At New Mexico Military Museum, a flag for WWII fallen begins journey home

By ROBERT NOTT | The Santa Fe New Mexican | Published: October 27, 2019

SANTA FE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — The good-luck flag that hung for at least a decade at the New Mexico Military Museum in Santa Fe might not have been enough to save the life of the Japanese soldier who bore it during battle in World War II.

It had at least two small holes — perhaps from shrapnel — and some dark blots and smudges around the edges, suggesting faded blood.

“These were in war,” Rex Ziak of the Obon Society, an Oregon-based organization, said of the Japanese good-luck flags, given as gifts to soldiers from family members before they headed to war.

Ziak’s group has been working to repatriate the flags, returning them to family members in Japan of the soldiers who had carried them.

The flags, called yosegaki hinomaru in Japanese, were carried by every member of Japan’s military force during World War II, Ziak said. Soldiers went into battle bearing the silk or cotton flags close to their hearts, perhaps hoping the words inscribed by friends and family — “Good luck in battle” was the most common — would help them survive.

On Saturday, the New Mexico Military Museum hosted a ceremony in which the museum’s flag was turned over to Ziak and his wife, Keiko, with the hope that they can find descendants of its rightful owner and return the memento to them.

No one involved with the museum knew how or when the flag came into the museum’s collection.

The ceremony was one of music, laughter, tears and prayer. It was conducted both by members of the military and by civilians to, as one participant put it, “make peace with the Japanese.”

“It’s just time for us to come together,” said Margaret Garcia, daughter of the late World War II soldier and Bataan Death March survivor Evans Garcia. Returning the flag to its homeland can achieve that, she said, adding many American soldiers who survived the war died unable or unwilling to temper their hatred for the Japanese.

Others have fostered forgiveness.

Keiko Ziak and Bethany Glenn, a board member of the Obon Society, told stories at Saturday’s ceremony about their grandfathers — one Japanese, one American — who both came from humble backgrounds and died in a war that left wounds not only on those who fought in it but also their descendents.

Glenn’s grandfather died on the USS Oklahoma during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, which initiated the U.S.’s entry into the war.

Ziak’s grandfather died somewhere in Burma in 1945 in the war’s waning months. He carried a good-luck flag like the one the military museum turned over to the Obon Society. It came into the hands of a Canadian collector, who later returned it to the family, she said.

The Obon Society already has returned 300 flags to Japan and is working on researching at least 900 more with the hope of repatriating them as well, Rex Ziak said.

The organization works with analysts, scholars and historians in the U.S. and Japan who, through deciphering the messages on the flags, do their best to figure out if any family members of the soldier are still living, It’s a task made a little easier by the fact that many Japanese families, unlike Americans, stay in one place for most of their lives, Rex Ziak said.

He said many flags that make their way to the society come from veterans, their family members, collectors or other people who somehow ended up with one.

Saturday’s event marked the first time a military museum has donated a good-luck flag to the society.

“That’s going to resonate big in Japan,” he said.

The museum, founded in the 1960s, shut down for a time before formally reopening in 1978, according to Ralph Nava, president of the New Mexico Military Museum Foundation. The museum closed for renovation and repairs this summer and will reopen Nov. 6, he added.

It is not clear what will replace the yosegaki hinomaru on the museum wall. But Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Estrada, one of two officers charged with removing the good-luck flag from the wall and carrying it into a nearby auditorium for Saturday’s ceremony, said he felt humbled to have touched a piece of history.

“For years, some of these [Japanese] families heard nothing about the fate of their loved ones,” he said. “No word, no hope. So if this is all you have left to represent a loved one — a flag — it becomes their legacy.”

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