California man hopes Japanese soldier's flag from WWII finds its way home
By GRETCHEN WENNER | The Ventura County Star (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 6, 2018
VENTURA, Calif. — The delicate flag was recently spread on a kitchen counter in the Santa Rosa Valley, east of Camarillo, as three friends pondered its origins.
Messages in Japanese were written on the silk around the bright red sun at its center. The words were meant for the World War II Japanese soldier who carried it with him to battle. Typically, relatives, neighbors and schoolmates signed the flags. An untold number of them became wartime souvenirs for American GIs.
Now, Ventura resident Tom Hodges hopes the flag his father sent home during the war can be returned to the soldier's family in Japan.
Hodges, 85, had been trying to find someone to take the flag for the past 15 or 20 years.
"No one really wanted it," he said last week while sitting in the kitchen of his friend Robert Wagner. "They didn't know what to do with it."
But earlier in January, a chance conversation with buddies who fly radio-controlled airplanes opened up the possibility.
Hodges, Wagner and friend Pete Barillier were talking about an old fighter plane when Hodges happened to mention the flag.
For Wagner, it clicked immediately. He had read an Associated Press article in August about a nonprofit group in Oregon, the OBON SOCIETY, that is helping return the flags to families in Japan.
Hodges' father, Roy T. Hodges, was a chef with the medical unit of the Army's 96th Infantry Division. Around 1944, he worked in an advance hospital on the island of Leyte in the Philippines treating wounded GIs, he said.
The cooks got quite a few things from the GIs, trading steaks or lemon meringue pies for battlefield trophies.
His father acquired the flag at that time, Hodges said, and mailed it home immediately. As far as he knows, his father never learned any information about the Japanese soldier it belonged to.
Wagner added that during the war, American GIs would go out souvenir hunting.
"They were looking for swords and these flags," Wagner said, as well as pistols and other items. The souvenirs were typically collected from dead soldiers.
When the flags are returned to Japanese families, the impact is powerful, said Rex Ziak, who launched the society in 2009 with his Japanese wife, Keiko.
For those families, "that flag is the only remaining trace of that person on Earth," Ziak said last week during a Skype call from Kyoto, Japan. Families still pray for those missing soldiers and keep them "very vividly in memory," he said.
The flags provide tremendous relief, as if the missing soldier's spirit has come home, Ziak said.
What's more, as relatives and neighbors look over the signatures, they see names they recognize — someone's uncle or father — and make a call. Such ripples and reverberations go out through the community and can last for months as word of the flag spreads, Ziak said.
The nonprofit society, based in Astoria, Oregon, operates with 32 people, mostly in the U.S. and Japan. It does not charge for its efforts. Instructions on how to mail the flags can be found on its website at obonsociety.org.
The volunteers spend hours researching the flags' origins, including the name of the soldier's family and his hometown. Ziak estimated that there are between 20,000 and 30,000 Japanese soldier flags in the U.S.
The idea for the group came from an experience Keiko Ziak had in 2007. Keiko's grandfather had disappeared without a trace in the jungles of Burma 62 years earlier. When the flag her grandfather carried suddenly came back to the family from Canada, it seemed a miracle, she said.
"Both of us realized that could happen to many other families in Japan," she said.
So far, the society has returned about 170 flags. The Japanese families who receive them are astonished and grateful they have been preserved so well, Rex Ziak said.
For Ziak, returning the flags feels like the final chapter of World War II: a symbolic end of hatred and distrust that once lingered between two nations at war.
"It's much bigger than just a flag," he said. "It is truly making peace."
In Wagner's Santa Rosa Valley home, the three friends looked over paperwork to send the flag to the society. They mailed it Friday.
Hodges hopes others with the flags — including families who might not know their emotional significance — might also return them to Japan.
His dad would be thrilled to know the flag was going home, he said.
"I don't think at the time he would have," Hodges added, laughing. "But today, it would have thrilled him to death."