WWII Japanese flag taken by Minn. soldier goes home

A grandson fulfills his grandfather's wish to return a flag to the family of a Japanese soldier killed during World War II.

BLAINE, Minn. - Like the American flag that flutters in front of his home, Doug Rachac came upon his patriotism quietly.

"This is the machete he brought back with him," Rachac says as he unsheathes the blade his grandfather gave him as a young teen.

Sgt. Al Frank also gave his grandson his World War II canteen, a knife and an army issued sewing kit. But when it came to discussing the battles he fought in, Frank remained silent.

"He never talked about the combat directly, so I don't know what he saw," said Rachac, "but he certainly didn't want to talk about it."

Frank was serving in the Philippines when he stopped one day at the body of a dead Japanese soldier. Like many Americans fighting in the Pacific, he took from that soldier a folded Japanese flag as a battlefield trophy.

"He gave this to me when I was pretty young," says Rachac, now 39, as he unfolds the silk flag on his dining room table.

The white areas of the flag are covered in Japanese writing. Two ragged holes near the edges of the flag's red sun are its only flaws. Rachac was told by his grandfather, the holes came from shrapnel or a bullet that penetrated one of the flag's folded corners.

But even when pushed, his grandfather offered little else.

"He would never give specifics," Rachac said.

But something changed a few years before Frank's death, when he saw in the Star Tribune an article about a similar flag that had been returned from Minnesota to a Japanese soldier's family.

"I get the feeling he felt bad having it, knowing what it was, after he read that article in the Star Tribune," said Rachac.

Rachac was just 18 at the time and not completely sure why his grandfather had clipped and shown him the article. But as time passed and his grandfather kept bringing up the article, he realized his grandfather was asking for his help finding the soldier's family so his flag could also be returned.

The Internet was still in its infancy and the calls Rachac placed to the Japanese Embassy and consulate were fruitless. Rachac put the flag aside.

Hiromi Mizuno, a history professor at the University of Minnesota, says the flags served a good luck charm for Japanese soldiers sent off to fight in WWII.

We asked her to take a look at Frank's flag. She translates the largest of the Japanese characters, "Military fortune lasting longer, or forever," she reads. She moves to a smaller set of characters, "Sacrifice yourself, to serve the nation," it states.

But the flag contains more than militaristic slogans. Surrounding the red sun are many names. The largest belongs to the soldier, Sadau Chiba. Mizuno says the smaller names likely belong to the soldier's family members, friends and neighbors who added their good wishes to the flag as he was sent off to war.

Mirano says the flags can carry deep meaning for Japanese families. Just last year she saw, for the first time, the flag carried by her own grandfather, who returned safely from the war.

"The Japanese government has been wanting to get these flags back," she says.

The effort to repatriate the flags has a foe in online auction sites like eBay where Americans routinely sell the flags as collector's items for a couple hundred dollars.

Selling the flag was the farthest thing from Rachac's mind, but the Internet helped him solve the mystery a few years after his grandfather passed away.

"This is how I found them," he says as he opens a website operated by a Japanese organization called the Association of Peace and War Mourning.

With help from the organization and a Japanese speaking co-worker at Medtronic, Rachac reached out to the soldier's family.

He received a letter back from the soldier's grandson.

"My mother was born after her father left to join the military so she never met him in person," the grandson wrote. "The only thing that is left of him is a photograph. When she heard that flag that belonged to him was found, she cried with joy."

Rachac considered delivering the flag to the family in person, but decided against it when he learned the family was still recovering from losses suffered in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and didn't feel it could properly greet him.

On Saturday, Rachac's Japan-based coworker, Aki Davis, delivered the flag to Kiako Goto, the daughter of the soldier who had carried the flag.

Though Rachac will proudly hold onto the other symbols of his grandfather's service, he believes Frank would be pleased the flag is finally going home.

"It's been a part of our family history for almost 70 years now," Rachac says, "but it's not ours. It doesn't belong to us.


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