“06880” reader Hiroshi Asada sends along this astonishing story:
Last February, Westporter Harold Gross — a World War II veteran (11th Airborne Division) and member of a Japanese Language Group at the Westport Library –met Barbara O’Hare at the Los Baños Prison Rescue dinner in Manhattan. The annual dinner honors those who participated, and the prisoners they saved.
Barbara’s father was with the 11th Airborne Division’s 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment. On February 23, 1945 they participated in one of the most successful rescue operations in modern history: Along with Filipino guerrillas, they rescued more than 2,100 Allied internees held behind Japanese lines.
At the 70th anniversary dinner, Barbara showed a discolored Japanese flag her father obtained in the Philippines during the war. She kept the flag after he died.
There are handwritten messages on the flag, but neither she nor Harold could read them. He suggested that Barbara bring the flag to one of our library meetings so that I — a native speaker of Japanese — could see it. In April, Barbara brought the flag and other items.
She wanted to find surviving family members of the original owner, so the flag could be returned to them.
During WWII, it was common for Japanese families to ask relatives, friends and neighbors to put their names on flags. They were given to soldiers as farewell gifts — or perhaps good luck charms — when they left. I heard about such flags, and saw images in movies, but this was the first time I saw a flag like that in person.
I kept the flag to study it. Some of the Chinese characters (Japanese write in Chinese as well as Japanese characters) are in fluid cursive style, which I had trouble reading. So I sent pictures to my mother and aunt in Japan, both of whom had studied and practiced Japanese calligraphy.
One of the challenges is that the soldier’s name is not written on the flag. There is no geographical information either. I figured we probably could not find where the flag came from.
But on the flag are more than 60 names, along with farewell messages for the unidentified soldier. As I finished listing the names on a sheet of paper, I realized more than half shared the same last name: Tachigami. It is an uncommon name.
Perhaps, I thought, the soldier’s last name was Tachigami. I felt he must have come from an area where extended family and relatives lived nearby. He was likely from a rural town — or at least not a major city.
My detective work began. First I searched the internet. I found only a few hundred Tachigami households in Japan. They’re concentrated in a relatively small area – in and around Fukushima City, about 100 kilometers east of Hiroshima.
I became more optimistic, and thought I might be able to find someone who knows who the soldier was. I used social media and made international calls. But the effort led nowhere.
While unsure what to do next, I learned from one of my wife’s friends that Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has an office that might help us find a surviving family member.
I contacted them immediately, sending pictures that showed details on the flag, along with my comments, observations and analysis. I did not hear back for a while. Hope faded.
But in mid-November, 7 months after starting this search, a letter arrived from the government agency. They located Hideko, the oldest daughter of the soldier.
I confirmed that her last name is on the flag. I could tell the handwriting was of a child. They are indeed from Fukuyama City.
I called Barbara. Of course, she was very excited.
Hideko, 81, is the only surviving daughter of Kakuichi Tachigami. He was in the Japanese Navy, and sent to the Philippines. Hideko was 10 or 11 when the war ended, so she was very young when Kakuichi left his family. He probably died in the Philippines, where the 11th Airborne Division was at that time.
I have not spoken with Hideko directly. But I talked to her son, Kazuhisa, and daughter-in-law over the phone. Hideko spends a couple of days a week in a special care facility. While she has good and bad days, her son told me that she does remember the flag.
Interestingly, I realized that Hideko and my parents are around the same age. In fact, Kazuhisa and I was born the same year, 1960 — 15 years after the war ended.
Barbara will come to Westport from New Jersey to see the flag one last time, later this month at the library. We’ll take a picture of her, Harold and me, then send the flag to Japan. She is also considering the possibility of personally delivering it to the family.
This has been a special experience for me. I am glad Harold suggested Barbara bring the flag to our meeting. Also, without the library’s Japanese Language Group, Harold and I might not have had a chance to know each other — and this search with a nice ending would never have happened.