I had been looking for Grandpa for more than 5 minutes before I finally found him.
Grandma had asked me to “go outside and find your Grandfather to tell him lunch is ready.” Being the obedient young Granddaughter that I was, I went outside to look for him. I knew it would take a while. He could be anywhere.
In the barn.
In his garden behind the house.
In the garden that was south of the barn where the sweet corn grew.
Mowing the path in the woods that ended behind my Great Uncle Howard’s house.
I smelled the cigarette smoke before I saw the man and found Grandpa behind the barn cutting up the rhubarb to bring up to the house for Grandma.
“Grandma says lunch is ready” I told him.
He was crouched over, wearing his tan work pants and an old brown factory work shirt that had his name sewn onto the front over the pocket that held his cigarettes and whatever else had made it’s way in there that day. He looked up, peeking our from under the brim of his baseball hat and responded with a smile and a quick “yep” and went back to his task.
I ran back up to the house, with my job being done, so that I could get my lunch of potato chips, an RC Cola, and a cheese toastie sandwich.
Grandpa eventually made his way into the kitchen.
He ate his lunch while saying just a few words about the weather and then headed back outside. He needed to weed the garden and to set up the radio with a new electrical cord. The one that he kept on to scare the raccoons and deer away from his cabbages and tomatoes.
My Grandpa never said much.
He was more of a do-er. Always keeping himself busy from the moment he woke up until the moment the sun started to go down. Only then would he set himself up in his recliner to watch television with grandma and throw popcorn to his dog that sat in front of him, staring him down until he got his nightly snack quota.
My Grandpa worked until he was 86 years old. He had retired from his factory job for the first time in 1978, but (since he was a do-er) he kept on working at another shop on the factory property, pretending to run the joint much to the chagrin of the regular employees, until his second retirement in 2003.
His given name was William Verneil, but the family called him Vern.
His work family called him Bill.
And one year he had the name Bern stitched onto his work shirts as a compromise of sorts. The same work shirts that he wore whether he was at the factory or at the farm.
He would wear a nice button-up short sleeved shirt whenever he went out to dinner, though. Grandma insisted on that, I think.
My Grandfather Vern passed away nine years ago. He was 91 years old. He smoked cigarettes all day long and had bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning. He was as thin as a rail and in the summer, was as tanned as a leather strap.
He was also a World War II veteran.
A veteran who came home, and like many other men who managed to make it back to their homelands, came back with memories that they rarely shared with anyone.
And this story is about the memories that my Grandfather kept to himself, never divulging a second of his thoughts to anyone about what happened when he got the flag.
The flag, known as a Yosegaki Hinomaru, was his battlefield souvenir. The owner of the flag was killed in battle while he, my Grandfather, was alive to see another day.
And another battle.
We don’t know exactly where my Grandpa fought during the war. He entered the ranks as a 24 year old. He was with the 129th Infantry out of Illinois and they were sent to fight in the South Pacific and the Phillippines. From what I can ascertain from my own research, he most probably fought at the Battle of Luzon. Luzon was the largest Phillippines island that the Japanese had taken control of and the Allied forces, under the command of General MacArthur, were going to get it back. Many battles were fought to get the Phillippine Islands out from under the control of the Japanese and since Grandpa never talked much about it, we may never know exactly.
I do know that he had to leave the area for a while.
He contracted malaria, but was sent back after he got treatment.
All I ever heard him really say about the war was “I got shot by a Jap in the leg” and we knew he had some shrapnel in that leg.
And he had the flag.
But, we never saw it removed from the bamboo case it was held in.
He also brought home an artillery shell and a grenade.
Oh, the things you used to be able to stash in your carry on bag!
It wasn’t until many decades later, when he was living alone because Grandma had died, that my dad felt it was okay to remove some things from the house (the house that my family now lives in) and one of those things was the flag that came back from the war.
We would remove the flag from the bamboo holder and spread it out onto my parents’ dining room table. Unable to decipher anything that’s written on it, but marveling at the beauty of it. The foreignness of the characters written on it’s fluid, white surface. The small, worn leather tabs on one side that signify the direction to fly it.
The Yosegaki Hinomaru is a Good Luck or Prayer Flag.
Given to a Japanese soldier during World War II from friends and family wishing their soldier a safe return home from battle. It’s filled with the signatures and hopeful sayings of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, cousins and aunties, neighbors and friends. All to give the soldier that they are sending off to fight a reason to come home safely.
Many flags also contain the name of the village that the soldier departed from. Young men, some just boys, sent off to fight for their country. Just as my Grandfather did for his country.
The soldier that had this particular Good Luck Flag did not come home.
He died in battle.
Or starved to death in the Philippines.
Far from home.
Where even his Prayer Flag couldn’t keep him safe.
And Vern picked up that bamboo tube.
Found the flag.
Put it around his waist.
A trophy from the battlefield.
He was still alive.
And he was coming home.
My Grandmother, Dorothy, was married before she was married to my Grandfather.
Dorothy had married Harry.
Her hometown love.
And he went to fight in the war.
But, he didn’t come home.
This is another thing that we don’t know much about.
She didn’t talk about her life before Grandpa too much.
She did stay very close with her sister-in-law, Ida, from her first marriage.
These two ladies were almost like sisters.
And our family, as it grew through the years, did many things with her first family.
We made candy together at Christmas time, we had cookouts, we shared many experiences full of laughter together.
I even went on a car trip out west with my Grandparents and Ida. Just a 10 year old and three 60 year olds in a tan four-door sedan driving to New Mexico from Illinois during the Fall of 1981. It’s a trip I still remember fondly.
When Harry didn’t come back from the war (I’m not even sure where he was fighting or how she came to know that he had died) Dorothy somehow carried on and eventually met someone new.
Someone new named Vern.
And they got married three years after the war ended.
They had one son.
And they had a fabulous life together.
But, she always put flowers on the grave of Harry every Memorial Day.
I can’t imagine her sorrow the day she learned Harry was gone.
I carry on for Grandma and put a flower and a flag on his grave every year.
I’ve told my daughters who he is and that one day, it will be their job to remember Harry.
I’m not even sure if Harry himself came back from the war.
Many men didn’t.
Their graves are empty and for the Japanese, the Yosegaki Hinomaru holds extra significance.
When a family receives a Yosegaki Hinomaru, it’s as if that soldier-that man-that boy, has come home to rest.
My Grandfather Vern came home.
Lived a long and fulfilling life here in America.
Saw his two Grandchildren grow up and was fortunate enough to meet three of his Great Grandchildren before he died.
The flag, the souvenir that he brought back from the war…
it’s time for it to go home.
My dad alerted me last year about a segment that was to air on CBS Sunday Morning.
They were going to air a story about the Obon Society.
The Obon Society is run by Keiko and Rex Ziak. They run the non-profit in Oregon state and accept Prayer Flags from World War II soldiers. They research the writings on the flags that they receive and look for clues such as village names and family surnames. If they can find who the flag belongs to, the flag is delivered back to the family in Japan.
A soldier is returned home.
My dad and I did discuss that we had the flag that Grandpa had brought back with him. We discussed how Grandpa had never talked about the flag. How we didn’t know where he was when got it. How we knew that he would not have wanted us to send this flag back to Japan while he was still alive. His spoils of war were his only. We weren’t to question why he had it and what he should do with it.
But, we both knew that it needed to go back.
And the Obon Society seemed to be the way to go for us.
I have a friend from high school, who currently lives in Texas, that lived in Japan for 3 years. She has a good friend who lives in Japan who was willing to look at the flag through photos that I took.
She tried to decipher the writing and could make out a few names, but the script was an older one and she had trouble herself with some of the characters.
My brother came over last week and I showed him the CBS Sunday Morning segment and he also agreed that the flag needs to go home.
We are hopeful that the volunteers with the Obon Society will have better luck reading the names on the flag.
We are hopeful that the flag still has family members alive to accept the flag.
Or a village, where the family lived, can accept it.
I am putting the flag in the mail this week.
In hopes that it can bring peace to someone.
In Japan, Obon is a festival that honors the spirits of ancestors.
We want the spirit of the soldier who was given the Yosegaki Hinomaru to return home.
To finally rest.
We want peace for his family and it will bring closure for our family.
Closure for a time in history that me, my brother, and my parents never saw. We merely live with the stories we never heard. Ghosts from 70 years ago. Trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do.
The flag doesn’t belong in Illinois in my kitchen anymore.
It needs to return home.
For peace that stretches across an ocean.