In February, 1943, LIFE magazine published a series of photographs from Guadalcanal — the largest of the Solomon Islands and the site of the Allies’ first, pivotal offensive in the Pacific during World War II.
One of those pictures, made by a 25-year-old LIFE photographer named Ralph Morse, instantly struck a nerve with the magazine’s millions of readers and today, seven decades later, remains one of the most unsettling images to emerge from any war, anywhere. Morse’s picture (the first in this gallery) of a severed Japanese soldier’s head impaled on a tank captures more graphically and immediately than volumes of words ever could the relentless and often casual barbarity of war. The caption that ran in LIFE:
A Japanese soldier’s skull is propped up on a burned-out Jap [sic] tank by U.S. troops. Fire destroyed the rest of the corpse.
Morse, however, remembers it a bit differently. Here, the story behind the photograph.