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Honoring Fallen Enemies

 

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.

There are 22 comments.

  1. Thatcher

    Fantastic post!

    • #1
    • August 18, 2017 at 9:04 am
    • 15 likes
  2. Member

    Thank you for this post.

    • #2
    • August 18, 2017 at 9:29 am
    • 6 likes
  3. Thatcher

    What a touching story.

    If you live in Pittsboro, NC, there are people standing guard around the statue in front of the old courthouse. Saw the picture on a friend’s Facebook page yesterday.

    • #3
    • August 18, 2017 at 9:56 am
    • 6 likes
  4. Coolidge

    Blondie (View Comment):
    If you live in Pittsboro, NC, there are people standing guard around the statue in front of the old courthouse. Saw the picture on a friend’s Facebook page yesterday.

    Well spotted. And that’s good to hear! I don’t often drive through downtown, but my wife goes through there every day. I’ll have to ask her if she saw anything.

    • #4
    • August 18, 2017 at 10:20 am
    • 6 likes
  5. Thatcher

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. (View Comment):

    Blondie (View Comment):
    If you live in Pittsboro, NC, there are people standing guard around the statue in front of the old courthouse. Saw the picture on a friend’s Facebook page yesterday.

    Well spotted. And that’s good to hear! I don’t often drive through downtown, but my wife goes through there every day. I’ll have to ask her if she saw anything.

    Just a guess. I’d post the picture, but I’d rather do it with permission. We should get together sometime. I’m just up the road.

    • #5
    • August 18, 2017 at 10:27 am
    • 1 like
  6. Member

    I can remember when you always had to drive around the courthouse if you were driving on 64. And remember the fire.

    Most excellent post.

    • #6
    • August 18, 2017 at 11:25 am
    • 6 likes
  7. Member

    My family visited Stone Mountain when I was a kid. The monument explicitly honors both sides of the war. It was where I first heard the “Proud to be an American” song.

    We also visited Andersonville, a Confederate prison camp, where we learned how the prisoners died of starvation and disease in muddy pens. My grandma there in Georgia told us how some of our ancestors, who were not soldiers, died under similar conditions in an Ohio prison camp. We mourned them all.

    It’s common for families to have irreconcilable differences and resentment between some members. They are still family.

    • #7
    • August 18, 2017 at 1:29 pm
    • 18 likes
  8. Member

    Very nice.

    • #8
    • August 18, 2017 at 4:49 pm
    • Like
  9. Member

    Here is a link to the Oban Society in Astoria, Oregon. Our daughter-in-law is a Japanese citizen and is very active in the Japanese American community in Portland. Their children speak both Japanese and English, and our son earned his Japanese language degree at the University of Oregon.

    • #9
    • August 18, 2017 at 5:55 pm
    • 12 likes
  10. Coolidge

    What a beautiful piece. It should be required reading for all the news networks. My experience of Civil War monuments is that they invoke solemnity and sorrow. They don’t celebrate history; they mark it. And every now and then, as we come across one, we pause and reflect on what they represent. So those who tear them down or take them from the public square erase important reminders of a terrible time in our history.

    • #10
    • August 18, 2017 at 6:20 pm
    • 10 likes
  11. Inactive

    Excellent story and post. Thank you.

    • #11
    • August 18, 2017 at 6:48 pm
    • 2 likes
  12. Inactive

    Wonderful story of magnanimity and reconciliation. And excellent and eloquent post.

    • #12
    • August 18, 2017 at 7:34 pm
    • 2 likes
  13. Member

    I think I liked every other comment so far.

    This post made so clear much of what’s happening today. Thank you.

    • #13
    • August 18, 2017 at 8:04 pm
    • 3 likes
  14. Member

    Can I share this? E-mail it to friends and family, maybe?

    • #14
    • August 19, 2017 at 6:07 am
    • 1 like
  15. Coolidge

    Kate Braestrup (View Comment):
    Can I share this? E-mail it to friends and family, maybe?

    If you’re asking me, I certainly have no objection.

    • #15
    • August 19, 2017 at 7:01 am
    • 2 likes
  16. Inactive

    A timely lesson of history and enduring human values which is undoubtedly lost on rabid social justice “warriors,” who are the antithesis of actual warriors. Their bravery will extend no farther than defacing/destroying unarmed statues in the dead of night.

    • #16
    • August 19, 2017 at 8:58 am
    • 2 likes
  17. Inactive

    BTW, as to revisionism – Soviet inhabitants of that iteration of a workers’ paradise raised cynicism to a very high level as somewhat of an emotional defense. Among their slogans: “In the Soviet Union, the past…. is very hard to predict.” Sound like anyplace you know now??

    • #17
    • August 19, 2017 at 9:15 am
    • 5 likes
  18. Thatcher

    Thanks for this added perspective, @bartholomewxerxesogilviejr! Good to see you, as well!

    • #18
    • August 19, 2017 at 9:45 am
    • 1 like
  19. Member

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. (View Comment):

    Kate Braestrup (View Comment):
    Can I share this? E-mail it to friends and family, maybe?

    If you’re asking me, I certainly have no objection.

    Thank you, BXO!

    • #19
    • August 19, 2017 at 10:11 am
    • 2 likes
  20. Member

    Great post. Thank you.

    • #20
    • August 19, 2017 at 12:08 pm
    • 1 like
  21. Thatcher

    These words from General Grant’s Memoirs, written and published under Mark Twain’s sponsorship, around the Surrender at Appomatox and related matters, are striking, especially with regard to the camaraderie between soon-to-be-former foes – and the seeds of reconciliation being sown. [via Wikipedia]:

    “When I had left camp that morning I had not expected so soon the result that was then taking place, and consequently was in rough garb. I was without a sword, as I usually was when on horseback on the field, and wore a soldier’s blouse for a coat, with the shoulder straps of my rank to indicate to the army who I was. When I went into the house I found General Lee. We greeted each other, and after shaking hands took our seats. I had my staff with me, a good portion of whom were in the room during the whole of the interview.

    What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us …

    We soon fell into a conversation about old army times. He remarked that he remembered me very well in the old army; and I told him that as a matter of course I remembered him perfectly, but from the difference in our rank and years (there being about sixteen years’ difference in our ages), I had thought it very likely that I had not attracted his attention sufficiently to be remembered by him after such a long interval. Our conversation grew so pleasant that I almost forgot the object of our meeting. After the conversation had run on in this style for some time, General Lee called my attention to the object of our meeting, and said that he had asked for this interview for the purpose of getting from me the terms I proposed to give his army.” [9]

    • #21
    • August 19, 2017 at 12:38 pm
    • 6 likes
  22. Member

    Thank you for writing this, Bartholomew.

    It’s beautiful.

    It perfectly describes what’s equally missing in the KKK, BLM , Anti-fa, and the people who justify the vandalism on memorials. Where, really, is their respect for anyone’s humanity ?

    I’m sick about the statue in Durham, N.C. .

    • #22
    • August 20, 2017 at 7:36 pm
    • 3 likes