Vet returns enemy’s flag
Taken from body, WWII soldier now gives it to kin in Japan
PORTLAND, Ore. — Marvin Strombo was behind Japanese enemy lines on a Pacific island during the Second World War when he realized the other five men in his squadron had moved on without him.
The young U.S. Marine, part of an elite scout-sniper platoon fighting a 1944 battle on Saipan, nervously scanned the terrain.
He spotted a body on the ground, a dead Japanese soldier lying on his left side.
The young man looked peaceful, as if asleep, and something white poked out from his jacket.
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 arrived Friday in Tokyo, the first stop in a 16,000-km 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 this week. Then, quietly: “I think that soldier wanted me to find him for some reason.”
The flags were a good-luck Marvin Strombo, right, and Rex Zika look at the Japanese flag Strombo took from a dead soldier more than 70 years ago. charm that linked Japanese soldiers to their loved ones.
Some were signed by hundreds of classmates, neighbours and relatives.
Allied troops frequently took them from the bodies of their enemies as souvenirs.
For Strombo, the flag hung in a glass-fronted gun cabinet in his home in Montana for years, a topic of conversation for visitors and a curiosity for his four children.
He never spoke about his role in the battles of Saipan, Tarawa and Tinian, which chipped away at Japan’s control of islands in the Pacific and paved the way for U.S. victory.
In 2012, the son of Strombo’s former commanding officer contacted him about a book he was writing on the platoon.
Through him, Strombo reached out to the Obon Society, a non-profit organization 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.
They traced the corporal to a tea-growing village of about 2,400 people in the mountains roughly 340 km west of Tokyo.
Seven of the original signatories of the flag are still alive, including Yasue’s 89-year-old brother and two sisters.
When researchers contacted Yasue’s brother, he asked whether 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.
“Then he asked, ‘Do you imagine he knows how my brother died and where he died?’ ” Ziak said. “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 is the only person who can provide those answers.
The Obon Society believes thousands of similar flags are likely hidden in attics across the U.S. that could give answers to countless other families.
Strombo will be the first WWII veteran to return a flag in person to a Japanese family through the Obon Society.
“It got so I kind of wanted to meet the family, you know,” he said, his voice growing raspy. “I know it means so much to them.”