Marvin Strombo was lost behind enemy lines in 1944 when he came upon the body of a Japanese soldier. World War II was raging, and U.S. Marines had just invaded the western Pacific island of Saipan. On the body, Strombo found what he took to be a spoil of war: a Japanese flag covered in calligraphy. He quickly pocketed it, he later told CBS, then searched out his unit.
Eugene Hoshiko/Ap photo
That flag stayed with Strombo for 73 years, displayed in a glass case in his Montana home. As time healed the war wounds, he realized its significance for the dead soldier’s family. But how, after all these decades, could he go about returning it?
Meanwhile, a world away, in the Japanese village of Higashishirakawa, Tatsuya Yasue and his sisters, Sayoko Furuta and Miyako Yasue, grieved for their older brother, Sadao Yasue. They’d last seen him just before he’d left for the war front. In his possession was a flag with the farewell wishes of friends and family. “Good luck forever at the battlefield,” one line read, the Associated Press later reported. The hardest part for the siblings: Sadao’s body had never been found. (Don’t miss the story of the WWII veteran who paints pictures of fallen soldiers.)
Strombo eventually learned of the Obon Society, an organization that helps return captured Japanese artifacts. At Strombo’s behest, the group searched for the soldier’s survivors. After about a month, they found his family in a tea-growing village in central Japan. Last August, 93-year-old Strombo flew to Japan to return the flag.
At a ceremony, Strombo handed the relic to 89-year-old Tatsuya as Furuta, now 93, wept. He held it to his nose and inhaled. “It smelled like my good old big brother and like our mother’s home cooking,” he told Reuters. “It’s like the war has finally ended, and my brother can come out of limbo.”