HIGASHI-SHIRAKAWA, Japan — Seventy-three years ago, a young Marine from Montana, deployed to the Pacific island of Saipan, stumbled across a body. A Japanese soldier, lying on his back, dead.
Poking out from underneath his jacket was a “good luck flag” — a Japanese flag covered with the signatures and good-luck wishes of 180 people from his family and his home town of Higashi-Shirakawa, deep in the Japanese Alps.
“Long-lasting fortune in battle” was written in large letters across the top.
The 20-year-old Marine, Marvin Strombo, who was part of a scout-sniping platoon, reached down and took the flag. For decades, it was displayed in the glass-fronted gun cabinet in his home in Missoula, Mont., becoming a talking point among visitors and a point of pride for the veteran.
But on Tuesday, the 72nd anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender, Strombo traveled about 5,300 miles from Missoula to this remote village, population 2,338, to return the flag to the soldier’s family. Local residents dressed in black, and schoolchildren turned out for the ceremony.
“I had such a moment with your brother 73 years ago. I promised him one day I would return the flag to his family,” Strombo told the family of Sadao Yasue, the soldier whose flag he took. “It took a long time, but I was able to bring the flag back to you, where it belongs.”
When Strombo handed the flag to Yasue’s younger brother, 89-year-old Tatsuya Yasue buried his face in it, then took it to his older sister, now 95 and in a wheelchair, who did the same. Supported by her family members, she wiped away the tears.
“Marvin, thank you very much for bringing us this flag,” Tatsuya Yasue told the veteran, who was accompanied by his two daughters and representatives from the Obon Society, an Oregon-based nonprofit that promotes reconciliation between the wartime enemies.
“Looking at this flag, the signatures are very clear, and I can almost smell my brother’s skin from the flag,” Yasue said. “We know that you have kept it well for so long.”
The moment was part of an effort to promote “healing and closure over the loss of life from the war,” said Rex Ziak, co-founder, with his wife, Keiko, of the Obon Society.
The group returns battlefield souvenirs such as this flag to families in Japan, but this was the first time such an artifact had been returned in person.
“We cannot change the past, but from this day forward, we want this historic meeting of the families to be known as the final chapter of the war,” Ziak said.
After graduating from high school, Strombo, one of seven children born into a Montana ranching family, joined the Marines and fought in three of the toughest battles against the Japanese during World War II — in Tarawa, Tinian and Saipan.
It was during the battle for Saipan in June 1944 that he stumbled upon the body of Sadao Yasue, the oldest of six children born into a farming family in the mountains of Gifu prefecture.
Strombo had become separated from his squad and found himself alone on the Japanese front line.
He was trying to make his way to Garapan, a coastal town, to find them.
As he was walking, he came upon the soldier lying on his back.
He “had a sword, so I knew he was an officer,” Strombo recalled. “It was almost like he was sleeping. There were no wounds, no shrapnel. That’s the way I found him,” he said, adding that it appeared he was killed by a mortar blast.
This was the first time that Yasue’s family found out what had happened to him.
The day before Yasue was deployed, the 25-year-old sat on the grass with his family.
“Our brother whispered to us: ‘It seems that they are sending me off to a remote island in the south ocean,’ ” Tatsuya Yasue recalled during the ceremony. “He said, ‘I will probably not come back alive, so please take care of our parents well.’ ”
That was the last word they heard from their brother — until Strombo arrived here Tuesday.
“We got nothing back from the battlefield, including his body,” Yasue said. “So we didn’t know anything about how he died or where he died or when he died until today, until we heard what Mr. Strombo said.”
Hearing the account of their brother’s death gave the family some closure.
“We found out today that my brother fought bravely on the island of Saipan for our country,” Yasue said. “I feel so proud of him today.”
Looking at Sadao Yasue’s body in June 1944, Strombo decided to take the flag but said he promised that he would return it one day to the man’s family. Making that promise made him feel better about taking the souvenir, he said.
But deciphering the symbols on the flag was difficult, especially in the era before the Internet. “There were times I didn’t think I’d ever get it back,” he said.
So the flag continued to be displayed in Strombo’s house.
Then, late last year, Strombo was approached by the University of Montana, where the Japanese studies department wanted to hear about the flag.
That opened up a new avenue, leading to the Obon Society and discovering the provenance of the flag.
“I’m so glad we finally got it back to you, and I’m sorry it took so long,” Strombo told the dead soldier’s family Tuesday.
Tatsuya Yasue will take the flag to his parents’ grave and show them that the flag has been returned.
Then it will be passed down through the Yasue family, a reminder of the tragedy of war.