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WWII "souvenir" turned over to Okinawa officials

By MARK OLIVA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 17, 2003

CAMP LESTER, Okinawa — A fallen soldier has come home.

In a short, quiet and solemn ceremony at the U.S. Naval Hospital hospital Thursday, hospital officials turned over a skull believed to that of a Japanese soldier from World War II to Okinawa prefectural authorities.

It ended a strange and twisted saga of war, fear and respect.

Navy Capt. Patricia Buss, executive officer for the U.S. Naval Hospital, stepped to the table covered in white linen, a bowl of fruit, two white candles and a wooden box wrapped in white linen. In the box was the skull that has been in the hospital’s custody for almost three years. She lifted the box and held it out to an Okinawan prefectural official and stated quietly, “We are proud to be a small part of a long-awaited homecoming.”

The official took the box — and ended the unknown soldier’s journey.

The saga of the lost skull started Feb. 9, 2000, when Arnold Zilinski, now 64, was taking a walk around Springfield Lake, in Springfield, Ill. The lake’s water levels had dropped steadily during the prior six months; uncovered shoreline now exposed to sunlight was nothing new. But the circular form of a human skull was — Zilinksi called police.

The discovery caught the attention of the local television news station, which in turn caught the attention of Jeremy Rupp, then 18. He called the police. He was the one who’d thrown it in the lake, he said, but only because he “had gotten tired of looking at the skull,” brought back by his grandfather after World War II.

Robert Rupp, a retired Marine gunnery sergeant, said his father was a Navy corpsman during that war and fought in several famous battles, including Guadalcanal and possibly Okinawa. His father picked up the skull as a sort of gruesome war trophy and brought it back to the U.S. In a further grisly twist, he used it as a biology teaching aid when he assumed a post-military life as a high school science teacher. But the Navy corpsman died when his son was just 12; the skull and other belongings were packed in a trunk, stored in an attic and forgotten.

Until Jeremy came across the skull one day.

The grandson admitted to police he took it from the trunk. As an adolescent’s ghoulish prank, he spray-painted it gold, put a bandana on it and set it in his room.

But “Jeremy later became afraid of the skull and decided to throw it into Lake Springfield,” wrote the police officer who interviewed him.

Pathologists in Illinois used computer scans and detailed examinations to determine that skull likely belonged to a man in his early 30s or 40s who suffered a head wound, possibly fatal, in the left temple. They were able to determine only within a 65-70 percent probability that the skull belonged to someone of Japanese descent. The pathologists enlisted the U.S. Naval Hospital’s help and sent the skull to Okinawa for repatriation.

But there, it hit a snag. Original plans called for the skull to be turned over to Okinawan prefectural authorities during the G8 international economic summit on Okinawa in 2000.

But “someone either in the State Department or the president’s staff decided there wasn’t enough evidence to determine the skull was that of a Japanese soldier,” Navy Capt. Jimmy Green, Armed Forces medical examiner there at the time, said in an interview last year.

Then the G8 “was over and interest waned.”

The skull languished in limbo for almost three years. Without enough evidence that it was a Japanese soldier’s, Okinawa prefectural officials wouldn’t take it, said Alex Kishaba, chairman for the Ryukyu Historical Society. Green said hospital policy was to hold on to the skull for three years. If no determination could be made, it would be disposed of as medical waste.

The skull’s sojourn came to the closing chapters when Kishaba came across a file on it while searching for other documents. He called to find out if the skull was ever repatriated, but heard only that there was no further progress.

That’s when he began prodding Okinawa officials to receive the skull and place it in a final resting place. Today, it’s one step closer. “These respectful proceedings,” he said of the Navy ceremony, made him “very happy.”

Kishaba thanked both Navy Capt. Stephen Robinson, the hospital’s commanding officer, and Buss for their personal attention in seeing the skull repatriated.

Buss said, “Peace of mind is relevant to finally know these remains are finally going where they belong. It’s a homecoming for these remains, and we are pleased we could be a small part in these proceedings.”

Kishaba said Okinawan officials would conduct their own investigation to determine whether the skull was found on Guadalcanal or Okinawa. If Okinawa, the skull will be interred with other remains at the Peace Prayer Park in Itoman, a large memorial to those killed during the Battle of Okinawa. If the skull is determined to have been found on Guadalcanal, it will be laid to rest in “perpetual care” at the National Cemetery in Tokyo.

“It will be cared for in a respectful way,” Kishaba said. “I’m sure these proceedings appeased its soul.”

— David Allen contributed to this report.


A skull, thought to be that of of a Japanese soldier, was returned to Okinawa Prefectural officials. It will be interred either at Okinawa Peace Prayer Park in Itoman or the National Cemetery in Tokyo.
MARK OLIVA / S&S

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