US Marine Marvin Strombo was just 20 years old when he fought against Japan in the 1944 Battle of Saipan during World War II. After the fighting, Strombo was patrolling the island when he noticed a Japanese flag covered in Japanese characters on the body of a fallen Japanese soldier. These flags were considered symbols of good luck for Japanese soldiers, filled with messages from friends and family back home. Strombo took the flag, telling himself that he would one day return it to the soldier’s family.
Yet, Strombo was unsure how he could return the flag, eventually giving up and displaying it in his Montana home. It was not until 2012 that he discovered the Obon Society, a nonprofit organization that helps veterans return such heirlooms to the families of fallen Japanese soldiers.
The Society helped Strombo find the family of the Japanese soldier, Sadao Yasue, by translating the writings on the flag. Finally — 73 years after he had made his promise — Strombo traveled to Gifu Prefecture to meet Yasue’s siblings and return the flag. Yasue’s younger brother immediately buried his face in the flag, realizing it still smelled like his brother. Strombo was also able to tell the family more about how Yasue had died, providing some closure to the siblings, one of whom said, “it’s like the war has finally ended and my brother can come out of limbo.”
Relations between the United States and Japan have come a long way since the devastation of World War II, thanks in part to organizations like the Obon Society that are mending old wounds and building people-to-people ties. Similarly, US and Japanese leaders and citizens annually join together in remembrance of the lives lost during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed the close US-Japan alliance that grew out of World War II in his historic speech to Congress in 2015. As part of this alliance, the US and Japanese military now conduct numerous joint military exercises and exchanges, like the Japanese Coast Guard’s recent visit to Baltimore. Due to such expanding connections, US-Japan relations are at an all-time high, with a record 84% of Japanese feeling affection toward the United States in a 2016 Japanese government poll.
Savannah Shih is a research intern at the East-West Center and a graduate student of Asian Studies at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.