For more than six decades, a Japanese battle flag inscribed with messages of good luck stayed tucked away as a memento of Robert Walsh’s World War II service.

A former Army combat medic, Walsh died of leukemia in a New York City Veteran’s Hospital in 1996 at age 78.

His cousin, a retired New York City subway worker, acquired the silk flag while going through Walsh’s personal belongings and decided the flag should return to Japan.

“Robert never spoke much about the flag. I don’t know for sure where he even picked it up during the war,” Walsh’s cousin, William Grimes, Jr., said from his Allentown, Pa., home. “It could have been in the Philippines.”

Now Sadakichi Kojima, a photography professor in Yokohama, Japan, has been entrusted with the flag and is searching for its owner.

“I was told that a Japanese soldier gave the flag to Mr. Walsh when he fell [in battle] on Guadalcanal,” Kojima said.

Some of what is known about the flag — commonly presented by families of Japanese Imperial Army soldiers going off to war — can be traced to what is written on it:

“We pray that you fight fiercely and have long-lasting luck,” one message written in Japanese kanji says.

“Go forward and fight fiercely,” said an inscription from “Horita.” “A national crisis is coming,” said words from “Sekiuchi,” while Kazuhito Matsumoto wrote: “Take care of your body.”

After the war, many battle flags were returned to the families of their owners, said Akira Yabuki, acting chairman of the National Solomon Society, a Tokyo-based veteran’s group. Some are displayed at the museum at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan’s war dead are enshrined.

Another inscription on the flag referred to the soldier’s division in a kanji that could be read as “Ebi” or “Enoo.” Ebi and Enoo are two towns in Japan. Based on the inscribed division’s name, it is thought the flag accompanied the fallen Japanese soldier to Guadalcanal where a fierce battle took place between August 1942 and February 1943.

Yabuki said research has shown about 30,000 Japanese soldiers fought at Guadalcanal hailing from Miyagi, Fukushima, Niigata, Shizuoka, Gifu, Aichi and Fukuoka prefectures.

Grimes, now 77, said he recalled Walsh telling him he served with the Army’s 25th or 26th Infantry Division at several South Pacific locales, including Guadalcanal and the Philippines.

“Robert had a good mind, and sometimes he talked at length about going into volcanic craters in Hawaii, and the forests of New Zealand,” Grimes said. “He sometimes spoke about how people died; he had total recall about some of the battles he was in.”

A Navy gunner’s mate who dropped depth charges in the North Atlantic during the war, Grimes said the first time he learned of the flag was when it fell out of a box as he helped Walsh move from his Bronx apartment to Long Island, N.Y., decades ago.

“At one time, I remember he had it pinned on the back of a door in his apartment in the Bronx,” he said. “He was always very respectful of it.”

Kojima said the flag is in remarkably good condition given its age.

“It has not changed colors and it is not stained,” he said. “There are no worm holes, either.”

Many battle flags, Kojima noted, are returned with blood stains.

“[Walsh’s flag] must have been kept in very good condition,” he said.

Walsh was a technical sergeant when he was discharged in July 1945, after serving 4½ years in the Army, Grimes said.

He returned to his job in the supply room for the New York Central railroad in New York City and stayed with the railroad until he retired after 30 years.

Grimes called Walsh “practically a brother to me.” After Walsh died, Grimes approached the staff of nearby Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., asking if there was some way to return the flag to Japan.

Student Naoko Cauller, now a homemaker in Bethlehem, Pa., was put in contact with Grimes and eventually brought the flag to Japan four years ago.

“Kojima is a friend of Naoko’s aunt; that’s how he got the flag,” said Naoko’s husband, Tim Cauller, an instructor at Lehigh University.

The Yomiuri Shimbun, an English-language daily newspaper, recently featured the flag in a story, and Kojima said the newspaper received several responses.

One strong lead came from Tottori Prefecture, where several people listed on the flag are believed to have lived in the prefecture’s community of Ebi.

“We’re currently exchanging information with them,” Kojima said.

Grimes said his cousin’s wife, Odette, succumbed from congestive heart failure three years before her husband. The couple had no children, and Grimes calls himself and a sister “the only remaining family Robert had.”

Robert Walsh requested that he be buried in his military uniform — a request so honored in 1996.

“We placed his Pacific bars on his uniform with arrow clusters indicating he was part of first- line invasions at many locations in the Pacific,” Grimes said. “He saw a lot of combat.”

Kojima calls Walsh’s thoughtfulness of returning the flag to Japan “warm and precious.”

“I believe if Mr. Walsh visited Japan in his lifetime, he would say we should not have any more war.”

Flags reminded soldiers of role, wished them well

Japanese soldiers heading off to World War II battlefields sometimes wrapped battle flags adorned with names and inspirational messages from friends around their stomachs, while some carried the flags in their uniform pouches.

Akira Yabuki, acting chairman of the National Solomon Society, a Tokyo-based veteran’s group, said a Japanese soldier receiving a battle flag kept it with him at all times.

“Family members and people who knew the soldier wrote their feelings wishing the soldier to fulfill their role and return safely,” he said.

The name of the soldier to whom the flag is presented usually is written on the flag, except in rare instances. Some Japanese battle flags returned years after the war ended didn’t have the name of the soldier inscribed on them.

“So there is no way of telling who it was given to and by whom,” Yabuki said.

Veterans who obtained battle flags during wartime have stories that go along with them.

“It was a little bit scary to find a dead Japanese soldier for they booby-trapped them, hoping you would reach for the flag, and then a grenade would go off,” reminisced war veteran Clifford Burk at a veteran’s Web site.

He was 22 when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942 and later served at several locales in the Pacific.

Battle flags can be found for sale on Web sites as war souvenirs.

Surviving family members of some deceased war veterans return the flags to Japan in hopes of bringing closure to families of soldiers who carried them into war.

— Wayne Specht

author picture
Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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