In Band of Brothers there is a scene where a officer is putting looted goods into a shipping box to be sent back to the US. How common was this sort of thing? What were the legalities of people taking property they ‘found’ and sending it home? How often did it happen? What were the policies towards this behavior?
Broadly speaking, as long as you got your hands on authorized items through the proper means, not only was “looting” allowed, but it was actively facilitated by military. The War Department distributed several policies on this through the war and after – the most notable two being Circular No. 353, 1944, and Circular No. 155, the latter offering minor changes to the initial policy. Later circulars, such as No. 107, 1946 also made further modifications.
Anyways, the policy with regards to War Trophies gave troops a fair amount of latitude as long as they followed the key limitations, which can broadly be said to be those which required following the Geneva Convention, and military necessities. With regards to the former, this mainly related to the possessions of POWs, with the policy being that “all personal effects and objects of person use – except arms, horses, military equipment, and military papers – shall remain in the possession of prisoners of war, as well as metal helmets and gasmasks [until in a place where no longer needed for protection”. Any money had to be accounted for, with the POW provided a receipt, and no identification documents, medals, insignia, etc. were allowed to be taken from those captured, or from the dead. These *could* be bartered for or bought, however, which was considered lawful, and similarly if found on the battlefield, such items were also fair game. The general rule to be followed on the battlefield was that “under no circumstances may war trophies include any item which in itself is evidence of disrespectful treatment of the enemy dead”. As for the restrictions of military necessity, explosives were prohibited, as were “Items of which the value as trophies […] is outweighed by their usefulness in the service or for research or for training […] or their value as critical scrap material”.
To be sure, none of this was necessarily a deterrent. Such as with the recollection of Robert Russell, of the 84th Infantry, who remembered veterans cutting the fingers off dead Germans to remove stuck rings, or Eugene Sledge who told of ‘harvesting gold teeth’ from the dead Japanese, and the routine checking of packs and pockets for anything interesting to take home. Even if just the latter – soldiers would often violate these rules, and there was very little that could be done unless caught in the act. Even then, it was easy to claim one was searching for intel, and beyond that it was not like officers – who were tasked with enforcing both the ‘letter and the spirit’, weren’t partaking at times as well. Frank Miller, of the 36th Infantry Division, recalled coming into competition with his own captain over a camera that was discovered will rifling through the body of a dead German officer. Many officers, whether they partook or not, were willing to turn a blind eye to anything not overly egregious, believing “that hat the soldiers were entitled to a tangible share in the victory.
Even civilians – friend or foe – were not necessarily safe, especially if abandoned. No French wine cellar in the path of the Allies was safe if stumbled upon, and such finds also represented the more favored type of looting, especially for combat soldiers. On the move, with no real place to stash items, unable to carry much extra with them, and wary of what might happen to themselves if captured with German good on their person to boot, food and drink was a much better ‘find’ in the field, and generally justified as ‘foraging’, or by leaving the unwanted C/K-rations in their place as a hardly-equal recompense for the fresh eggs or meat. Don Loth, of the 12th Armored, recalled how looting was more ‘redistribution’ as heavy items (French or German) would be picked up in one locale, only to be dumped by the wayside at the next. During the advance through Europe, it was the men to the rear, less burdened by those limitations, who would hold onto their souvenirs, and for the combat soldiers, it was only once they moved to occupation duty that they had more opportunity to hold onto what they had found.
Even once occupation duty had ended, the greatest limitation on war trophies remained of course portability, as they needed to be brought home at home point. As long as your loot was ‘kosher’ and could at least be claimed as being in line with the policies in place, and certified with the “N” certificate, a paper signed by his superior officer stating it was an authorized trophy. Again, it wouldn’t have been hard to conceal the actual origin of an item not entirely prohibited, so such papers were not hard to come by. The most common example generally found these days are for firearms, as the so-called ‘capture papers’ prove the authenticity of the weapon, and attach a premium to them on the collectors market. [This](https://imgur.com/mPxmM1R) is an example of what such a paper looked like, in this case for a .25 cal pistol in early 1946. As long as that was met, not only would you be allowed to keep the item, but the military would help you take it home, allowing for 25 pounds of war trophy in baggage to be shipped at government expense. Anything that could be carried on your person wouldn’t count against that either, and more could be shipped on your own.
Firearms proved to be very popular items, hitting a number of ‘sweet spots’ as they were interesting, portable, and authorized. Initially, even, fully-automatic weapons could be taken, but this was changed with Cir. 155 to prohibit them as it was found that many soldiers either purposefully or not were failing to register them as required when brought stateside, and thus they were simply disallowed from that point on-wards, although likely some still tried to skirt the rules, and some are known to have been authorized anyways, perhaps out of ignorance that it was automatic. Automatic or not though, tens of thousands of firearms of every imaginable type were brought stateside in the period. When they shipped home in May, 1945, 5,000 men from the 28th Infantry Division were noted as carrying with them 20,000 or so trophy weapons. The sheer volume likely was a major reason behind Cir. 107 changing the policy to one firearm per soldier in 1946.
Again though, just because the rules were there doesn’t mean they were followed, and it was never too complicated to get around them if you wished. I previously touched on the extraction of gold filings, which was unfortunately not close to the most unfortunate type of ‘trophy hunting’ during the war. Although *very* not-authorized, the looting of human remains, especially in the Pacific, was hardly unknown, with collection of Japanese skulls and ears being fairly well attested to. In large part driven by the much deeper sense of *hatred* and racism that evidenced itself in the Pacific, although minor mutilations, such as the aforementioned cutting of fingers, occurred in Europe, there was no such similar behavior, and no notable examples of human trophies there.
What caused the biggest outcry during the was were a few high-profile examples which were sent home by servicemen. In infamous photo published May 22, 1944 in Life Magazine showed a young woman with a skull before her, captioned *”Arizona war worker writes her Navy boyfriend a thank-you note for the Jap skull he sent her*. Although the editor also noted “the armed forces disapprove strongly of this sort of thing” – an understatement, as it was a clear war crime, in fact – this was hardly the lone example of such behavior, many officers knowingly allowing it as they did “not want to discourage expressions of animosity toward the enemy”. The Navy Lt. was formally reprimanded for lacking “an appropriate of decency”, but Admiral King himself recommended avoiding a severe punishment.
Soon after, it was reported in the New York Times that a Congressman had presented Roosevelt with a present of a letter-opener made from a Japanese arm-bone, sent to him by a soldier overseas, although Roosevelt reportedly returned it and suggested it be buried, the reporting itself had done its damage. These two stories didn’t only cause a furor int he US, but also provided a propaganda coup for the Japanese to hold up as an example of American brutality, and calling for an investigation by a neutral power, which never came about. Returning home after the war, soldiers were asked if they had brought home human remains – of course prohibited – but little effort was ever made to verify the “No”. Estimates of how many such trophies were brought home are quite hard to come by. Although likely are in the tens of thousands, unlike a rifle or a dagger, such macabre trophies couldn’t be displayed, and more than a few soldiers likely soon regretted having it – or at least their heirs later did – and hid them away. Occasionally they do crop up, and if that happens, at least a few have been returned to the possession of the Japanese government for proper burial.
These, of course, are the absolute extreme of trophy-hunting in wartime, and again, was a behavior explicitly disallowed, even if sometimes given the knowing wink in the field. The more common types of trophy-hunting was, if not benign, certainly not such clear desecration. Some of it was in no uncertain terms looting, both in France and in Germany, and to the detriment of the civilian population there, but by no means all was disallowed, and as laid out above, the War Department was quite willing to grant fairly wide latitude as long as you were able to present your ‘goods’ as being found by the ascribed guidelines.
In 2017 a major Dutch newspaper [Trouw](https://www.trouw.nl) published the results of research they had done in the Dutch National Archives about looting by allied forces in The Netherlands.
Off course the Allies, as our liberators, were welcomed as heroes and any possible wrong doings on their side were disregarded and not spoken about for the most part (with exception of larger “mishaps” such as the accidental bombing of Nijmegen for example). So much so that in the definitive historical work on The Netherlands during the war (written by Lou de Jong: The Kingdom of the Netherlands during world war II) which has 14 volumes, the looting by allied forces gets one whole page of attention. This continues to this day.
So the results of Trouws inquiry were rather a surprise for most people here.
Turns out a not insignificant number of notaries (mayors etc) complained to the allied forces (American forces mainly If I’m not mistaken) about looting by allied forces. Mainly those occupying the southern half of the Netherlands after the failing of Market Garden.
For example at a gathering of 17 mayors in Nijmegen in 1945 8 reported that allied forces had “taken off” with the local treasury. There were also reports of unnecessary destruction of property, for example by troops exercising with flame throwers.
Of course a lot of looting was done by the local populace (so much so that it carried a death sentence at the time) but a lot of the looting seemed to have happened in the exclusion-zones near the front were only millitairy personnel was allowed to enter.
It also mentions that the head of the Dutch millitairy Command General Kruls wrote a letter to the (civil) minister of War De Booy on 12 march where in he tels him that he (Kruls) has complained to Churchill about the looting en destruction by allied troops in The Netherlands and that he has asked Churchill to intervene.
A long article about this appeared in the Trouw news paper on 29 april 2017 [here](https://www.trouw.nl/home/een-zwarte-pagina-in-de-bevrijding-van-nederland~ad14f795/) (dutch)
Regrettably there doesn’t seem to be an English translation of the article.
Also mentioned is a trail of three Canadian soldiers for looting just after the war but I’ve not been able to find anything about that.
Sorry for only being able to include Dutch language sources (and for any spelling mistakes of course!)