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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

US veteran returns dead Japanese soldier's flag

Marvin Strombo took the flag as a souvenir but vowed to return it one day

American Second World War veteran Marvin Strombo, second right, and Tatsuya Yasue, left, hold the Japanese flag with autographed messages which Mr Strombo took from the body of Japanese soldier Sadao Yasue, who was killed in the Pacific in 1944. The emotional handover took place at a ceremony in Higashishirakawa, in central Japan's Gifu prefecture on Tuesday, August 15, 2017. Eugene Hoshiko / AP
American Second World War veteran Marvin Strombo, second right, and Tatsuya Yasue, left, hold the Japanese flag with autographed messages which Mr Strombo took from the body of Japanese soldier Sadao Yasue, who was killed in the Pacific in 1944. The emotional handover took place at a ceremony in Higashishirakawa, in central Japan's Gifu prefecture on Tuesday, August 15, 2017. Eugene Hoshiko / AP

Tatsuya Yasue and his sister, Sayoko Furuta, were left with nothing of their older brother after he was killed during the Second World War in the Pacific. The Japanese authorities gave them only a box containing some rocks as a substitute for his body, which was never recovered.

But on Tuesday, after 73 years of grieving, the siblings finally got something of their brother back.

Marvin Strombo, 93, an American war veteran had taken the flag from the body of Japanese soldier Sadao Yasue as a souvenir. But he soon saw it was no ordinary flag. It was covered in calligraphy - signed good luck messages, wishing Yasue safe return from the war.

Mr Strombo vowed to return the flag one day to the family of the fallen soldier and on Tuesday, 73 years later, in a moving ceremony in hHigashishirakawa village, in central Japan, he fulfilled his pledge.

Tatsuya Yasue, 89, buried his face in the flag and smelled it.Then he took the hands of the man who had brought this treasure home and kissed them.

His sister, Sayoko Furuta, 93, covered her face and wept silently as the flag was placed in her lap.

"I was so happy that I returned the flag," Mr Strombo said. "I can see how much the flag meant to her. It meant everything in the world to her."

The signed messages on the flag - 180 of them from friends and neighbours from Yasue's tea-growing mountain village - helped Mr Strombo find its rightful owner. Tatsuya Yasue recognised the names and remembered their faces and friendship.

The smell of the flag immediately brought back childhood memories. "It smelled like my good old big brother, and it smelled like our mother's home cooking that we ate together," he said. "The flag will be our treasure."

Tatsuya last saw his older brother the day before he left for the South Pacific in 1943. The siblings had a farewell picnic outside Yasue's military unit and at the end he told his younger brother to take care of their parents. A year later, the family received the box of stones. Months after the war ended, they were told he died somewhere in the Mariana Islands, presumably on July 16, 1944, the day of the fall of Saipan. He was 25.

"That's all we were told about my brother. We never knew exactly when, where or how he died," Tatsuya said. Mr Strombo was able to provide some answers. He said he had found Sadao Yasue's body on the outskirts of Garapan, a village in Saipan, that he had probably died of concussion from a mortar round, had no severe wounds and that he looked peaceful.

There is even hope that Yasue's remains might now be recovered, unlike the bodies of a million Japanese war dead overseas who have never been found.

Allied troops frequently took the flags from the bodies of their enemies as souvenirs, as Japanese flags were quite popular and fetched good prices when auctioned, Mr Strombo said. But to bereaved families in Japan, they have a much deeper meaning, especially those, like Yasue's family, who never learned how their loved ones died and never received remains.

Mr Strombo, who fought in three Pacific battles, admitted he felt guilty about taking the flag. For years he kept it in a glass-fronted cabinet in his home in Montana. He began the search for its owner in 2012 with the help of the Obon Society, a charity which helps US veterans and their descendants return Japanese flags to the families of fallen soldiers. The group's researchers traced it to the village of 2,300 people in central Japan by analyzing family names.

Tatsuya Yasue thanked Mr Strombo for taking such good care of the flag and also for staying healthy enough to make the long journey from Montana to his village at the age of 93.

"it's like the war has finally ended and my brother can come out of limbo," he said.

Allied troops frequently took the flags from the bodies of their enemies as souvenirs, as Japanese flags were quite popular and fetched good prices when auctioned, Strombo said. But to the Japanese bereaved families, they have a much deeper meaning, especially those, like Yasue, who never learned how their loved ones died and never received remains. Japanese government has requested auction sites to stop trading wartime signed flags.

In 2012, he was connected to the Obon Society, an Oregon-based nonprofit that helps U.S. veterans and their descendants return Japanese flags to the families of fallen soldiers. The group's research traced it to the village of 2,300 people in central Japan by analyzing family names.