Calif. university says origins of alleged WWII bones are a mystery
Stars and Stripes August 26, 2009
CHATAN, Okinawa — University of California at Berkeley officials say they can’t be sure of the origins of bones donated to the school’s anthropology museum that were reportedly the remains of Japanese who died at the end of the Battle of Saipan during World War II.
The university’s executive director of public affairs told Stars and Stripes on Sunday that the school’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology has few details concerning the bones and suggested a controversy over them was purposely created by unknown individuals to damage the museum’s reputation.
"All we know is [the bones] appear to be East Asian," university spokesman Dan Mogulof in a telephone interview.
The San Francisco Chronicle first reported on the bones Aug. 16. That story said the bones were those of Japanese soldiers and civilians who committed suicide at the end of the battle, and the paper reported that international law experts said collecting and keeping them violated international law on the treatment of war remains.
Mogulof, however, told Stripes there is no evidence identifying the remains or how and when the individuals died. He also said the bones were never used for university research.
Moreover, he said, there is evidence that the controversy is the result of an unknown museum staffer or staffers last year who distributed misleading letters.
"We believe some people inside the museum have an agenda and are trying to defame the museum," he said.
He said fraudulent letters, bearing the museum director’s forged signature and claiming the bones were remains of Japanese war dead, were sent last year to the Defense Department, Japanese government agencies and the Yakusuni Shrine in Tokyo.
Officials at the Yasukuni Shrine, however, provided documents showing the letter informing them of the bones was from an anonymous source, rather than one with the museum director’s signature.
The letter gives contact information for the museum and ends: "I need to stay anonymous unfortunately. I am a researcher accessing the museum’s collection and chanced upon this material. No one at the museum really wants to talk about it."
Mogulof believes someone at the museum also forged a catalog card for the Saipan bones, identifying them as "remains of Japanese who committed suicide during the American invasion."
"The odd thing is that this is the only case where the information on the catalog card is not verified by the documents," he said.
The museum provided documents after the paper ran a story which was posted Saturday on Stripes.com.
The documents describe the remains as a box of unmarked "assorted skulls and post-cranial bones" collected on Saipan in 1945. The documents show the bones were donated to the museum in 1974 by former Navy Dr. Max Childress, along with marked bones Childress had collected from several Asian hospitals he had worked in during his career.
A letter signed by his superior officer dated Nov. 19, 1945, gave him permission to collect the Saipan bones.
Mogulof said current museum staff had not been aware of the Saipan bones before the controversy.
"We have 3.8 million bones in our collection," he said. "In fact, we did not know of these remains until we received a letter from the Yasukuni Shrine last year that thanked the museum for a letter concerning the university’s offer to return the bones to them for proper treatment. They said they were not interested."
The Chronicle’s story drew outrage from survivors of the battle and families of persons killed during the battle who demanded the bones be returned to Japan for proper care.
Mogulof said university attorneys were working on the issue and the school would "fully comply with any laws that are determined to be applicable."
Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.