Silk flag shortens distance between Olympia, Japan

jdodge@theolympian.comJuly 2, 2013 

The flag of a father is going home to Japan, more than 68 years after it was retrieved from a cave during the bloody World War II battle for control of Okinawa.

For all these years, the silk flag emblazoned with a red rising sun and Japanese inscriptions had been in the possession of Herb McDougall, an American soldier during the Battle of Okinawa. He had retrieved it from a cave where American troops clashed with Japanese troops.

Now residing in an assisted living apartment in Elma, McDougall had stashed the Japanese battle flag away in a dresser drawer and forgotten about it. It was discovered recently by his daughter-in-law, Shannon McDougall.

As luck would have it, Herb McDougall’s granddaughter, Jennifer McDougall, had taken a Japanese language class at South Puget Sound Community College several years ago from SPSCC instructor Aki Suzuki. She contacted her former teacher to help translate the mystery of the flag.

Many Japanese soldiers carried flags into battle adorned with words of support and protection from family and friends, poems and patriotic phrases. As was typical, none of the writing on the flag touched the red sun. What was unusual is how close a connection Suzuki had with the flag.

“When I saw the flag, I spotted my hometown name (the Senju neighborhood of Tokyo), the soldier’s name (Touji Hoshi) and a police station name, (Senju Police Station),” Suzuki, 39, recalled. “That’s when I got my first goose bump.”

She contacted the police station in her home city, which she left in 1998 to come to the United States to learn English. At first, the police officers weren’t sure what she was talking about. But one of the employees at the police station, Nobuya Kogure, listened to her carefully, then asked her to send him a picture of the flag.

Two weeks later, Suzuki’s mother emailed her. Kogure had found the family of the fallen soldier, including a son, Tadataka Hoshi, who was only 2 years old when his father was called to war duty.

“That’s when I got my second goose bump,” Suzuki said.

On May 22, Kogure and Hoshi gathered at Suzuki’s parents’ home and conversed with Suzuki via Skype.

“They both kept saying thank you, thank you, thank you, with tears,” she said. “We didn’t need much words to express ourselves.”

Turns out that Hoshi and his wife are the only surviving members of the immediate family. The son had no belongings of his father because their house burned down during the war. He does have pictures given to him by the soldier’s mother, showing him with his father before he left for war at the age of 21 or 22.

Suzuki was already planning a trip home to see her parents this month. She vowed to take the flag home, too.

“The flag will be the only thing and the last thing he will have from his father,” Suzuki said.

Preparations for the flag’s return are nearly finished. Jennifer McDougall’s parents have paid to have the flag preserved and framed. While the flag was at Beard’s Framing in Lacey, a customer in the store offered to pay $3,000 for the flag, Jennifer McDougall said. You can imagine the response.

“My grandfather always wanted the flag to go back to the soldier’s family,” McDougall said. “Since this has all happened, he’s been talking and smiling more than he has in a long time.”

Suzuki leaves for Japan with her precious cargo — and her two daughters — on Thursday. The flag ceremony will take place at the Senju Police Station, where, according to Suzuki, the soldier worked before he was sent to war.

She’s already been contacted by Japanese and American media outlets who want to cover the event.

Suzuki is grateful to her former student for giving her an opportunity to connect the United States and Japan in this unusual way.

“It is phenomenal,” she said. “Olympia and my hometown, my former student and me, the grandfather and the soldier — all these connections. It’s a miracle of connections.”

I think it’s safe to say that Suzuki is fast approaching her fourth goose bump.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

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