COLUMBIA, S.C. — In March of 1969, in the steaming, battle-scarred jungle of the A Shau Valley in central Vietnam, a young Japanese-American paratrooper from Columbia, a star athlete at Dentsville High School, penned four letters to friends and relatives.
Sgt. Steve Flaherty, who had been adopted by a Columbia couple and brought to the United States from an orphanage in Japan when he was 10, was killed, likely by a mortar shell, shortly after he wrote them.
The letters were taken from the young paratrooper’s body by a North Vietnamese soldier. More than four decades later, in 2012, they were delivered to the family after they had been presented to then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. They were the first artifacts from the bloody and controversial war to be exchanged between the two nations.
The exchange made national news. But the story is more than that. Flaherty’s life, given for his country, was one of remarkable contrasts and accomplishments.
“This is really a uniquely 20th century American story,” said Allen Roberson, director of the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, where Flaherty’s letters will be on display Monday, Memorial Day, and beyond. “Two wars defined him. One caused him to be born. The other took his life.”
A new home in S.C.
Flaherty was born on Jan. 11, 1947, to an unknown American soldier and a Japanese mother during the U.S. occupation of the devastated island nation after World War II.
His mother, Tsugie Ushiroda, who is referred to in a Japanese documentary as a dancer, tried to raise him alone but wasn’t able to support him.
When the boy, then named Yoshiaki Ushiroda, was four years old, Tsugie gave him up to the Elizabeth Saunders Home, an orphanage in Osaka for unwanted mixed-race children, often products of rape or prostitution, who were generally held in contempt by the Japanese population.
In 1950, during the Korean War, a young soldier from Columbia, Ronald “Sonny” Flaherty, was stationed in Osaka. He visited the orphanage at the encouragement of his translator and wanted to help. Armed with equipment sent to Japan by a Lutheran church in Columbia, Ron began to teach the boys baseball.
When Ron returned to the United States, he persuaded his mother, Lois, to adopt a child.
Although Lois Flaherty was divorced, Ron, who died in 2010, promised to help raise him. They agreed to accept any child the orphanage thought would be suitable.
When little Yoshiaki’s Delta airliner touched down at Columbia Airport, Ron turned to his mother and said “In a few minutes, me, a single man, 25 years old, will be a big brother,” according to the book, “Yoshiaki,” by Naoko Omodaka.
Little Yoshiaki had one bag, spoke no English and wore a big tag on his chest with his name written on it. But he also brought with him a talent for baseball.
“Yoshiaki!” Ron shouted, delighted, because he remembered the boy and liked him.
“Ron-san!” Yoshiaki shouted back, equally happy.
Connecting through sports
Returning from the airport, Ron, Lois and Yoshiaki – who would later be renamed Steve Flaherty – stopped at a friend’s house. The Porters had a son, Dan, who was the same age as “Steve.”
“Steve was really shy,” Dan, of Swansea, said in an interview with The State newspaper last week. “He almost stood behind Sonny (Ron) during the introductions.”
Though they were unable to talk to each other, Dan took Steve into his room and showed him some model airplanes. Steve spotted a glove and baseball. They got Dan’s father’s glove and went into a vacant lot next door.
“We threw pop-ups and grounders,” Dan said. “We played catch just like any other kids, but couldn’t talk to each other.”
The two hit it off.
“I had never seen anyone who looked or talked like him,” he said. “We became immediate friends. It just clicked.”
It took several years for Steve to learn to speak English well, and he would continue to have an accent. As a result he was quiet and shy around others. But he excelled in sports – baseball as a pitcher and football as a running back.
“That was something he could do that everyone else did,” Dan said. “Everyone understood the language of pitching and catching.”
Dan remembers once Steve was pitching and the umpire was doing a terrible job of calling balls and strikes.
“Steve didn’t know enough English to argue,” he said. “So he went back, got the glasses off the shortstop and handed them to the umpire. It got the point across.”
Martha Gibbons of Irmo, Ron’s widow and Steve’s adoptive sister-in-law, said in an interview last week that Steve worked hard to be the best.
“In the mornings, when everyone else was asleep, he would be up doing pushups,” she said. “That’s why he was such a good athlete.”
‘A very American kid’
Steve’s talent did not go unnoticed when he reached the Dentsville High School football field and American Legion baseball diamonds.
On Sept. 7, 1963, The (Columbia) Record reported Dentsville coach Harry Perone as saying after their first game: “Steve (a sophomore) did a fine job. He’s quick and can really hold onto a football … He’s a little small, but looks like he will do a good job for us.”
The story about the 5-feet, 8-inch, 137-pound halfback was headlined “A Star is Born.”
On June 4, 1964, Bob Cole of The Record wrote about a game between Steve’s Legion team and another. The opponents had gotten into a rally, but “that all came to an end at Capital City ball park when little right-hander Steve Flaherty mowed down Richland 6 batters like he owned them.”
His prowess on the athletic fields and exotic good looks also made him popular with the girls.
“He knew he was handsome,” Dan said. “He knew he was good with the girls.”
Steve bought an MG convertible, a British sports car. He dated pretty girls.
“He really becomes a very American kid in a very short time,” Martha said.
Where he had once been quiet, Steve now became more open and social.
“He was very friendly, very outgoing,” Steve’s uncle, Ken Cannon of Prosperity, told The State newspaper. “He never met a stranger.”
Joining the Army
After graduation in the spring of 1966, Steve got a baseball scholarship to Bryant College in Tennessee. In one outing, he struck out 14 batters.
“Steve Flaherty is a big star,” wrote the Rhea County (Tenn.) Area News.
One day, a scout for the Cincinnati Reds came down to see Steve pitch. He told Steve he might have a future in the major leagues.
“He was that good,” Martha said.
But Dan Porter, his best friend, didn’t go on to college. He joined the Air Force.
Dan went through basic training, through different assignments as a loadmaster on a C-130 transport plane and then on to fly missions in Vietnam. The two friends never saw each other again after Dan left for the military, but they continued to exchange frequent letters.
After one year at Bryant College, Steve decided to take a hiatus from school and baseball, join the Army, serve his country, test his mettle, see the world and then return for a career in the pros.
“I blame me,” Dan said last week. “I was writing letters telling him how much fun I was having.”
Being competitive, Steve wanted to join the paratroopers, maybe even the Green Berets. And he excelled during training.
In just two years, he rose from private to sergeant without ever being deployed, applying to and completing some of the Army’s toughest training regimens — jump school, the NCO academy, leadership schools.
“Everything he went at — football, baseball, the Army — he wanted to be the best,” Martha said. “And he was.”
Eventually he made it into the elite 101st Airborne Division
“He joined the 101 because it was the best of the best,” Dan said. “I told him not to. I told him I joined the Air Force so I wouldn’t get my ass shot off.”
‘He gave his life’
Steve Flaherty was deployed to Vietnam on Oct. 25, 1969.
The 101st was assigned to the dangerous A Shau Valley in central Vietnam. Its job was to clear the valley of North Vietnamese troops and stop supplies from rolling down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in nearby Laos to Viet Cong fighters in the south.
The North Vietnamese Army was just as determined to drive the paratroopers out of the valley and keep the vital supplies moving. The back and forth fighting was some of the most brutal of the war.
“Boy, did I get in a tough unit,” Steve wrote Dan in a grim letter shortly after he arrived.
Then, on March 25, 1969, during a particularly ferocious North Vietnamese counterattack, Steve was killed “by multiple shrapnel wounds,” according to an after-action report Dan later read.
“Probably a rocket grenade or a mortar,” Dan said.
It was more than 24 hours before the American soldiers took the position back. By then, the four letters had been removed from Steve’s body — a standard practice, probably for use in propaganda.
Dan did not find out about his friend’s death until after Steve’s body was shipped home and buried in Greenlawn Memorial Park in Columbia. He found out in a letter from his parents.
“I was just numb,” Dan said.
Today, Dan still considers Steve the best friend he ever had. And he has donated several letters from Steve to the museum to augment those returned by the now united nation of Vietnam.
On Memorial Day, he hopes that everyone will remember his friend.
“We had people from here that left the country, running away to Canada to keep from serving in the war,” Dan said. “And here’s a guy who came to our county, adopted our country and died for it.”
Martha, Steve’s sister-in-law, added: “Steve wanted to give something back to the country who had given him so much. Unfortunately, he gave his life.”