PHOENIX, AZ – At some point or other, most people wind up with too much stuff. Whether it's after school, moving, or through inheritance, many either throw it away, donate it, or sell it at a yard sale.
But local man Derrick Shaftoe has a unique problem: he can't figure out what to do with his grandfather's collection of Japanese skulls.
Robert Shaftoe, his grandfather, served in World War II with the 3rd Marine Division and fought in the Pacific on Bougainville, Guam, and Iwo Jima. After the war he came back to Phoenix, where he lived a quiet life until he passed away of natural causes in 2010.
According to Derrick, he first came across the skull collection while sorting through his grandfather's things after his death. They were in an old footlocker in the attic, under other wartime souvenirs, such as Japanese flags, swords, and maps.
Derrick vividly remembers finding the skulls, because he says, "my wife heard me screaming from all the way in the front yard."
"It was like a scene out of the movie Predator," Derrick said.
In all, there are about twenty skulls, all of which his grandfather carefully labelled and marked with the location and date the man was killed, as well as other useful identifying information.
"My grandfather's [obsessive compulsive disorder] really came out, especially on the later ones," Derrick said.
One, for example, has the words "Agana, Guam, July 31st, Sniper, Palm Tree" etched into the back.
Others, especially the ones from Iwo Jima aren't as methodical, according to Derrick.
"Iwo, February 28, Cave; Iwo, March 4, Cave; Iwo, March 5, Cave. You really get the impression he wasn't too happy when he was carving these," Derrick observed.
"After the war my grandfather went on to be a Lutheran Minister and Primary School teacher. For chrissake, I don't think I want to add 'and collector of various human heads' to his resume."
As a child, Derrick remembers his grandfather as a kind, quiet man, who rarely talked about the war and went out of his way to be friendly to everyone he met.
Still, there were signs.
When he was ten, Derrick invited his grandfather to come and talk to his fourth grade class about the war.
"My teacher asked him if he ever missed home during the war. So he started telling us about this time on Bougainville he had to bulldoze a hundred Japanese corpses into a mass grave and then incinerate them for health reasons. He talked about sitting there in the jungle, reading love letters from my grandmother, by the light of the burning bodies. It was genuinely the most fucked up thing I've ever heard in my life," Derrick said.
"Then he mentioned something about a giant lizard and the story went completely off the rails."
According to Derrick, one of the biggest questions he has is how his grandfather managed to carry a footlocker's worth of skulls around during the war.
"I honestly can't believe he carried these around with him. I guess he must have mailed them home, but I'm trying to imagine my grandmother holding on to them."
"I freaked out over a snake in my garage last week, but there's my Grandma Lenore , calmly opening box after box of human skulls and sorting through them."
"Man," he added, "those were some hard motherfuckers back then."