A World War II veteran from the Inland Northwest traveled to a village in rural Japan Tuesday to personally return a "good luck flag" he picked up from the body of a fallen Japanese soldier on the Pacific island of Saipan in the summer of 1944.
"Taking the flag kind of bothered me because it is so special,” said Marvin Strombo, 93.
Recently, Strombo contacted an Astoria, Oregon-based nonprofit called the Obon Society to see if they could track down relatives of the flag's original owner. The clues were in calligraphy—signed well wishes written on the white spaces of the Japanese flag by friends and family.
Strombo and his escorts received a warm welcome and profuse thanks from the fallen soldier's brother, sister and descendants at the family home in central Japan's Gifu Prefecture.
Obon Society co-founder Rex Ziak said the Yasue family did not know where or how Lance Corporal Sadao Yasue died until Ziak relayed Strombo's story of the battle and finding the flag on Saipan.
The Obon Society receives World War II battle souvenirs from American veterans and returns the heirlooms to Japanese family members—if they can be identified—with the assistance of government and private researchers in Japan.
Strombo served with a U.S. Marines unit that fought on Tarawa, Saipan and Tinian, three of the most famous Pacific island battles. He lives in western Montana.
Ziak and his wife Keiko previously led a group of aging WWII U.S. veterans from the Pacific Northwest to Japan to return 70 inscribed flags in 2015. Those flags were ceremoniously handed over to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his offices in Tokyo.
What made Tuesday's rare, personal handover possible was that the elderly Marine veteran was strong enough to make the trans-Pacific journey and that the family on the Japanese side was interested and willing to receive their former enemy.
The Japanese name for "good luck flag" is yosegaki hinomaru, which literally translated means “group-written flag.” It was traditionally presented to a serviceman prior to his deployment. This keepsake became a favored war prize for U.S. servicemen who fought in the Pacific theater.
Now more than 70 years after the war's end, the Obon Society along with the Japanese consulates in Seattle, Portland and elsewhere get dozens of inquiries every month from American veterans or their wives and children asking how to return war memorabilia.
Strombo had long desired to return the flag but didn’t know how to go about it, according to a statement emailed by the Obon Society. It wasn’t until he visited a Japanese culture class at the University of Montana last year that Strombo learned what the Japanese writing on the flag was and what the flags meant to the families of the fallen.
That set in motion a 10,000-mile journey that Ziak captioned as "a final chapter to WWII."