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  • James Houser

May 22, 1944 - Life Magazine's Infamous Skull Cover; Race and War in the Pacific

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

May 22, 1944. Life Magazine’s Photo of the Week features Natalie Nickerson, a young war worker in Phoenix, Arizona. She sits at her desk, looking with concern at a human skull on the surface before her. It is a Japanese skull autographed by her boyfriend, a Navy Lieutenant, and thirteen of his friends. In this striking photograph, we get a glimpse into the brutality of World War II in the Pacific - a war without mercy.

Today I’m doing something different from the usual, once again. I’ll be talking less about events and more about themes – in particular, the way that both American and Japanese views of race colored the way they fought and lived throughout the Pacific War. Both sides viewed the conflict as heavily racialized, and this sentiment was purposely exploited by war propaganda and official statements. Yet on a broader level, only one of the combatants based its strategy and the actual *conduct* of the war on racial notions, and the answer may surprise you.

Race is a touchy subject, and always will be. I can probably go on CNN, Fox News or any other network today and find ten different articles each with a different take on a particular event – Joe Biden’s recent comments, Trump’s press conferences, Ahmaud Arbury’s death, or anti-Chinese racism thanks to COVID-19. Given how much race impacts our own worldview and ideas, sometimes we can be surprisingly blind to the notion that it was just as prevalent in the past – or, on the flipside, we’re naive enough to think it was only in the past. If we’re of a less “rah rah America” persuasion, we may even think that it is a uniquely American issue, although nothing could be more American than thinking America’s the only country that has certain problems.

There is little denying that America’s past is inextricably bound up in race. Most of this history has concerned black people, Native Americans, or Hispanics, but in the early 20th Century the ugly specter of anti-Asian racism began to rear its head. This was inspired in large part by the emergence of Japan as a major power in the Pacific, in a period where the USA was also expanding into the Pacific through its occupation of the Philippines and Guam as well as its intervention in China.

Throughout the first couple decades of the 20th Century, there were multiple panics and rumors of Japanese attack or invasion of the West Coast. It became enough of a phenomenon that it gained its own phrase – “the Yellow Peril.” This was followed by anti-immigration laws directed at Japan, actions which angered the Japanese. American sentiments regarded the Japanese with an oddly bipolar mix of contempt and fear; they were somehow both “yellow monkeys” of lower stock – subhuman – but also fierce, monstrous and strong – superhuman. This was an outgrowth of racialist pseudoscience that had long been used to justify white superiority over blacks, Indians, and Asians.

For their part, Japan had long been an isolated nation, only forced to modernize rapidly when the Western Powers compelled her to open up to foreign trade. Nevertheless, Japan’s unique and separate culture had long given them a sense of cultural superiority, especially compared to the Koreans and Chinese. One politician referred to the Japanese as the “sole superior race,” related to the Gods, and one pamphlet given to Japanese soldiers declared the war to be a “struggle between races.” While the Chinese and Koreans could be considered “barbarian” peoples – apes to be subjugated and turned to slave labor – Westerners were regarded as something else. Japanese propaganda associated them with the devils and demons of long-standing Japanese folklore: powerful beings that must be outwitted and destroyed. Whereas American racism was driven by a twisting of Romanticist ideals, Japanese racism was based in quasi-religious mythology.

The Japanese turned their mythology to use in other ways too. As a way of instilling spirit into their armies – spirit that had seemed lacking in early wars – the Japanese military promoted the ideal of *bushido*, the “samurai spirit.” Despite not even remotely resembling actual samurai behavior, *bushido* was drilled into recruits and officers as a uniquely Japanese spirit and divine devotion to the Emperor. Bushido went hand in hand with Japanese superiority: it meant death before surrender, absolute loyalty, and unquestioning obedience. The Japanese military displayed these tropes often in its victorious wars against China and Russia in 1894 and 1904. Western observers noted the almost suicidal bravery of Japanese soldiers – and the high casualties that resulted.

The issue, of course, was that Japanese racism notably affected their global strategy. The Great Depression of the 1930s gave rise to the notion that Japan had to become self-sufficient in resources, and this had to be accomplished by doing two things. The first was to assert their place as the divinely appointed overlord of Asia – the “leading race”; the second was to expel the Western demons. After a shockingly successful war against Russia in 1904, the Japanese high command believed that the Western Powers were a paper tiger, cowardly creatures that would crumble under superior Japanese will and bravery. A short, victorious war would cow the West and bring them to the peace table.

When the Japanese did go to war against China in 1937, their racial attitudes made themselves felt by the actions of the Japanese soldiery. The infamous Rape of Nanking in 1937 was punctuated by the merciless slaughter of as many as 300,000 Chinese civilians – a higher death toll than the American Civil War. The Japanese regarded Chinese and Korean civilians with omnipresent brutality, including the conscription of large numbers of civilian women as “comfort women” – essentially, forced prostitutes. This had its roots in decades of indoctrination: one story relates how a schoolboy in Japan was reluctant to dissect a frog, only to be berated by his teacher: “Why are you crying about one lousy frog? When you grow up you’ll have to kill one hundred, two hundred chinks!”

The Japanese attack on Great Britain and the USA in 1941 also came with racial overtones. The Japanese portrayed themselves as liberating Asian nations from the Western devils, but Filipinos, Vietnamese and Indonesians soon found that the Japanese were even worse. The Japanese behaved abominably towards Allied prisoners of war, often slaughtering them en masse or working them to death. Their belief that surrender was cowardly and the act of subhumans bred this contempt. It would not be long before this cruelty brought cruelty in turn.

The United States engaged the Japanese with a level of hatred unequalled in any American war. Fury over the attack on Pearl Harbor combined with good old-fashioned American racism to condemn the entire nation of Japan as subhuman. This bled over into America’s treatment of Japanese-Americans, including their internment on the West Coast. American dehumanization of their enemy extended even to the highest ranks: Admiral William F. Halsey referred to the Japanese as “monkeymen” and “beasts.” Americans consistently expressed more hatred for the Japanese than the Germans. War correspondent Ernie Pyle reported that the Americans felt about the Japanese “the way some people feel about cockroaches or mice.”

American propaganda tended to push back against underestimating the Japanese, however. Much in the same way that white racism leaned towards exaggerating the strength and size of African-Americans as a way of invoking both disgust and fear, American propaganda described the Japanese soldier as a “born jungle and night fighter.” His “fiendish ability” made the “Jap” something to be feared and hated. A piece in Life Magazine stated that “Japan’s army looks sloppy, dirty and stupid BUT it is intelligent, united, faithful.”

With both these attitudes going into the fight, it is unsurprising that few prisoners were taken on either side of the Pacific War. The Guadalcanal campaign saw the first large-scale land conflict between American and Japanese troops, with both sides coming into close contact for the first time. Neither approved too much. The Americans learned very quickly of Japanese atrocities committed against their wounded, and these stories spread. They also learned of Japanese unwillingness to surrender, even to the point of faking surrender then throwing a grenade or stabbing their captor. While many of these stories were doubtless true, they only fed the preexisting notion of the “Jap” subhuman cruelty. It is impossible to know how many American units took no prisoners because the Japanese would not surrender – or because the G.I.s would not let them surrender. Both were true.

The grisly trend of trophy-taking extended to both sides. The Japanese often robbed American corpses or took fingers from their bodies. The Americans took teeth, ears, scalps, and skulls. The young woman in the Life Magazine photo was not viewing the only example of this barbarity; she was looking into the eyeless sockets of a trend. Eugene B. Sledge in his memoir (turned into an HBO Miniseries, “The Pacific”) recalled seeing fellow Marines gouging out gold teeth, while a “Leatherneck” article reported a Marine who carried eleven ears from dead Japanese.

Americans at home expressed shock and disgust when they heard these stories, with many people writing to Life Magazine in disbelief that American boys could do such things. In large part, though, they were brutalized by their environment. The Pacific seemed like another world with its own rules. Deep jungles, unearthly little islands, thousands of miles from home felt like a place where the old rules didn’t matter.

The Japanese, of course, were no angels. American captives were routinely tortured and murdered. There was even some cannibalism, especially later in the war when Japanese food supplies began to tighten. It is, perhaps, easier to understand American attitudes when they found the partially eaten corpses of their comrades, or men who had been clearly shot in the head from behind, or men with fingers chopped off or katanas broken off in their bellies. It is perhaps easier to understand the Japanese approach when they found dead mutilated Japanese, or saw an American with fingers dangling from his belt. In such an alien world, barbarity became its own law.

It is possible to overstate the frequency of these actions. The vast majority of American servicemen did not shoot prisoners or mutilate the dead. The vast majority of Japanese soldiers did not eat American corpses or fake surrender. Enough did, though, to justify and perpetuate racial hatred and turn the Pacific War into a unique version of hell on Earth for everyone involved. The atrocities occurred on the peripheries of combat. The victims were those attempting to surrender, prisoners, or bodies of the dead – not those engaged in the fight. Atrocity is the province of the strong against the defenseless, or the armed against the unarmed.

For the United States, though, racism did not seriously cause or guide the war in the Pacific. The individual racist actions of soldiers, such as the killing of prisoners or the taking of trophies, was always condemned by leadership. There is little to no evidence that racism affected American strategy, even through the use of firebombing or the atomic bomb; there is no doubt that the United States would have used the A-Bomb against Germany as well, had it been developed in time. This did not stop the struggle from being brutal, but it was brutal because it was World War II, not because the enemy was the Japanese.

On the flipside, the Japanese clearly based their entire strategy on their perceptions of Westerners as a race, in particular their lack of spirit, will or devotion. These were viewed as uniquely Japanese traits, reflected in the code of “bushido” and evidenced by the increasingly fanatical tactics and resistance as the war dragged on. The advent of kamikazes, suicide bombers, and banzai charges culminated in the near-suicidal decision to keep fighting late into 1945. Even after the second bomb dropped, it took the Emperor’s personal intervention to convince his cabinet to surrender in the face of absolute destruction.

Racism had to be reinvented in the aftermath of the war, when the United States occupied and began to rebuild Japan as a democracy. The Americans were able to coopt racialist attitudes to perceive the Japanese as a clean, orderly little people who had accepted defeat and were now properly polite and cordial to their American overlords. The Japanese benefited from a mythical tradition where the demon was not only foe or enemy but also a possible ally or protector; the Americans had moved from the “enemy” to the “protector” slot, so all was well. It’s surprising how racist beliefs can be bent from hatred to cordiality, but then again prejudice has never made all that much sense.

The hatred, though, left scars on the men who fought the wars. All the “nice racism” in the world could not erase that haunting image of a skull on a young woman’s desk. The vessel confronting Natalie Nickerson had once been a person, occupied by a mind and a soul with human desires, wants, and fears. The unnamed Chinese babies spitted on bayonets in Nanjing, the Americans cannibalized and buried in mass graves, the Japanese carved up into trinkets and trophies did not have to end up that way.

How we treat our dead is important in every culture, if only because of what it betrays about how we think of our living and the meaning of a life. I have a sinking feeling that we have not seen the end of race hatred in war. We have not seen the end of war without mercy.

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