A young woman writing a thank you note to her boyfriend in the Navy for the skull of a Japanese soldier that he sent, 1944


A rare and disturbing picture, so much about it is still a mystery. We don't know what happened to the skull—or, really, what happened to the young woman herself, or the man who sent her as a "gift" from the Pacific in the midst of World War II.

Image taken by Ralph Crane was featured in the May 22, 1944 issue of LIFE magazine as a portrait of the week. Original Caption: "When she said goodbye to 20-year-old Natalie Nickerson, a war worker from Phoenix, Ariz., two years ago, a large, handsome Navy lieutenant promised her a chant. Last week Natalie found a human skull, which was found Her lieutenant and 13 friends were autographed, and wrote: "That's a good chant - a dead one raised on a New Guinea beach." Natalie, surprised at the gift, named her Tojo. Armed Forces [LIFE apparently mentioned from] strongly disapprove of such things".

Ever since humans started killing each other, atrocities on the battlefield have been a part of warfare. As Niall Ferguson explained in his 2006 book, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, discussing the same photo of young Natalie Nickerson and the Japanese skull: "Allied soldiers often killed the Japanese. Granted. Just as the Germans treated the Russians as Untermenschen. It was not an unusual practice to boil meat from the enemy's skull to make souvenirs. Ears, bones, and teeth were also collected."

At one point President Roosevelt was presented with a letter opener made by a man's hand. He is said to have received it warmly, but later obstructed the item with other remains. That story and the picture of Natalie and Tojo made their way into the Japanese press.

The fact that it was so common in Pacific theater and not European is a testament to the effectiveness of dehumanizing propaganda. Some historians have claimed that stories of desecration of the remains of American soldiers helped lead to the mass suicides of civilians who jumped into the ocean in Saipan and Okinawa.

After the war, as Japan became a trusted American ally, Souvenir's body parts ceased to be respectable conversation pieces and were quietly removed.

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