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Strange Gold: A Tooth with a Story


Merriam Webster defines History as:

1: tale, story

2a: a chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes
b: a treatise presenting systematically related natural phenomena
c: an account of a patient’s medical background
d: an established record <a prisoner with a history of violence>

3: a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events <medieval history>

4a: events that form the subject matter of a history
b: events of the past
c: one that is finished or done for <the winning streak was history> <you’re history>
d: previous treatment, handling, or experience (as of a metal)

The very first definition; the first word used to define history is quite interesting.

Tale:

1 obsolete : discourse, talk

2a : a series of events or facts told or presented : account
b (1) : a report of a private or confidential matter <dead men tell no tales> (2) : a libelous report or piece of gossip

3a : a usually imaginative narrative of an event : story
b : an intentionally untrue report : falsehood <always preferred the tale to the truth — Sir Winston Churchill>

Dick Portillo, shown with military memorabilia in his Oak Brook office Sept, 8, 2016, is on a quest to determine whether a gold tooth discovered on a Pacific island is that of Japanese Cmdr. Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the Pearl Harbor attack and who was shot down in 1943. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

Dick Portillo, shown with military memorabilia in his Oak Brook office Sept, 8, 2016, is on a quest to determine whether a gold tooth discovered on a Pacific island is that of Japanese Cmdr. Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the Pearl Harbor attack and who was shot down in 1943. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

Collectors of militaria are always fascinated by the pieces within their collection. (They) we are constantly seeking the history of each object to:

  • Connect collection items to historical persons
  • Understand how the object is contextually associated to an event or events
  • Increase intrinsic value in order to resale an item for profit and financial gain

The idea of being in possession of an item that was carried, worn or used during a significant historical event – a pivotal battle or a crippling defeat – helps to connect the person holding, touching or viewing the object to history in a very tactile manner. Many of my collector colleagues possess pieces in their collections that would be centerpieces of museums due to their historical significance. In my own collection, I have a few pieces that are connected to notable events but not on the order magnitude (of the subject) of this article.

A gold tooth discovered on a Pacific island could be that of Japanese Cmdr. Isoroku Yamamoto. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

A gold tooth discovered on a Pacific island could be that of Japanese Cmdr. Isoroku Yamamoto. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

I wrote an article where I focused on the odd and strange militaria items that would otherwise seem bizarre (for anyone to collect) to laymen and casual observers. Yesterday, I read a Chicago Tribune article (Does Chicago hot dog king have WWII Japanese admiral’s gold tooth? – by Ted Gregory, September 18, 2016) that captured my immediate attention.  The compelling tale about a team of eight history enthusiasts that made their way to Papua New Guinea, trekked through the dense jungle to Admiral Yamamoto’s plane crash site and by chance, located a gold-encased tooth in the well-picked-over Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” attack bomber. This story seemed to dovetail quite nicely into what I discussed in my previous article – that a tooth from a deceased “enemy” hero certainly fits my idea of a militaria collection oddity.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (

To be in the possession of the tooth of a long-dead Japanese “god-like” hero from World War II would be exciting yet somewhat morbid. However, I am rather skeptical as to the potential of the item that was recovered at the crash would be Yamamoto’s (there were eleven men aboard this aircraft) yet I agree that the possibility does exist. There are conflicting reports as to the status of the Admiral’s body when discovered: Early documents (from the IJN doctor who examined the deceased Admiral) mention only a chest-area gunshot wound and that his body was otherwise intact. It was mentioned that other than the obvious mortal wound, Yamamoto appeared to be sleeping, still buckled into his seat, clutching his katana. Subsequent reports mention a substantial gunshot wound to his jaw (which could have dislodged the tooth in question).

The man who is in possession of the tooth, Dick Portillo (if you have never eaten at the restaurants that he founded and recently sold, you are missing out), who purchased the tooth from the owners if the crash site, is hopeful to be able to successfully extract and match the DNA of the tooth to the Admiral in order to authenticate his claim. I question the willingness of the Japanese government and Yamamoto’s decedents to participate in Portillo’s efforts, and if they do, what their motivation would be.

Until any authentication of the tooth is completed, the tooth resides in the collection of Dick Portillo along with what appears to be a wonderful selection of arms (as is visibly displayed on his office wall).  If validated, Portillo said that he will give the tooth to the Japanese government, most likely to be repatriated (perhaps to be part of the Isoroku Yamamto Memorial Museum collection). I wonder what will become of the tooth if there is no cooperation or if it proves to be from another passenger of the Betty? Will it remain a part of his collection – a piece of history with two stories (Portillo’s and the Japanese passenger)?

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