World War II vet­eran’s fi­nal mis­sion

93-year-old Ma­rine trav­els to Ja­pan to re­turn flag of a fallen sol­dier to his fam­ily.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Gil­lian Flac­cus

PORTLAND, Ore. — Marvin Strombo was be­hind Ja­panese en­emy lines on a Pa­cific is­land dur­ing World War II when he re­al­ized the other five men in his squadron had moved on with­out him.

The young 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-yearold ar­rived Fri­day in Tokyo, the first stop in a 10,000-mile 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.

He was met by Ja­panese news me­dia, who gath­ered around his wheel­chair to in­ter­view him.

“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, Ore., this week be­fore board­ing a flight to Ja­pan.

Then, qui­etly: “I think that sol­dier wanted me to find him for some rea­son.”

The flags were a good­luck charm that linked Ja­panese sol­diers to their loved ones and their call for duty. Some were signed by hun­dreds of class­mates, neigh­bors and rel­a­tives.

Al­lied troops fre­quently took them from the bod­ies of their en­e­mies as sou­venirs. They have a deep sig­nif­i­cance be­cause most Ja­panese fam­i­lies never learned how their loved ones died and never re­ceived re­mains.

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.

He wrote let­ters to find out more about the flag but eventually put it aside. He knew no Ja­panese and, in an era be­fore the In­ter­net, mak­ing any head­way was dif­fi­cult. Then, in 2012, the son of his former com­mand­ing of­fi­cer con­tacted him about a book he was writ­ing on the pla­toon.

Through him, Strombo reached out to the Obon So­ci­ety, a non­profit 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 by reading the script on the flag. They traced the cor­po­ral to a tea­grow­ing vil­lage of about 2,400 peo­ple in the moun­tains roughly 200 miles west of Tokyo.

The cal­lig­ra­phy turned out to be the sig­na­tures of 180 friends and neigh­bors who saw Sadao off to war in Hi­gashi Shi­rakawa, in­clud­ing 42 of his rel­a­tives. Seven of the orig­i­nal sig­na­to­ries are still alive, in­clud­ing Sadao’s 89-year-old brother and two sis­ters.

When re­searchers con­tacted Sadao’s brother by phone, 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 co­founded the Obon So­ci­ety with his Ja­panese wife, Keiko.

“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 re­counted. “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. He can show roughly where he found Sadao’s body on the out­skirts of Gara­pan and can tell the sib­lings that their brother prob­a­bly died of a con­cus­sion from a mor­tar round.

“I knew he was young be­cause I could see his pro­file as I bent over him. He was lay­ing on his back, kind of on his left side,” he said.

The Obon So­ci­ety has re­turned about 125 flags and gets about five in­quiries a day from ag­ing sol­diers who re­gret their ac­tions and want to re­turn the flags be­fore they die.

The group be­lieves thou­sands of sim­i­lar flags are prob­a­bly hid­den in at­tics across the U.S. that could give an­swers to count­less other fam­i­lies. Strombo will be the first World War II vet­eran to re­turn a flag in per­son to a Ja­panese fam­ily through the Obon So­ci­ety.

The trip is a jour­ney of for­give­ness and clo­sure as he fin­ishes the fi­nal chap­ter of his life. Only two other men in his pla­toon of 40 are still alive, and he knows the hu­mid is­lands where he fought for weeks are now a foot­note in the war’s larger his­tory.

“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.”

Don Ryan As­so­ci­ated Press

OBON SO­CI­ETY co-founder Rex Ziak, left, and World War II vet­eran Marvin Strombo with a flag that Strombo took from a dead Ja­panese sol­dier in 1944.

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