HIGASHISHIRAKAWA, Japan (AP) — 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 Tuesday to the family of Sadao Yasue. They had never received any of his remains or belongings — until that moment.
The soldier'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."
The return of the flag Tuesday came on the anniversary of the end of World War II when Japan prays for its war dead. It also comes during the Japanese "obon" week when the spirits of the dead are believed to visit their families. Yasue said he hoped the flag's return conveys the message of peace and reconciliation and that he wants to keep telling younger generations his story so the tragedy should never be repeated.
Tatsuya Yasue last saw his brother alive the day before he left for the South Pacific in 1943. He and two siblings had a small send-off picnic for the oldest brother outside his military unit over sushi and Japanese sweet mochi. At the end of the meeting, Sadao whispered to Tatsuya, asking him to take good care of their parents, as he would be sent to the Pacific islands, harsh battlegrounds where chances of survival were low.
A year later, Japanese authorities sent the family a wooden box with a few stones at the bottom — a substitute for his body. They knew no details of Sadeo's death until months after the war ended, when they were told he died somewhere in the Mariana Islands presumably on July 18, 1944, the day Saipan fell, at age 25.
"That's all we were told about my brother. We never knew exactly when, where or how he died," he said. The family had wondered whether he might have died at sea. About 20 years ago, Tatsuya Yasue visited Saipan with his younger brother, trying to imagine what their older brother might have experienced.
So Strombo was able to give Yasue's family not just a flag, but also some answers.
He said he found Sadao Yasue's body on the outskirts of Garapan, a village in Saipan, when he got lost and ended up near the Japanese frontline. He told Yasue's siblings their brother likely died of a concussion from a mortar round. He told them that Sadao was lying on the ground on his left side, looking peacefully as if he was sleeping and without severe wounds.
Strombo also delivered a little hope that Sadao Yasue's body might one day be recovered, given that he remembered those details and the location was on land rather than at sea.
The remains of nearly half of the 2.4 million Japanese war dead overseas have yet to be found. It's a pressing issue as the bereaved families reach old age and memories fade.
Allied troops frequently took the flags from the bodies of their enemies as souvenirs, as Japanese flags were quite popular and fetched good prices when auctioned, Strombo said. But to the Japanese bereaved families, they have a much deeper meaning, especially those, like Yasue, who never learned how their loved ones died and never received remains. Japan's government has asked auction sites to stop trading wartime signed flags.
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.
In 2012, he was connected to the Obon Society, an Oregon-based nonprofit that 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.
Tuesday's 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.
This story has been corrected to say the Japanese soldier's first name in 8th paragraph is Sadao, not Sadeo.
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