WWII vet brings fallen enemy’s keepsake on long journey home

Marvin Strombo took a flag from a dead Japanese soldier in 1944 in the Pacific as a souvenir; he’s since found out some of his former enemy’s siblings are still living, and he’s going to return the flag to them.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Marvin Strombo was behind Japanese enemy lines on a Pacific island during World War II when he realized the other five men in his squadron had moved on without him.

The young U.S. Marine, part of an elite scout-sniper platoon fighting a 1944 battle on Saipan, nervously scanned the terrain. He spotted a body on the ground, a dead Japanese soldier lying on his left side. The young man looked peaceful, as if asleep, and something white poked out from his jacket.

Strombo knelt and pulled out a silk flag, all the space around the bright red emperor’s sun filled with elegant calligraphy. He hesitated, then took the flag and scrambled to reunite with his squadron as they entered the Japanese-held town of Garapan.

More than 70 years later, Strombo is returning the Japanese flag to his fallen enemy’s family. The 93-year-old arrived Friday in Tokyo, the first stop in a 10,000-mile journey into the remote mountainside to bring the keepsake back to the man’s home village — back to a brother and two sisters who could never say goodbye.

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He was met by Japanese news media, who gathered around his wheelchair to interview him.

“I realized there were no bullets or shrapnel wounds, so I knew he was killed by the blast of a mortar,” Strombo recalled in Portland this week before boarding a flight to Japan.

Then, quietly: “I think that soldier wanted me to find him for some reason.”

The flags were good-luck charms that linked Japanese soldiers to their loved ones and their call to duty. Some were signed by hundreds of classmates, neighbors and relatives.

Allied troops frequently took them from the bodies of their enemies as souvenirs. They have a deep significance because most Japanese families never learned how their loved ones died and never received remains.

The flag hung in a glass-fronted gun cabinet in Strombo’s home in Montana for years, a topic of conversation for visitors and a curiosity for his four children. He never spoke about his role in the battles of Saipan, Tarawa and Tinian, which chipped away at Japan’s control of islands in the Pacific and paved the way for U.S. victory.

He wrote letters to find out more…

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