Japanese flags to be returned home

Vancouver man joins project to return trophies taken in WWII

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter



o Launched in 1900, the Mikasa was decommissioned in 1923 and preserved as a memorial. It was badly neglected after World War II, then restored in the 1950s and reopened as a naval museum in Yokosuka, Japan.

o Launched in 1900, the Mikasa was decommissioned in 1923 and preserved as a memorial. It was badly neglected after World War II, then restored in the 1950s and reopened as a naval museum in Yokosuka, Japan.

Dozens of small Japanese flags taken as battlefield trophies by American troops are heading home. Some might wind up back with Japanese families that sent their young men off to combat in the Pacific during World War II.

As part of the event, Bill Koehler of Vancouver is returning an older — and much bigger — flag to its home: a historic battleship.

The red-and-white flag measures about 17 feet by about 11 feet. It once flew from the Mikasa, which was Admiral Togo’s flagship in the Japanese fleet’s victory against the Russian navy in 1905. The battleship was decommissioned in 1923 and was converted into a memorial.

Koehler got the flag from a WWII Marine veteran who claimed it during the American occupation of Japan. Koehler said he will present the flag to Japanese officials next week in a ceremony.

Koehler came across the flag during a 12,000-mile road trip, after he became president of the U.S. Marine Raider Foundation. His father, Ralph Koehler, and his uncle, Paul Tousignant, both were Marine Raiders; Tousignant was killed on Okinawa.

Koehler spent more than a month visiting veterans who had served with the Marine Raiders during WWII.

“One of them told me he had a flag he wanted to give me.”

The former Raider then told Koehler about the night he and a few other Marines raided the battleship/museum for souvenirs.

‘All I got was a flag’

By the time his comrades were done grabbing trophies, the old Marine told Koehler, “All the swords and knives were gone. All I got was a flag.”

But what a flag: The red circle in its middle is 5 feet in diameter. Koehler knew the significance of the flag because his dad had mentioned it.

“He said it was big enough to cover the roof of a house. But nobody knew who had the flag,” Koehler said.

“I was surprised not just to find it, but to have him give it away,” Koehler said of the 92-year-old veteran. “But he’s at peace. And the flag pre-dates WWII. It belongs in a museum, which is what the Mikasa is. The veteran and I talked about it, and agreed it was the right thing to do.”

So he’s teaming up with another flag repatriation project led by Rex and Keiko Ziak of Naselle. They are returning more than 70 “yosegaki hinomaru” flags that have been donated by veterans or their families. (Americans tend to call them “good luck” flags.)

To add another personal connection to the trip, seven American WWII veterans will be part of the delegation.

“I’m thinking this has never happened before: seven veterans who travel so far after 70 years, on a peaceful mission to provide closure for families of people who were our enemies,” Rex Ziak said.

Another Vancouver man, Dave Funk, was the link between Koehler and the Ziaks. Funk heads the Oregon chapter of another military heritage group, the 41st Infantry Division Association.

Funk is a friend of Koehler’s and had started working with OBON 2015, the Ziaks’ nonprofit group. (“Obon” is a Japanese festival that honors the return of the spirits of ancestors.)

1.4 million MIAs

As Rex Ziak explains, “The United States has 37,000 (WWII casualties) missing in action in the Pacific. Japan has 1.4 million missing in action. No traces of their bodies were ever recovered.”

But some artifacts wound up here. American troops brought home three categories of souvenirs, Ziak said:

• Army-issued gear, including rifles, bayonets and helmets.

• Human remains, including skulls and teeth with gold fillings.

• Personal items, including flags, eyeglasses, photographs and wallets.

“The Japanese created a unique tradition. They would buy a small flag, maybe 2 feet by 3 feet” and write messages.

“Sometimes mothers would dip their hand in ink and leave a handprint.”

Some flags were the equivalent of a high school senior’s yearbook, Ziak said, with classmates inscribing jokes, romantic messages and best wishes.

“Every Japanese soldier carried one, two or three flags,” Ziak said.

Seventy years later, researchers have used some of those messages to identify the soldiers who had those flags in their pockets or packs when they were killed.

“You might see a high school name, a university name, a bank where he worked,” Ziak said. “They might address a message to him.

“There is something interesting about this. We’ve been invited to a couple of these ceremonies in Japan. But it’s more than a Japanese thing: It’s a human thing.”

Whether the returned object is a flag or a wallet or a notebook, “It’s been embraced,” he said.

It’s the same feeling experienced by an American family that might get an unexpected keepsake from someone they lost in WWII or Korea or Vietnam, Ziak said.

“You have finally come home.”