“I think that soldier wanted me to find him for some reason.”
On Friday, 93-year-old WWII veteran Marvin Strombo will fly to Tokyo, Japan, to return a Japanese flag he took from a fallen enemy soldier during the 1944 battle in Saipan. The Associated Press reported:
Strombo knelt and pulled out a silk flag, all the space around the bright red emperor’s sun filled with elegant calligraphy. He hesitated, then took the flag and scrambled to reunite with his squadron as they entered the Japanese-held town of Garapan.
More than 70 years later, Strombo is returning the Japanese flag to his fallen enemy’s family. The 93-year-old arrives Friday in Tokyo, the first stop in a 10,000-mile (16,000-kilometer) journey into the remote mountainside to bring the keepsake back to the man’s home village — back to a brother and two sisters who could never say goodbye.
“I realized there were no bullets or shrapnel wounds, so I knew he was killed by the blast of a mortar,” Strombo recalled in Portland, Oregon, this week before boarding a flight to Japan.
Then, quietly: “I think that soldier wanted me to find him for some reason.”
The flags were a good-luck charm that linked Japanese soldiers to their loved ones and their call for duty. Some were signed by hundreds of classmates, neighbors and relatives.
Allied troops frequently took them from the bodies of their enemies as souvenirs. They have a deep significance because most Japanese families never learned how their loved ones died and never received remains.
Strombo tried to return the flag over the years, but couldn’t get anywhere until 2012:
Then, in 2012, the son of his former commanding officer contacted him about a book he was writing on the platoon.
Through him, Strombo reached out to the Obon Society, a nonprofit in Oregon that helps U.S. veterans and their descendants return Japanese flags to the families of fallen soldiers.
Within a week, researchers found it belonged to Yasue Sadao by reading the script on the flag. They traced the corporal to a tea-growing village of about 2,400 people in the mountains roughly 200 miles (340 kilometers) west of Tokyo.
The calligraphy turned out to be the signatures of 180 friends and neighbors who saw Yasue off to war in Higashi Shirakawa, including 42 of his relatives. Seven of the original signatories are still alive, including Yasue’s 89-year-old brother and two sisters.
When researchers contacted Yasue’s brother by phone, he asked if the person who had his brother’s flag was the same one who found it so many years ago, said Rex Ziak, who co-founded the Obon Society with his Japanese wife, Keiko.
“There was just silence on the line and then he asked, ‘Do you imagine he knows how my brother died and where he died?'” Ziak recounted. “And that’s when we realized that this person is very much alive in that family and this mystery of what happened to him is very much alive.”
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