Many Japanese soldiers during World War II went into battle carrying small “Rising sun” flags, the red sphere on the field of white, with the white field decorated by hundreds of classmates, family members and friends. The flags were for good luck, and to link soldiers to their loved ones while they fought for the Emperor. I had never heard of this practice until today; my father served in the European theater, so he would not have known that many American soldiers took these personal talismans from the bodies of fallen Japanese soldiers as war trophies.
U.S. Marine Marvin Strombo was such a soldier. A member of an elite sniper platoon during the bloody battle for the Pacific island of Saipan in 1944, he had taken a flag from a dead Japanese soldier lying on his left side—he remembered that the young man looked like he was asleep—after he noticed something white sticking out from his jacket.
The flag with all the inscriptions on it hung behind glass in Strombo’s gun cabinet in his home in Montana for decades until 2012, when the son of his former commanding officer contacted him for assistance with a book he was writing about the exploits of his father’s platoon. (ARGHHH! I just remembered that I haven’t gotten back to a member of my Dad’s unit who wrote me a couple of months ago!) Working with the author, Strombo learned about the Obon Society, a nonprofit organization in Oregon that works to locate and return the personal Japanese flags to the families of the fallen soldiers who carried them. Researchers determined that the dead soldier Marvin’s flag had belonged to was named Yasue Sadao. What Strumbo thought was calligraphy were really the signatures of 180 friends and neighbors, including 42 relatives, who saw Yasue off to war from Higashi Shirakawa, a small village of about 2,400 people in the mountains roughly 200 miles west of Tokyo.
Seven of the original signatories are still alive, including Yasue’s 89-year-old brother and two sisters. Rex Ziak, who co-founded the Obon Society with his Japanese wife, Keiko. contacted Yasue’s brother by phone.
“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 told reporters. “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.”
Strombo, now 93 (that’s him on the right in the photo above) is going to answer the family’s questions, and in person. This weekend, he told Yasue’s brother and sisters where he found Yasue’s body, and how he probably died. He also placed in their hands the treasured keepsake that belonged to their loved one, following his 10,000-mile odyssey to return the decorated flag to an enemy soldier’s birthplace, to the family that has waited 73 years to say goodbye.