POWs’ makeshift flag a reminder of ‘Unbroken’ history
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 15, 2015
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Although Petty Officer 1st Class Denny Landrum died in 1980, the Navy electrician’s mate lives on through vibrant strokes of colored pigment.
Between beatings, mock executions and torture at the Omori Prison Camp during World War II, Landrum and fellow POWs Raymond Jakubielski, Lorenzo Miriszio and Norman Albertsen painstakingly sewed bed sheets together and pilfered colored pencils from their Japanese guards. They created an American flag even though they faced execution if caught and had been threatened with court martial by their superiors, who feared all the prisoners might be punished for the act of defiance.
The 6-by-4-foot flag was used to signal allied planes that were appearing overhead. They eventually greeted their liberators on Aug. 29, 1945, waving the flag from atop a stolen firefighting tool.
The Japanese prison camp and its now infamous resident tormentor, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “The Bird,” have been immortalized in Angelina Jolie’s Oscar-nominated film “Unbroken,” about another Omori prisoner, Louis Zamperini.
The popularity of the film, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book, has drawn renewed interest in the flag, which disappeared after the war. It was found almost two years ago and is on loan to the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond, where it will appear until spring.
Denny’s son, Jerry Landrum, said the flag, like the movie, is bigger than one man or a handful of men armed with colored pencils; it is about the hundreds who refused to back down despite horrendous conditions and insurmountable odds.
“It’s not about Dad,” Jerry Landrum told Stars and Stripes by phone. “It’s for all of them. They couldn’t have survived it if they didn’t help each other… [The flag] meant so much to them. They were patriotic and they were going to put it out there and risk everything.”
For Landrum, the war memorial has become a place of solemn reflection, where he often goes to look at the flag, remember his father and trade stories with the families of his father’s shipmates.
He and his father had been looking for the flag since the 1960s. Jerry took over the mission when his father died in 1980 of complications from beriberi, a disease linked to his poor nutrition in prison. He was 56.
Jerry Landrum called Naval History and Heritage Command curator Allison Russell as part of his search. In April 2013, she located the flag in off-site storage where it had been perfectly preserved for decades.
“We had no idea what happened to it,” Jerry said. “It was emotional” when it was found.
Sen. Mark Warner intervened on behalf of the family to bring it to Landrum’s hometown, where it has become quite a draw.
“The story just kind of grabs people,” said memorial spokesman Jeb Hockman. “They get up close and they see the pencil lines. You can see how hard these guys worked on this flag. It really touches people.”
As a youth, Denny Landrum was tall, thin and athletic, with a pointed chin and wide, toothy smile. He was stubborn and had a sharp sense of humor. During World War II he was stationed aboard the submarine USS Grenadier, where he was nicknamed “Slim.”
The crew of 76 became a family while patrolling off Japan’s coast and in the central Pacific. They sunk Japanese transports and other enemy vessels and manned the picket line in the Battle of Midway, according to Navy records.
According to the records and a diary Denny Landrum kept in captivity, the Grenadier left Australia on March 20, 1943. Enemy aircraft bombed it April 22 off the coast of Thailand. After a day of fighting fires and trying to save the ship, they surfaced, scuttled the sub and got in the water.
One crewmember read stories from Reader’s Digest aloud while they awaited capture, Jerry Landrum said.
They were first taken to Penang on the Malay Peninsula, then to Singapore and later to Japan, where they spent time in several prison camps before ending up at Omori.
Navy records state they were tortured for intelligence information.
Jerry Landrum has pieced together the brutality his father suffered at the hands of the camp guards and “The Bird” — who was named to Douglas MacArthur’s list of 40 most-wanted Japanese war criminals — through notes left by his father and from talking to his shipmates and their families.
There was a botched unnecessary surgery by a drunken Japanese camp doctor who operated on Landrum before the anesthesia kicked in. The Bird saw Landrum beaten with a wooden club until he was unrecognizable after he found his diary, which lacked his stamp of approval. He later returned it — complete with stamp that can still be seen today — because he was so impressed by Landrum’s ability to take the punishment.
Landrum was cut from his throat to his groin with a bayonet, knocked out with rifle butts, had his jaw and joints broken, was trudged before a firing squad several times and starved with other prisoners.
Yet Landrum never folded or lost his sense of humor. When English-speaking Japanese officers arrived at the camp, one guard asked him how to greet them in English.
“Good morning you son-of-a-bitch,” Landrum told him.
Jerry Landrum said it was the only beating that his father said he didn’t mind taking.
When they were liberated, Landrum’s jubilation was captured in an iconic photograph of him waving the Omori flag, clad in rags, suffering from malnutrition.
After the war, Denny Landrum was frustrated with his body’s limitations from the years of abuse, but he tried not to show it. He couldn’t provide for his family the way he wanted, yet he remained defiant about life’s challenges, just like he did with the prison guards.
“He said he never got knocked out with their hands and feet,” Jerry Landrum said. “He wasn’t impressed” by their fighting ability.
Petty Officer 1st Class Denny Landrum's wartime diary survived the war and offers insight into his captivity in Japan's hellish Omori Prison Camp. The camp was recently featured in the Hollywood blockbuster "Unbroken," which was directed by Angelina Jolie. Here we see a chart of Landrum's weight and a letter home.
PHOTO COURTESY OF JERRY LANDRUM