BELFAST, Maine — Police say they have found the man who anonymously mailed human remains to the Consulate General of Japan in New York City. The bones, which turned out to be from several different people who likely were Japanese World War II soldiers, were mailed from the Belfast post office in September.
The man was a vacationer from Massachusetts who found the bones before 2001 in a cave on the South Pacific island of Palau, according to an e-mail sent late last week from the New York Police Department to Detective Sgt. Bryan Cunningham of the Belfast Police Department.
Cunningham did not identify the Wakefield, Mass.-area man, who is not facing criminal charges, but who was reportedly “very apologetic” when the police found him to ask questions about the human remains.
“He’s a 55-year-old World War II buff,” NYPD Officer James Duffy said Tuesday of the Massachusetts man. “He found the stuff in a cave and took it as a memento and tossed it in his luggage.”
Duffy also declined to identify the man, saying that he is not under arrest and is not a suspect in a crime.
“He knew it was a mistake,” Cunningham said, paraphrasing from the NYPD e-mail he had received. “He never should have taken them.”
The man made another trip to Palau after Sept. 11, 2001, but figured that increased airport security would mean that he couldn’t bring the bones with him to return them to the island.
Palau, or Peleliu, as it was formerly known, is the site of a WWII battle that had the highest casualty rate of any amphibious invasion in the Pacific, according to the website militaryhistoryonline.com.
About 11,000 Japanese troops and Korean and Okinawan laborers were killed in the battle, which 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.
In August this year, when the Massachusetts man saw a newspaper article about memorabilia dealer Ralph McLeod of Holden returning a Japanese “trophy skull” to Japan, he apparently decided to do the same — sort of.
“He was coming to Maine [on vacation] anyway and figured he could mail them from the post office,” Cunningham said.
Duffy said that the collector had good intentions.
“He wanted to do the right thing,” the officer said. “It may not have been the best way to go about it.”
On Sept. 7, the man went to the Belfast post office and mailed the bones in a box a little bigger than a shoebox, Cunningham said, with a bogus Connecticut return address on the box. He also included a typed note that said the bones came from a Japanese soldier and that they had been acquired several years ago from Palau Island.
After the bones arrived at the New York consulate, staff there alerted local police, who started trying to determine whether the remains were indeed from 50-plus years ago and of Japanese origin.
Duffy said that the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office still has the bones and that a staff anthropologist there has determined they are Asian and from the WWII era. They also are from more than one person, which apparently the collector had not realized.
Because the package had a Belfast postmark, New York police contacted the Belfast Police Department, which found surveillance camera footage from that day showing a man getting out of a vehicle and carrying a similar-looking package. The footage was grainy and details such as the license plate number were not clear, Cunningham said in October.
Duffy did not comment on how the police were able to find the Massachusetts collector, but said the case involved a joint investigation by the U.S. Postal Inspector’s office and the NYPD.
The man apparently was cooperative with police when located, Cunningham said.
Duffy said that the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office would mail the remains back to the Consulate General of Japan and that the police’s role in the matter was almost over.
Howard Sigman of the consulate in New York said Tuesday that it is rare for the consulate to deal with cases of human remains that were kept as war memorabilia, but it does happen on occasion.
“Sometimes there are bones,” he said. “It was a kill or be killed sort of war. People were picking souvenirs off each other. That’s kind of the way it was.”
Sigman said he cannot comment on specific cases, but added that the consulate would not accept such war souvenirs anonymously.
“That doesn’t exactly fly well,” he said. “Where did this thing come from? How do we find out where it belongs if we don’t know where it came from?”
Most of those who turn in war relics such as flags, helmets, swords, ledger books and even human remains are related to World War II veterans, he said.
“They want to do the right thing and send them home,” Sigman said.
In his experience, it’s rare to have a collector return human remains that were found years after the war, such as what happened in Belfast.
“More often, it’s somebody who had a relative there,” Sigman said.
A ministry in Japan does its best to return the relics to living family members, he said.
“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” he said.
But after months or sometimes years of searching for those relatives, if no one is found, the relics will be sent to the Yasukuni Shrine for war veterans in Tokyo, Sigman said.