Ohio museum looks to return WWII flags to Japanese owners

PORT CLINTON - The Ottawa County Museum and one of its donors are working together to take the first steps toward returning Japanese flags brought home by soldiers from World War II to their original Japanese families.

Museum curator Peggy Debien and Port Clinton native Jeff Brown will send one, and possibly two, flags to the Obon Society, which will research the flags’ original owners.

The Obon Society is a nonprofit humanitarian organization based in Oregon that seeks to encourage reconciliation and peace between families in the United State and Japan through the return of personal items taken during the war.

It was common during World War II for soldiers to bring home “souvenirs” including swords, flags and other personal items that were sometimes taken off Japanese soldiers killed in battle. 

The Obon Society uses the resources and connections of scholars and government agencies to research the items’ original owners and return them to any remaining family members. The Japanese flags, in particular, are filled with clues to their ownership. Many of them are inscribed with the names of fellow soldiers or their home villages.

“The flags have some significance in the way of names or locations,” Debien said, pointing to the writing on the Japanese flag in the museum. “All this writing has some personal meaning.”

According to information on the Obon Society website, the returned flags are sometimes the only physical link to a family member’s military service, and they become cherished heirlooms.

The Ottawa County Museum became involved with the project after Debien read about the Obon Society in Military Officer Magazine. She is in the process of seeking permission from the donor of the Japanese flag in the museum’s possession to donate it to the Obon Society.

“I ran it by the board and they said OK. We don’t usually give things away, but I think this is different,” Debien said.

She shared the news with Jeff Brown, who grew up in Port Clinton and often travels here from his home in Dayton. He, too, owns a Japanese flag that he is going to donate to the Obon Society.

“I bought a postwar captain’s hat at an auction, and the flag was a throw-in," Brown said. "The auctioneer didn’t know what he had.” 

Although he doesn’t know the history of the flag, it has the typical Japanese markings and an atypical stain.

“I don’t know if it’s an oil stain or a blood stain,” he said.

Brown also purchased at auction a chop — a personalized printing stamp — and two postcards that were likely taken from a World War II-era solider. He plans to see if the Obon Society can return those to family members as well.

World War II history is entrenched in Brown’s mind. Not only did he grow up learning about the atrocities of the Bataan Death March — during which many Port Clinton men died — but two of his uncles suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese.

“One uncle was wounded in a kamikaze attack. He wanted nothing to do with anything Japanese the rest of his life. He wouldn’t even drive a Japanese car,” Brown said. “The other uncle was captured in New Guinea and brutalized by the Japanese. They killed the American officers and buried the rest of the men up to their necks and left them to die. A passing patrol found them.”

Returning his flag will be a personal act of peace by Brown.

“If this brings solace to a family, I think it’s a worthwhile thing to do,” he said.

Debien said sending flags to the Obon Society is simple.  

“If anybody in the community has flags they want to return, we’ll provide the information. I think it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

The Ottawa County Museum can be reached at 419-732-2237. More information on the Obon Society can be found at obonsociety.org.

Contact correspondent Sheri Trusty at sheritrusty4@gmail.com.

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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