Missoula honors Marine who returned Japanese honor flag to fallen enemy’s family

U.S. World War Two veteran Marvin Strombo (C) meets with Tatsuya Yasue (L), brother of Sadao Yasue, to hand over a Japanese flag Strombo found in a battlefield in 1944, in Higashi-Shirakawa Village, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo August 15, 2017. (Kyodo via REUTERS)

The Missoula City Council and all in the audience at Monday night’s council meeting stood to honor Missoula veteran Marvin Strombo for the compassion he showed a Japanese family who lost a son and brother in World War II.

Earlier this year, Strombo fulfilled a commitment he made seven decades earlier to return a Japanese flag found on the body of an enemy soldier after a ferocious 1944 battle on the island of Saipan.

In a ceremony on Aug. 15, the 72nd anniversary of Japan’s surrender, Strombo delivered the flag to the brothers and sisters of Sadao Yasue.

As was the custom in Japan, the flag was carried into battle, covered in messages from his family and friends.  After being mortally wounded, Yasue apparently covered himself with the honor flag.

“As I reached out to take the flag, I made a promise to him that someday I would try to return it,” Strombo said in August.

On Monday night, he was speechless – caught by surprise – at the City Council’s standing ovation after Mayor John Engen proclaimed Dec. 17 as Marvin Strombo Day in Missoula.

In his proclamation, Engen noted that Strombo enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War II, and “has served God and our great country faithfully” all of his 93 years.

Engen noted Strombo’s long quest to return the honor flag to its rightful owners, and how that search was stymied until about five years ago.

“With the help and assistance of Marvin Strombo’s family, friends, The Obon Society and the people of Japan, it was learned that the deceased soldier’s name was Sadao Yasue.

The Obon Society, in fact, is a nonprofit group that helps American veterans return artifacts to relatives of Japanese soldiers killed in World War II.

Now, after traveling to Japan, “Marvin Strombo has been able to honorably meet Sadao Yasue’s family and friends and return the honor flag to its proper resting place, allowing closure for the family’s grief and the return of Sadao Yasue’s spirit,” Engen said.

When he met the soldier’s sibilings in August, Strombo learned Yasue was the oldest of six children raised in a mountainous tea-growing town in central Japan.

About 180 friends, relatives and neighbors signed the honor flag before Yasue went to war, wishing his safe return. Those signatures ultimately helped bring the flag back to Yasue’s family – the only tangible remembrance his brothers and sisters have of their oldest brother.

Yasue’s sister, who like Strombo is 93, was overwhelmed with emotion when one of her brothers placed the flag in her lap and she saw the signatures of so many lost friends and relatives and thought again of her brother’s wartime death.

“This flag will be our treasure,” one brother said.

The emotion with which Yasue’s family greeted the flag made the 10,000-mile journey worth the effort, Strombo told reporters at the August meeting in Yasue’s hometown.

On Monday night in Missoula, Strombo’s children devised a ruse to get him downtown for the City Council meeting, so the mayoral proclamation would be a surprise.

They succeeded, and the tears again came quickly.