The enemy no more, 93-year-old Marvin Strombo of Missoula cut a dashing and humble figure Monday night in the faraway mountain village of Higashishirakawa, Japan.
It was Tuesday morning there, Aug. 15, the 72nd anniversary of Japan’s surrender to end World War II.
More to the point, it was the peak of the four-day Obon holiday, the Japanese summer festival of welcoming back the spirits of ancestors and returning to one’s family roots.
Strombo, who grew up in the even smaller village of Dixon on the Flathead Indian Reservation, was feted in a ceremony at which he handed a special good-luck flag to the brother of one of the town’s lost sons who died on the tiny island of Saipan in July 1944.
“I can almost smell my brother’s skin from the flag, so we know that you have kept it well for so long,” said 89-year-old Tatsuya Yasue during the moving hourlong ceremony that was also attended by one of his two surviving sisters.
The Obon Society, which tracked down Yasue Sadao’s family after Strombo sent it to its Oregon office in March, live streamed the “returning ceremony” and archived it on its Facebook page, www.facebook.com/OBONSOCIETY.
Strombo, dressed in a dark-blue suit and tie and at times wearing a blue Marine cap, was flanked by his daughters Brenda of Portland and Sandra Williamson of Missoula, as well as granddaughter Emily Williamson. The first U.S. veteran to return a flag in person to Japan through the Obon Society, Strombo spoke quietly but eloquently, pausing at intervals for an interpreter to relay his message to the crowd. A battery of photographers snapped and filmed the proceedings, which were reported in Stars and Stripes, on CBS and ABC evening news, National Public Radio and a number of major U.S. and Japanese newspaper sites.
Strombo told of the day his five-man squad from the 6th Marine Regiment of the Second Marine Division crept behind enemy lines to the city of Garapan, capital of the Northern Mariana Islands. He came across the body of the Japanese officer whose identity he learned only a few months ago. Strombo claimed as souvenirs of war the young man’s saber and the folded flag with the red rising sun that bore the signatures of some 180 friends, family and neighbors.
“It was almost like he was asleep. There was no wound, no shrapnel wounds. That’s the way I found him,” Strombo said from a podium in a large hall. “I knew the only way I could take the flag was I made a promise to your brother that I would return it and you (the family) would get it back.
“And I felt better with that.”
The saber was stolen from his home in Missoula decades ago. But Strombo kept the flag in safekeeping for more than 70 years, always wondering who it belonged to, even as Yasue’s family wondered how their brother had died.
Strombo got the break he needed when his quest was publicized in the Missoulian last fall. With the help of author Joseph Tachovsky of Wisconsin, who is writing a book about the “Forty Thieves” platoon his father commanded and that Strombo served in, and assistant professor Robert Tuck of the University of Montana, the flag was sent to the Obon Society and its co-founders Rex and Keiko Ziak. Tachovsky and the Ziaks accompanied Strombo and his family to Japan.
Tatsuya Yasue had requested the returning ceremony be delayed until August so he could plant his rice and harvest his tea. His older sister, Sayoko Furuta, 93, sat in a wheelchair with the flag on her lap as Yasue recounted the last time he saw his big brother.
“The day before he left Japan, the unit my brother belonged to gave us the permission to meet him,” Yasue said through the interpreter.
It was in another town in Gifu Prefecture, and Yasue talked about sitting with two older siblings on the grass and visiting with their war-bound brother.
“It was such a short time that we were able to talk with our brother,” he recalled. “We had only five minutes left until we had to say goodbye, and our brother whispered to us saying, ‘It seems that they are sending me off to a remote island in the south ocean.’
“He said, ‘I will probably not come back alive, so please take care of our parents well.’ Those were the last words that we heard from our brother.”
In an interview before the ceremony at his 400-year-old house with Mari Yamiguchi of the Associated Press, Yasue said the return of the flag brings closure.
“It’s like the war has finally ended and my brother can come out of limbo,” he said.
The Facebook video captured Yasue as he pointed to a photo of his brother among many fallen warriors that lined a wall.
“A very handsome man,” Strombo remarked.
“Do you recognize the face?” he was asked.
“I remember seeing the profile is all,” he answered.
“Now you can finally return the flag and feel relieved, but don’t feel too relieved,” Yasue joked later. “We want you to stay strong and well.
“I feel,” he added, “as if I’m talking to you on behalf of my brother.”
Furuta, his older sister, wept silently when he draped the flag on her lap. Strombo gently rubbed her shoulder.
“I’m so glad to meet your family after 73 years,” Strombo said when he walked with a cane to the podium. “I had such a moment with your brother 73 years ago, and I promised him at that time I would return the flag someday to the family. It took a long time but with the Obon Society and Keiko and Rex and other people, it finally came to pass.”
To the Ziaks, the trip to Japan that ends Thursday with a press conference in Tokyo has been a resounding success.
“The bottom line is Marvin survived the travels very well, we arrived in the village in perfect time and he met the brother and sisters, returned the flag and left there feeling wonderful,” Rex Ziak said in an email Tuesday afternoon. “He is surrounded by family and the Japanese treated him with upmost respect.”
Copyright Missoulian Aug 15, 2017