Why American Soldiers Had Human Skulls Watching Over Them In Vietnam

Photo Credit: Terry Fincher / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Terry Fincher / Getty Images

Above is an American soldier encamped during a tour of Vietnam, sitting with his rifle in-hand while a human skull keeps watch. Award-winning British photojournalist Terry Fincher captured this iconic image – one of his most famous – on October 25, 1968. Fincher served five tours of Vietnam, covering the war for the Daily Express, despite the physical and mental exhaustion that came with the job.

It might seem strange to see a human skull displayed so brazenly in Fincher’s Vietnam-era photo, but this was far from atypical during the war. There were, in fact, many images captured during the conflict that show an American soldier with a human skull displayed on or near his tent. Another famous one was taken by Specialist 5 Richard Durrance. It shows an infantryman from the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division with a skull on his tent.

Why was this such a common sight? The meaning behind the human skulls photographed by Fincher and Durrance are difficult to know, but there are several theories. One is that the skulls served as a way of instilling courage and simultaneously intimidating one’s enemy. A collector of morbid war relics in the United States has a photo in his collection of GIs posing with an altar made of human bones. He said, “They’re showing the Angel of Death that they’re not afraid.”

Another interpretation, however, is that the skulls were a form of morbid souvenir. It’s no secret that some soldiers tried to bring home those they’d collected while serving in Vietnam. Skulls like the one in the photo above were sometimes turned into trophies, as well as candle holders and ashtrays. Some were covered in graffiti, with sayings like “today’s pigs are tomorrow’s bacon” or “stay high stay alive” scrawled on them.

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Although this behavior may seem odd, it was something that was common enough in the years before Vietnam. American soldiers took human skulls during the Philippine-American War in the early 1900s, and even collected those belonging to the Japanese in World War II.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.