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55 years after war’s end, WWII flying ace returns flag to family of fallen Japanese soldier

UPDATED: Mon., Aug. 6, 2018

The eldest son of a Japanese soldier whose flag Wandrey returned, Kazuhira Obara, holds his father’s flag. He is joined by his younger brother, (left) his brother’s wife (top left) daughter (second from left in the back row) wife Shigue, his grandchild and two other relatives (right). Until 2000, the family had no other mementos from Kazuhira Obara’s late father. (Henry Sakaida / courtesy)
The eldest son of a Japanese soldier whose flag Wandrey returned, Kazuhira Obara, holds his father’s flag. He is joined by his younger brother, (left) his brother’s wife (top left) daughter (second from left in the back row) wife Shigue, his grandchild and two other relatives (right). Until 2000, the family had no other mementos from Kazuhira Obara’s late father. (Henry Sakaida / courtesy)

In 2000, World War II flying ace Ralph Wandrey reached out to researcher Henry Sakaida. He was in possession, he told Sakaida, of a flag he had taken from Japanese barracks while serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during the war.

Sakaida, who researched WWII prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action, had helped reunite wartime memorabilia with families in the past.

Wandrey had come across the flag sometime in 1943 or 1944 while moving through abandoned Japanese barracks in Hollandia (present day Jayapura, Indonesia) and had taken the flag.

After working with the Office of Foreign Affairs, government officials tracked down the flag’s likely inheritors: the Obara family in the Iwate Prefecture of Japan, identified thanks to inscriptions on the flag from the Japanese soldier’s family and friends.

On Nov. 1, 2000, Wandrey wrote a letter to Kazuhira Obara, the eldest son of the soldier.

“Due to the fast advance of American soldiers, the Japanese troops were forced to flee into the jungle to escape capture, and many possessions were left behind,” Wandrey wrote. “I saw your flag under the bed in the Japanese barracks, so I picked it up.”

The barracks were to be destroyed because of disease risk, so Wandrey took the flag, along with a few items, including a bolt of silk and a diary, with him.

“I am happy to return it to you after all these years,” said his letter to Obara.

On Dec. 3 of that year, Obara responded.

The family hadn’t heard from the soldier since he left in June 1943, he said. In May 1945, they had received official confirmation of the soldier’s death. He was 35 years old when he died.

“Nothing of his remains, no ashes, no hair of the deceased (nor) mementos came back to our family,” Kazuhira wrote. “We will never forget your kindness during our lifetime.”

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