US WWII vet returns flag to fallen Japanese soldier’s family
By SETH ROBSON AND HANA KUSUMOTO | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 15, 2017
HIGASHISHIRAKAWA, Japan — A 93-year-old former Marine carried a calligraphy-covered flag to a small Japanese village Tuesday, keeping a battlefield promise he made more than seven decades earlier.
In the summer of 1944, Marvin Strombo was a sniper scout serving with the 6th Marine Regiment on the Pacific island of Saipan, where U.S. and Japanese forces fought one of World War II’s bloodiest battles.
The young Marine was on the outskirts of the island’s capital city, Garapan, when he took the red and white Japanese flag from a fallen Japanese soldier.
He brought the flag home to Missoula, Mont., but always hoped to return it to its rightful owners. After a 5,000-mile journey to the village of Higashishirakawa in Japan’s mountainous Gifu Prefecture, Strombo finally completed that mission, handing the delicate heirloom to the fallen soldier’s family members.
The Obon Society, a group that helps Americans return Japanese flags taken as war trophies, helped him identify the fallen soldier as Sadao Yasue, one of seven men from the village who died on Saipan.
Strombo arrived in Higashishirakawa Tuesday clad in a dark suit and a baseball cap bearing the names of the Pacific islands where he fought – Saipan, Tarawa and Tinian.
The village sat beside a roaring, whitewater river and was surrounded by pine-covered misty mountains that mirrored the rugged beauty of his home state.
The gray bearded Marine was greeted with a handshake by Sadao’s younger brother, Tatsuya Yasue, 89, who met him with sisters Sayoko Furuta, 93, and Miyako Yasue, 82.
The pair sat together inside a museum full or old Japanese military uniforms, medals, ceremonial swords and photographs of 236 men from Highashishirakawa who lost their lives fighting in WWII.
One of those honored in the museum was a pilot who bombed Pearl Harbor, only to be killed in action later in the war. Maps of his targets were displayed nearby.
The return of the flag, which had been signed by 180 well-wishers from Higashishirakawa, was emotional.
“I made a promise to your brother that I would return it someday,” Strombo told Sadao’s family before handing the flag to Tatsuya, who held it to his face before draping it over Sayoko, sitting in a wheelchair.
“I’m so glad to finally get it back to you. I’m sorry it took so long,” Strombo said.
Tatsuya said he felt like he was talking to the old Marine on his brother’s behalf. “Thank you for keeping the Japanese flag for 73 long years, that my brother carried until the last minute and which was signed by many people,” he said.
“Thank you for keeping it just as the way it was then. I feel like I can still smell my brother’s skin and the writing is still clear even though it is made of fragile cloth,” he said.
During Sadao’s final meal with his family before going to fight in Saipan, he whispered he would “probably not come back alive,” Yasue recalled.
He urged Strombo to stay strong.
“We will keep this flag as our family treasure and pass it down for a long, long time with the memories of today,” he said.
Obon Society co-founder Rex Ziak told those gathered to watch the flag returned that Strombo’s generous act represented the true spirit of a U.S. Marine.
“Millions and millions of Americans feel the same way,” Ziak said. “From this day forward we want this historic meeting of families to be known as the final chapter of the war and the first chapter of a new era that makes and marks true peace and lasting friendship between the people of the United States and the people of Japan.”