Ethics Hero: World War II Veteran Marvin Strombo

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.



Pointer: Fark


46 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: World War II Veteran Marvin Strombo

  1. In the end everything is about individual people who each have their own unique story. It reminds me of this quote from CS Lewis.

    “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

      • Yes but none were executed or beaten unmercifully for not kowtowing to the soldiers guarding the place and were fed reasonably well and provided medical care which the Bataan, Corregidor, and Singapore POWs were not. I strongly suggest that you read •Unbroken• or any of the numerous accounts of the Bataan Death March.

        • The problem, Wayne, is that you don’t understand what “irrelevant” means. You get to post your (literal) warmongering comment on a post about (literal) peacemaking, lending a sour note — about something most people here know as much or more about than you do — to everyone else’s appreciation of an act we should all be proud of. That’s what an ethical blog allows. Lucky you.

          • How is my comment “Warmongering”? I was attempting to give both sides of Japanese aggression and detestable behavior which is well documented during WW2. I would bet that few, if any of the valuable personal articles stolen from helpless POWs have been returned to their rightful owners or their families.

    • Thus the horrors spoken of in the quote. But, information about the Japanese soldier’s war isn’t available to us, so we assume he was simply a cog in a terrible machine, like the soldiers around him. Not a bad default position for the sake of sanity and grace.

  2. Nothing that happens in war, either to or because of, individual soldiers is irrelevant. The Japanese mistreated, not to mention abused, soldiers that had fallen into their care in a manner that reflected their culture and belief system. Marines mistreated and, yes, abused Japanese soldiers at Guadalcanal and other places for, I’ll call it retaliation, the horrors of fighting in a “Green Hell”, in part and in part for the atrocities committed by the Japanese. Were either ethical? Emphatically, no. Wars are generally fought by more-or-less normal people who run the gamut of intelligence and, for want of a better term, civilization. Most of the Marines who saw the mass suicides on Okinawa were horrified by these acts, which resulted from the Japanese telling the civilians that the Marines would kill them in horrific ways. Note that I did not say ALL of the Marines were horrified. Nor did all of the civilians commit seppuku. As a side-light, seppuku is viewed as an honorable death, hara kiri is not.
    This 92-year-old Marine is, now, an honorable man. Returning the flag is an ethical thing to do, as well as passing on any information he may have or surmised about the young Japanese soldier’s death. Had he known the significance of the flag, I suspect he would have returned it long before now. I don’t know, but suspect, that individual Japanese soldiers would do much the same thing if the opportunity had arisen. I question, in hindsight, his motivation in pillaging the body of a dead soldier for a war souvenir.
    Part of the atrocities Wayne mentioned were the result of the Japanese being totally unprepared for such a massive influx of prisoners. The Japanese culture would have, at the time, demanded that EVERY ONE of their soldiers fight to the death. They expected us to do the same thing. That we did not, in their eyes, showed that we were cowards and lacked honor. Thus, we were not to be treated with any sort of compassion. I would suspect that many war souvenirs were taken by the Japanese soldiers at both Bataan and “The Alamo of The Pacific”.
    That said, Mr. Strombo’s efforts to find the family of the soldier and return the flag to them reflects HUGELY on his own ethics and his current honor. War…ANY war…is a terrible thing. The Geneva Convention is an effort to make it less horrible by insuring that all combatants are on the same page. It doesn’t always work. I am NOT in favor of war-driven retaliation, but I understand it. At 72, I am unlikely to ever have to fight another, and for that I am grateful. Kudos to Mr. Strombo.

    • P.S. The Japanese never signed the Geneva Convention and General Homma who was ultimately responsible for the Death March was found guilty of war crimes and executed by firing squad shortly thereafter.

      • Of course, Geneva Convention doesn’t limit anyone, except the good guys.

        So, if bad guys sign it…they won’t follow it. If bad guys don’t sign it…they weren’t going to follow it anyway.

          • For the most part yes. Of course.

            But then again. I think war ethics is something we simply take for granted because we’re the winners and we generally play by the rules.

            (But there’s no magic formula in nature that says, hey they’re the nice guys, I’m gonna let them win the battle)

            If we found ourselves locked in an eastern front style conflict with china or something. Where a single day could produce some 10,000 casualties and we’ve been slugging it out for a year already, and our planners determined that a single firebombing raid on the enemy capital that might kill 5,000 civilians but would bring an end to the war…

            I donno.

          • My primary point is, I don’t see the fact that Japan didn’t sign on to the Geneva convention as being a limiting factor in our not punishing the crap out of their bad players.

            Yes. I get it rubs up against the concepts of rule of law. But outside the boundaries of our own nation, concepts like “rule of law”, though applicable within each other’s nations, is a bit more nebulous in real application

            • It also rubs up against 28. The Revolutionary’s Excuse: “These are not ordinary times.” and 31. The Troublesome Luxury: “Ethics is a luxury we can’t afford right now.”

              On the other hand, your point that it beats being dead is a valid one. Chalk it up to Zugzwang?

              • Lots of war ethics is pure zugswang, which is why utilitarianism is a predominant ethical system in military situations where the closest non-military analogs would never consider utilitarianism even remotely.

          • How cute, valkgrrl. You think ANYONE follows the Geneva. Those archaic rules simply have little practical aplication in the battlefield today, in large part.

            In basic training, I was taught that firing an M60 machine gun at a person was against the Geneva. However, it was ‘permissible’ to fire it to destroy equipment, like, say, a car, or an artillery piece, or a helmet, or a belt buckle. If you shoot for the belt buckle and miss, (causing great damage to more fleshy parts) that’s the breaks in war.

            They justified this by telling us the Russians were known to break the Geneva all the time, and at least we had a rationalization.

            Not saying it is right, just saying that what the long dead politicians wanted and what happens today might not resemble each other very well.

            • I’m certain that’s a military urban legend. But I’d love if someone could peruse Geneva convention regarding weapon caliber vs appropriate target limitations.

              I do KNOW however that internal US tactical doctrine defines a *minimum* appropriate caliber depending on the *hardness* of the target before you. Such to the affect that if you are facing a light skinned vehicle, like a truck, you will want a minimum of a .30 cal round. If you are facing a lighter than average APC, you’ll want a minimum of a .50 cal round. Etc.

              I think, in the world of drill sergeant-isms, this slowly got reversed and converted into some sort of mythical rule of war that said, “you cannot use a .30 cal round on less than a thin skinned vehicle; you cannot use a .50 cal round on less than a light APC; etc”

              But I would like to also know if Geneva actually delineates this.

            • No, slick, it isn’t right…at least as far as the Convention goes. I never claimed it was perfect, but I do believe, now and always, that it WAS an effort to put us all on the same page as far as fighting a war goes. I know the Japanese did not sign the accords. My belief is that Germany also did not, but Erwin Rommel, himself an honorable and conscientious warrior, enforced them in his command. The Conventions were, at least, an effort at humanizing what had become at best, an inhumane and vengeance filled activity.

    • Because Japanese soldiers were all supposed to die rather than be captured, and because Japan bit off way, way more than it could chew territorially, they had no supply lines for troops past, say, mid-China on the mainland and precious little going to the islands. FIL was in the Army, China 4 years and 8 in (then) Burma , and they had nothing once they used up their initial supplies. They chewed sugar cane, ate plants, in some instances bled their horses and drank the blood…a lucky day was finding airdrops from other countries’ troops that they’d missed. Chocolate, tinned meats and biscuits, all divided up amongst everyone. FIL often thought that they could not win a war against such well-prepared enemies. He lost 80% of his troops due to both fighting, and malnutrition and disease. He was eventually captured and taken to India, then shipped back to Japan.

      WWII was just 70-some-odd years after they cut off their topknots and turned in their swords after being isolated for 250 years…the shame culture was still strong. In the feudal era even noblewomen carried short blades with which they were supposed to kill themselves if captured or assaulted…better to die fighting than be shamed. That does NOT justify the torture of prisoners. It can give a window into their thinking that GI’s captured who were playing baseball or singing in camps had no shame or honor, as the behavior was astounding to them (having pride, hope, and normal interactions even while POW) but does not excuse the treatment of them.

      ” seppuku is viewed as an honorable death, hara kiri is not.”

      Seppuku is written as ‘切腹’, the first kanji is ‘cut’, read as ‘kiru/kiri’ or ‘setsu’ depending on the usage (切り身kirimi, ‘fillet’ (N.) 切断 setsudan, ‘amputation’) and shortened to ‘se’ in combinations like ‘teiosekkai’ (帝王切開, Cesearan section) and the second is shortened version of ‘fukubu’ (腹部, ‘abdomen’, the f is changed to p in combination).’Harakiri’ is the alternate reading of the characters, not the proper reading even though it’s widely used, even in Japan.They both describe basically the same thing…is the difference in whether it is honorable or not in the method? Just curious! Ritual seppuku involves a retainer positioned to cut the head off the person committing it, after they’ve made the zig-zag cut, again, to prevent shame, and so they don’t linger. On the battlefields there was not often time (or enough willing hands) to have one’s head cut off, they just had to cut themselves and die a much longer death.

    • “The Japanese culture would have, at the time, demanded that EVERY ONE of their soldiers fight to the death.”

      Here’s the dirty little secret: Our Culture, back then (and even RIGHT NOW), and I would submit every single culture on this planet, would expect its soldiers to fight to the death if the particular soldiers under those orders were on territory that the nation considered *existentially* important…that is to say, the loss of that territory would be just another stepping stone on the way to a predictably inevitable loss of the overall country.

      We, *luckily* have been able to fight wars largely on our own terms, and even in wars that were much more on the enemy’s terms than our own were not over particular pieces of terrain that we absolutely had to maintain to ensure overall victory. We had room to maneuver.

      Now, that isn’t to say that the Japanese picked some pretty stupid terrain to consider so *existentially* important that it couldn’t afford to let it go for another battle sometime later. That also isn’t to say the Japanese didn’t pick some pretty stupid terrain to consider *existentially* important.

      But merely being willing to fight to the death isn’t inherently a wrong (nor a right) value.

      Though, merely killing oneself because the battle is lost is pretty dumb. Unless you are reasonably certain that your handling by the enemy post-surrender is a fate worse than death.

      • Tex,
        Yes a soldier is expected to do their job to complete the mission; however, aren’t you forgetting a major cultural difference, a Japanese soldier during WWII that returned home in defeat was not considered a hero; Japanese soldiers left home literally planning to die for their country so they wouldn’t dishonor their family, Emperor, or country. Although it wasn’t too common, there were Japanese soldiers that were killed by their families to save their honor. Our soldiers left home to do a job and planned to return home.

        There really was a sincere difference in the value of the life of an individual soldier on the battle field, even the value of ones self; we see a similar difference today between our soldiers and those of ISIS and similar terrorists organizations, their value of life for those that oppose their point of view is absolutely zero.

        Don’t discount these very important cultural differences.

        • Yep, I do think our cultures value life in vastly different ways, as a *general concept*.

          But, then again I don’t think we’ve had to truly test the specific situation of how we value our own individual lives when we face what we would consider to be a truly existential threat.

          I’ll gladly see your attitude towards tenacity when a foreign army that you believe is *GOING* to rape your wife, enslave your children and murder you first chance it gets, is marching towards your front door.

          If you remain consistent in your belief that you would *not* hold your position to the last man, then kudos on that consistency.

            • Lemme see,

              The general topic was that the Japanese culture was more conducive to people standing in place and dying in a fight than American culture was.

              My reply was to introduce the nuance that, though their culture may be a little more geared that way than ours, we shouldn’t discount the fact that, though in the SAME battle, the Japanese Army and the American Army were both approaching the battle from vastly different contexts as it relates to an *existential threat* to their homelands. My reply then posits, that indeed, if we Americans had the same feeling of back to the wall, its win or lose everything, we may very well fight with the same tenacity.

              So, my reply adds a possible consideration to the debate.

              Your response, was essentially to reinforce the initial comment about Japanese *culture* vs American *culture*.

              Now, where I’m from, the implication of responding in such a manner is that you think my addition of *context* to a discussion on *culture* is that the context is irrelevant, since you didn’t even address that.

              So my response, quite rationally based on that, to you was to consider then if you were ever in the same existential context the Japanese were in, would you fight to the death or not.

              Feel free to actually consider that, feel free also to clarify your response to me, otherwise, I think I drew logical conclusions from your response.

              Have at it.

      • “Your job is NOT to die for yur country. It’s to make the other poor bastard die for his.” Paraphrase of General George S. Patton.

        • No doubt. And a valid quote.

          I wonder what Patton would have encouraged his men to do if he believed they were the last line between their wives being raped, their children enslaved, their land taken and their culture annihilated.

          My guess is, he’d be a bit more hardnosed.

  3. On the other hand Field Marshal William Slim made a point of forcing all Japanese officers to surrender their swords to officers of equal or higher rank, adding that any officer who could not bear the shame and wished to take his own life would be given any assistance he required. To Lord Mountbatten went the sword of Field Marshal Terauchi, while Slim received General Kimura’s blade, which remained in his collection till the day that he died. Not that either of the Japanese officers lived long to object (both were hung).

  4. Thanks for the post, Jack. May all of us not have to live into our nineties to have a chance to bring closure to a family who has lost one of its own.

  5. I’m really glad this Marine went to this effort, it will provide some closure for a war torn family and letting this souvenir go will probably give this Marine some semblance of personal closure too.

    Wars are terrible things for those that have to fight them and the tragedies of those wars are felt by the families of the fallen no matter which side of the conflict they’re on. We are all part of the same humanity; I hope they can all find peace.

  6. My grandfather went to serve in WWII as a mechanic, keeping the tanks running. He died when I was two, at home, leaving… very little behind as far as personal effects. As far as I know, Canadian soldier’s didn’t have a tradition that mirrored the flags, but I kind of wish they had, the flags have a kind of beauty, and I can only imagine the feelings the family have with the connection to their long dead relative.

  7. I know of such a flag.
    WWII vet. I have seen it with my own eyes.
    Ultimately it comes down to men and the ethics they have or refuse to consider.

    • But this is an argument of exemplary ethics vs neither ethical nor unethical conduct, not an argument of ethical vs unethical conduct.

      Unless you want to open the discussion that there is an ethical obligation to return ‘war trophies’. Maybe there is.

      • texagg04 wrote, “Unless you want to open the discussion that there is an ethical obligation to return ‘war trophies’. Maybe there is.”

        As I said above, I’m really glad this Marine went to this effort; however, I don’t think I would go so far as to say that he was ethically bound to do so. This is not something I’ve spent much time thinking about, so good arguments contrary to my current opinion might sway me on this.

        I have thought about this; for personal reasons I’m not sure I’d ever take anything from a fallen soldier on the battlefield with the exception of lethal weapons, leaving weapons lying around is dangerous for other reasons.

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