Sometime in December 1943, Navy photographer Charles Kerlee took this photo of a scene on Tarawa.
Tarawa, as you probably know, had just been captured in a bloody battle only a few weeks earlier. There are many scholarly works I could cite to explain why some marine or marines decided to use an enemy skull in such a grim, macabre manner. Doesn’t matter. We, as a civilized society, consider it a transgression. It’s taboo. It’s wrong. But it is a line that is sometimes crossed in war.
Kerlee’s photo went to the Navy’s files. It was not released to the press. Newspaper photographers captured many scenes like this during the war. The photos emerged over the years from the files, but few were run in the newspapers during World War II. Society – American society – just did not allow newspapers and magazines to run them.
For example, Life Magazine ran this photo in the May 22, 1944 issue (page 35 if you wish to browse the issue):
The caption reads, “Arizona war worker writes her Navy boyfriend a thank-you note for the Jap skull he sent her.” (And I think the expression on her face says a lot.)
I’ve not traced the definitive facts on the girlfriend and her Navy boyfriend. Most secondary sources state he received some punishment, and of course the service issued statements explicitly condemning the action. The public reaction to this photo was almost completely negative. It is one thing to see depictions of the enemy’s wartime atrocities. But it is another entirely to see atrocities acted out by one’s own. After posting this photo, and a few others showing mutilations (such as a burned head on top of a knocked out Japanese tank), Life agreed to stop running such depictions. The editorial staff recognized the negative impact on the magazine’s, military’s, and nation’s reputation. The magazine might, seizing the opportunity that grisly photos offer, sell a few more copies, but would loose in the long run.
Same country, same military, very similar situation….. different editorial staff:
Times Editor Davan Maharaj said, “After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”