HIGASHISHIRAKAWA, Japan — Tatsuya Yasue buried his face into the flag and smelled it. Then he held the 93-year-old hands that brought this treasure home, and kissed them.
Marvin Strombo, who had taken the calligraphy-covered Japanese flag from a dead soldier on a World War II island battlefield 73 years ago, returned it on Aug. 8 to the family of Sadao Yasue. They had never received any of his remains or belongings — until that moment.
This emotional finale was brought about by the Obon Society, a nonprofit founded by Rex and Keiko Ziak of Naselle. In 2012, Strombo learned about Obon, which helps U.S. veterans and their descendants return Japanese flags to the families of fallen soldiers. The group’s research traced it to the village of 2,300 people in central Japan by analyzing family names.
Soldier Sadao Yasue’s sister, Sayoko Furuta, 93, sitting in her wheelchair, covered her face with both hands and wept silently as Tatsuya placed the flag on her lap. Strombo reached out and gently rubbed her shoulder.
“I was so happy that I returned the flag,” Strombo said. “I can see how much the flag meant to her. That almost made me cry … It meant everything in the world to her.”
The flag’s white background is filled with signatures of 180 friends and neighbors in this tea-growing mountain village of Higashishirakawa, wishing for Yasue’s safe return. The signatures helped Strombo find the flag’s rightful owners.
“Good luck forever at the battlefield,” a message on it reads. Looking at the names and their handwriting, Tatsuya Yasue clearly recalls their faces and friendship with his older brother.
The smell of the flag immediately brought back childhood memories. “It smelled like my good old big brother, and it smelled like our mother’s home cooking we ate together,” Tatsuya Yasue said. “The flag will be our treasure.”
The return of the flag brings closure, the 89-year-old farmer told The Associated Press at his 400-year-old house. “It’s like the war has finally ended and my brother can come out of limbo.”
Strombo said he originally wanted the flag as a souvenir from the war, but he felt guilty taking it, so he never sold it and vowed to one day return it.
He had the flag hung in a glass-fronted gun cabinet in his home in Montana for years, a topic of conversation for visitors. A U.S. Marine, he was 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.
The handover meant a closure for Strombo too. “It means so much to me and the family to get the flag back and move on,” he said.