuff goes through the mail, but this is a first for me,” Boyle said. “I’ve never seen someone try to return remains of a foreign soldier from a previous war.”
New York police also contacted the Belfast Police Department, and Cunningham began searching for the person who mailed the package a little after noon on Sept. 7. Belfast police also contacted gun and memorabilia dealer Ralph McLeod of Holden, who was recently in the news after successfully returning a Japanese “trophy skull,” or war souvenir, to Japan, to see if he knew any collectors in the Belfast area.
According to McLeod, the man who mailed the remains put a bogus Connecticut return address on the box and paid a few dollars to send the small package to New York.
Police surveillance camera footage from that time shows the man and his vehicle, but it is grainy and would need to be enhanced to get any details, including the license plate number, which Cunningham said the department is hoping it won’t have to do.
“We would prefer the individual contact Belfast Police Department and we will keep his name anonymous still,” he said.
Police in New York and Belfast say they are just doing due diligence to make sure everything is on the up and up.
“Who knows that those bones are indeed Japanese?” asked Richard Winslow, an adviser at the Consulate General of Japan in Boston.
He said it’s rare for the consulate to deal with cases of human remains that might have been kept as war memorabilia.
“I have been working here for decades, literally, and there are only two instances that I am aware of,” he said. “The soldiers did bring things home, but human remains were not the most common by any stretch.”
More often, the consulate is requested to return battle flags, diaries, letters, postcards and even swords to Japan by the families of war veterans who took them as souvenirs.
According to Cunningham, the note inside the box specified that the sender had acquired the human remains several years ago and that they came from Peleliu Island, which is now called Palau.
According to the website militaryhistoryonline.com, the American assault on Peleliu, an island southeast of the Philippines, had the highest casualty rate in terms of men and material of any amphibious invasion in the Pacific. About 11,000 Japanese troops and Korean and Okinawan laborers were killed in the battle that lasted from Sept. 15, 1944, to Oct. 15, 1944. More than 1,500 American troops were killed and 6,700 were wounded or reported missing.
McLeod said he figures the mystery man was just trying to do the right thing. Warriors have collected human skulls as souvenirs since before records were kept, said the owner of Buyers Guns in Holden.
Edward L. Jones, a U.S. war correspondent during World War II, wrote a graphic piece about trophy skulls for The Atlantic magazine in February 1946.
“We boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter-openers,” he wrote.
One such letter opener was sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he refused to accept the grisly souvenir, according to published reports.
With the average age of surviving World War II veterans at around 85, it is likely that more WWII memorabilia, including trophy skulls or human remains, will surface in the next decade, McLeod said.
“There is more of them out there,” he said. “[But] every bit of remains that came out of the Pacific theater, it turns out, may not be Japanese.”
In June 2005, McLeod acquired a trophy skull that had “1945 Jap skull, Okinawa” printed by hand in ink on its top in order to return it to Japan for a proper burial. Three months later, he obtained a second trophy skull that had handwritten words on the skull’s right side identifying it as a “Jap Skull” from the Solomon Islands with the date Dec. 15, 1945.
McLeod contacted the Embassy of Japan in Washington, D.C., and the Consulate General of Japan in Boston after receiving the two skulls back in 2005.
“The Japanese embassy was very reluctant to take it without proof,” he said.
World-renowned forensic expert Dr. Marcella Sorg, the state’s forensic anthropologist, determined the first skull was Japanese but the second was American, according to McLeod, who speculated that the Solomon Islands skull may belong to a soldier who is listed as missing in action.
Two Japanese emissaries came to Maine on Aug. 26 to pick up the Okinawa skull and afterward went to Chicago to pick up remains found there. They were one group of four dispatched in August to areas around the world to pick up their countrymen’s remains, said Jim Ferland, administrator with the Maine medical examiner’s office.
Winslow said that if anyone might be wondering what to do with some human bones from the war that are thought to be Japanese, they should not send such a package anonymously but instead call the consulate for advice.
“I would certainly recommend they contact the medical examiner’s office,” he said.
McLeod, a Vietnam War-era veteran, said it is very important that all human remains brought back to the United States after WWII be returned so they can be given a proper burial.
“We would want the same thing,” he said.
Anyone with information about the Belfast remains should contact Detective Sgt. Bryan Cunningham of the Belfast Police Department at 338-5255.