In 1944, as he navigated the chaos of battle-ravaged Saipan, U.S. Marine Marvin Strombo found a Japanese flag on the body of an enemy soldier. He pocketed the flag, which had been inked with more than 100 signatures, but vowed that he would one day return it to the dead soldier’s family. On Tuesday, as Mari Yamaguchi reports for the Associated Press, Strombo was finally able to do just that.
The 93-year-old veteran traveled to Higashishirakawa, a small village located in Japan’s Gifu Prefecture, to present the relic to the living siblings of Sadao Yasue, who left for war in the South Pacific in 1943. Footage of the encounter shows Yasue’s brother, Tatsuya Yasue, clasping the flag and smelling it.
"It smelled like my good old big brother, and it smelled like our mother's home cooking we ate together," Tatsuya Yasue told Yamaguchi. "The flag will be our treasure."
Before Sadao Yasue departed for the Pacific Islands, a region of bitter combat during WWII, his neighbors and friends inscribed messages of support onto a Japanese flag—a common wartime practice, Reuters reports.
“Good luck forever at the battlefield,” one message reads.
But Yasue did not return home. In 1944, his family received a wooden box filled with stones; it was a substitute for Yasue’s body, which has never been recovered. According to Yamaguchi, the family was told that Yasue died “somewhere in the Mariana Islands,” possibly when Saipan fell to American forces in July of 1944.
Saipan was a key strategic point during the Pacific Campaign of WWII. The United States was determined to capture the island, a Japanese stronghold, so the Army could build an air base there and “inflict punishing strikes on Japan’s home islands ahead of an Allied invasion,” History.com writes. More than 3,000 U.S. soldiers and at least 27,000 Japanese soldiers were killed during the vicious, three-week battle to take Saipan.
When he met with Yasue’s family, Strombo was able to fill in some details about the dead soldier’s fate. He said that he came across Yasue’s body near Garapan, a village in Saipan. According to a Department of Defense article by Marine Corps Sgt. Neysa Huertas Quinones, Strombo had become separated from his squad and found himself behind enemy lines. Before making his way back to the rally point, Strombo lifted a flag from the soldier’s body.
“I could see the corner of the flag folded up against his heart,” Strombo said, according to Quinones. “As I reached for it, my body didn’t let me grab it at first. I knew it meant a lot to him, but I knew if I left it there someone else might come by and take it. The flag could be lost forever. I made myself promise him, that one day, I would give back the flag after the war was over.”
Strombo added that Yasue did not have any visible injuries. “He was lying on his back, slightly more turned to one side,” the veteran explained. “There were no visible wounds and it made it look almost as if he was just asleep.”
When he returned to the United States, Strombo kept the flag in a glass-paneled gun cabinet in his home in Montana. He told Reuters that he wanted to return the object, but didn’t know how to find the dead man’s family. Then, in 2012, Strombo was put in touch with the Obon Society, an Oregon-based non-profit that helps veterans return personal heirlooms to the relatives of Japanese soldiers.
According to the organization’s website, experts “analyzed the inscriptions and carried on a nation-wide search. Within one month they had found the village where this soldier once lived and eventually made contact with the soldier’s younger brother who is 89 years old and still actively running the family farm.”
Strombo traveled 10,000 miles from his home in Montana to personally return the relic to Yasue’s siblings, fulfilling a promise 73 years in the making.