A friendship sealed by a Japanese flag

Published 10:07 pm Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Japanese flag mentioned in Hobbs' column.

By O. Kermit Hobbs Jr.

As a history buff as well as a collector of historic artifacts, I find it especially exciting when I run across an item that tells a story of real people in historic settings.

Back in the late 1980s, I noticed an interesting World War II Japanese flag hanging in a local antique shop that I frequented, and I made the dealer an offer. After a brief bit of haggling, we came to a satisfactory price, and the flag was mine.

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This flag was what Americans referred to as a “meatball flag,” a somewhat derogatory term describing the red circle in a white field of the typical Japanese flag. But this one was a lot more than a plain, red-and-white flag.

During the war, it was common for Japanese families to present such flags to young men who were going to war. They wrote Shinto prayers and words of encouragement upon the flags, which would be carried into battle and inspire bravery.

My flag was richly embellished with Japanese characters. It was made of silk, as were the best of such flags, and its weathered and stained condition suggested it had seen quite a bit of action. Best of all, it had the names of 10 Americans and their hometowns written on it.

Just for fun, I wrote letters to all the men listed on the flag, to see if any of them were still living and could remember anything about it. I sent each of the men a photo of the flag, along with a list of the 10 names. I had no street addresses or zip codes; I knew that hearing from any of them would be a long shot at best.

As I had expected, I soon began receiving my original letters back in the mail, stamped “Undeliverable.” But not all of them came back. A couple of weeks later, I received a delightful letter from Fred Jones of Christopher, Ill., one of the 10 men who had signed the flag.

Mr. Jones was a retired coal miner who still had quite a bit of spunk and a sense of humor. He had obviously hunt-and-pecked the typewritten letter he sent. Here are excerpts, exactly as he typed them.

Mr. Hobbs:

I rec,d you most welcome letter and I can,t begin to tell you what A thrill I got when I rec,d this kind of mail.As you know that this is 1988 but this letter took me back to 1945 .That is when the Flag came into our area In Okinawa… To begin with I was with the 82nd signal B attalion all the time that I was there I was behind the lines and I got a birds eye view of what went on in the front lines and am so thankful that I was not there.I served twenty five months before I got out of the service.We pulled out of Okinawa two or three days before the big Typhoon and went back to the phillipines and stayed for a short time.After the hyrrogen bomb was dropped then we were shipped to northern Japan for eight monthsThen we got to come home.

In a later letter, Mr. Jones told me about his service after the war.

After WW#2 and when I was discharged.I was told of the benefits of staying in the reserves and I was fool enough to listen.I was given 21 days to get everything in order.I had to give my team,H arness, cow, calf, hogs and they tried to steal my home. My corn crop wasn’t quite matured so my brother picked and sold it for me and I went to Korea for eleven months.I should of made full kernel. Instead I made a mess. I got A letter in the mail asking if I wished to stay in the reserves.I thought so much of the generous offer that I wouldn,t mail it back to them. I got in the old car and took it back to them.I said that I wouldn,t consider anything but the wacks.They didn,t want me.Ha.ha.

Mr. Jones took the flag photo I sent him to his local newspaper, and they made a front-page story of it. He sent me a copy of the article with a note about his impression of it.

It was wrote up with A Louis lamaar or Zane Grey touch to it… I’ll do my best to get one wrote which is straight with the sure facts in it.

At this time, my son was in college and was acquainted with a Japanese girl whose grandfather had served in the Japanese army. She sent an enlarged photo of the flag to him, and he translated most of the Japanese writing on it.

The flag belonged to a young man named Ishii Setsuokun. The “-kun” syllable at the end of his name refers to his youthfulness; it would be a little bit like we might speak of “John-boy Walton”.

The flag included such phrases as “Congratulations on your grand departure.” “Fall for the sake of the Empire! The buttons on your navy uniform are more than just decoration.” “Follow the spirit of Yokaren.” (Yokaren was a school for training kamikaze pilots.) “For eternity with 3000 years of blood in our veins we now create a new legend.” “Kill with one stroke.” “Don’t begrudge your body its life.” “Enter death to see life!” “For the Emperor we don’t care about a young boy’s life. Even if we die the life is worth giving.” This last phrase was written by Setsuo’s older brother.

The messages on the flag suggest Setsuo was a kamikaze (suicide) pilot, but I’d need to learn more about Japanese customs to claim this for certain. At the very least, the flag gives us an interesting window into the minds of the Japanese people as they were approaching defeat late in the war.

Back to Mr. Jones — I talked with him on the phone a number of times and exchanged several letters with him. He always amused me with his stories of the past, not to mention his unique perspective on current events. It was wonderful to have made such a friend.

Here is the ending of his one of his letters:

Well buddy I guess it,s time to close wishing to show my graditude for making an old man feel forty three years younger

Sincerely A friend

Fred R. Jones

Ps I,m sending you A ten spot for the picture and your trouble.

Fred Jones passed away in his hometown of Christopher, Ill., on July 10, 1993.

The flag is a treasure, but its insights into people’s lives are priceless.

O. Kermit Hobbs Jr. is an accomplished historian, whose book “Suffolk: A Celebration of History,” is widely acknowledged as a seminal account of Suffolk’s history. Email him at khobbs5@aol.com.