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In 1944, a 20-year-old U.S. Marine corporal named Marvin Strombo got separated from his unit on the island of Saipan. Making his way back toward the rally point, he stumbled across the supine body of a young Japanese soldier. The man had apparently been killed by the concussion from a mortar explosion: his body was completely intact, bearing no apparent wounds. The sword at his side marked him as an officer. And poking out from underneath his jacket Strombo could see a folded Japanese flag.
Strombo hesitated but then reached out and removed the flag. It was covered with Japanese calligraphy: good-luck messages and signatures from the young officer’s friends and family. Flags such as this were popular souvenirs among Allied troops, so Strombo knew that if he hadn’t taken it someone else would have. But Strombo made a silent vow: “I knew it meant a lot to him … I made myself promise him that one day, I would give back the flag after the war was over.”
For seven decades the flag hung in a display case in Strombo’s home. He never forgot his promise, but he had no idea how to fulfill it. Then, a few years ago, he was put in touch with the Obon Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to returning such personal items home. By studying the names on the flag, researchers were able to trace it back to the remote Japanese village of Higashishirakawa, and to a young soldier named Sadao Yasue. Of the 180 people who had signed the flag, seven were still alive — including Yasue’s younger brother and two sisters. They didn’t know what had become of their brother, only that he had never come home.
And so, a few days ago, 93-year-old Marvin Strombo made the long journey to Higashishirakawa, where he met with the surviving family and friends of the young enemy soldier whose final resting place he had seen. He was able to bring them the closure of knowing where, when, and how Yasue died; and he was able to return to them the flag they had sent with Yasue when he’d gone off to war. “I had such a moment with your brother. I promised him one day I would return the flag to his family,” Strombo told them. “It took a long time, but I was able to bring the flag back to you, where it belongs.”
The Japanese were our enemies in World War II. And make no mistake: they were on the wrong side. Even the Japanese themselves know that today. Sadao Yasue was fighting for the wrong cause, defending a militaristic regime that was bent on conquest and domination of its neighbors, at the expense of its own populace. He was part of a military that, elsewhere in the same war, committed atrocities that are too horrible to contemplate.
But he was also a human being, a young man with a family and friends who loved him. People he left behind, people who had nothing to do with the war, except insofar as they suffered its miseries and the pain of his loss. Returning the flag to these people and honoring the sacrifice he made in no way undermines the outcome of the war, nor does it represent an endorsement of the evil for which he fought. It is nothing more and nothing less than an expression of human decency, a way of reaching out and acknowledging the pain of war.
In front of the courthouse at the center of my small North Carolina town is a statue of a Confederate soldier. Not a hero, not a leader, just a generic representation of the thousands of young men who went off to war and left grieving families behind. It is not an endorsement of slavery or a message of racism; it is nothing more and nothing less than a somber acknowledgement and reminder of the pain that war brought.
The next time I drive through town, I wonder if it will still be there.
Most of the details about Marvin Strombo’s story, and the photo, came from here.