On August 15th, the 72nd anniversary of the end of the war, former United States marine Marvin Strombo, 93, returned a Japanese “Good-luck” flag found on the battlefields of Saipan to a bereaved family in Gifu Prefecture.
Speaking at a press conference, Strombo, who hails from the western state of Montana, said: “I made a promise to him (the Japanese soldier), that someday I would try to return it. It means so much to me and to the family to get the flag back and move on.”
This news is striking a resonant chord in Japan.
“It is a miracle. A real veteran, who fought on the battlefield, is personally returning the flag to a bereaved family. Every single one of these flags is deeply meaningful. It is as though the spirits of the war-dead are leading the way to return the flags,” said a misty-eyed, Rex Ziak, 63, who attended the press conference.
Ziak is one of the people working to return the “Good-luck” flags. The catalyst for his involvement was his wife, Keiko, 49.
Keiko hails from Kyoto, and her grandfather died in Burma during the war. In 2007, when Keiko told her historian husband that her grandfather’s “Good luck” flag had been returned to her family, the pair decided that “so many flags are never returned, let’s return as many as possible to the bereaved families.”
Aiming to return flags to fallen Japanese soldiers around the country by the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, in 2015, they began working in 2009 under the name “OBON 2015.” This spring, OBON Society, a general incorporated association, was founded in Japan.
Strombo contacted the society last March. “Yasue” was signed on the flag numerous times. Upon discussion with one of the association’s supporters, a chief priest from a Japanese shrine, the owner of the flag was found to be Sadao Yasue from Higashi-Shirakawamura, in Gifu Prefecture, where the surname is common.
In July of 1944, Strombo brought the flag home, upon finding it in the jacket of 25-year-old Yasue, who had died during battle in Saipan.
According to Strombo, “I felt uneasy about taking something from the body as it lay. However, if I didn’t take it, it would have been lost. I knew the flag was important, so I made a promise in my heart to return it someday.”
On August 15th, the anniversary of the end of the war, Yasue’s daughter and granddaughters visited Higashi-Shirakawamura, and Strombo was able to personally convey the circumstances of Yasue’s death.
Tatsuya Yasue, the younger brother of the fallen soldier, said: “We are just so grateful that he kept the fragile flag safe for over 70 years. We heard that my brother had died at sea, and there were no remains either. I am very grateful to be able to hear how he died.”
Rex Ziak and wife Keiko have been entrusted with over 400 flags. Of these, around 100 have been returned. Even now, they receive email and phone enquiries every day from US veterans regarding the return of wartime personal effects. Since the veterans are elderly, instances of them personally returning the flags may cease to occur.
Ziak said: “In their hearts they are grappling with sadness and discord. The act of wanting to return the items to Japan is a plea for closure.”
Sankei Shimbun, which ran the story about the return of the flag, has received an amazing response.
Hikaru Tokunaga, 59, of Nerima-Ku, Tokyo, wrote the following in a letter to the newspaper:
“When I read it (the article), I was overwhelmed. I believe the flags are the spirits of the war-dead. I am moved by, and grateful for, the efforts of Mr Strombo and peaceful comradeship.”
The letter sender wrote about the “importance of a compassionate and peaceful heart.”
There were also postcards to Strombo, saying, “Thank you for keeping your promise after so many years.”
On August 17th, having fulfilled his promise, Strombo consented to an interview before returning home to the US. “I am delighted to have finally been able to return the flag. I feel as though the right thing has been done. I have no regrets at all.”
He added: “During the war, we were enemies, but even then, I had a certain amount of respect for the Japanese soldiers. The Japanese fought hard, with great perseverance, and their style of fighting was gentlemanly.”
Keiko Ziak, resident of Oregon State, USA, and representative of the Obon Society, which arranged for the flag’s return, said, “This kind of miraculous event is the first and could be the last. Although many of the veterans are in good health, there probably aren’t many who would travel to Japan.”
Japanese Good-luck Flags (Yosegaki-Hinomaru)
During World War II, when a soldier would ship out, friends and family would pray for his safe return by signing and writing messages on a Japanese flag. Most Japanese soldiers always kept the flag on them as they went off to the battlefield. Meanwhile, members of the allied forces took the flags from fallen Japanese soldiers as a souvenir of victory. These were taken back home with them. Following this, former Japanese soldiers and their families began to request the return of the flags, yet in recent years the increase in cases of domestic and international internet auctions of the flags have become a problematic issue.
Kensaku Amano is a staff writer of the Sankei Shimbun City News Department.
(Click here to read the original report in Japanese.)