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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Fallen Japanese soldier's flag returns home

Sep. 6, 2017

It’s been more than 70 years since World War Two ended, but some people still don’t know what happened to their loved ones who died in the fighting.

An elderly American veteran visited Japan in the hope of bringing closure both to himself and to a Japanese family.

Marvin Strombo, aged 93, came to Japan from the US state of Montana. He wanted to return a flag he had taken from a Japanese soldier -- and to do it in person. “I wanted to get that flag back because it belonged to them, it didn't belong to me," he says.

Strombo fought in the Pacific as a member of the Marine Corps. In 1944, American forces attacked Saipan, a Pacific island where Japan had a strategic stronghold. During a month of fighting, more than 50,000 soldiers and civilians lost their lives.

Strombo took a memento from the battlefield -- a Japanese flag. Many Japanese soldiers carried flags decorated with the names of their friends and family and prayers for a safe return. They became a popular souvenir among American soldiers.

Strombo retrieved one from a soldier's body -- but says he felt uncomfortable even then. “I felt a little guilty taking it because I knew what it meant to him and how precious it was,” he says.

Strombo kept the flag at his home for many years, but he was determined to give it back to the soldier's family eventually. His daughter contacted a US organization that arranges for Japanese soldiers' possessions to be returned to their families. Based on the inscriptions on the flag, the organization identified the owner as Sadao Yasue.

Sadao was a resident of a village in central Japan called Higashi Shirakawa. His younger brother, 89-year-old Tatsuya, says he’s never been able to forget what Sadao said the day before leaving Japan.

“The last thing he said to me was that it looked like he was being sent to an island in the south and he probably wouldn’t make it home alive. He asked me to look after our parents,” says Tatsuya.

The family was notified of Sadao’s death, but they had no information about when or where he had died. “I can't wait to get my brother's flag back. I want to see it for myself as soon as possible," says Tatsuya.

Strombo arrives in Higashi Shirakawa to meet the Yasue family. Tatsuya gives him a warm welcome. He also brought his 2 sisters.

Strombo returns the flag to Sadao's siblings more than 70 years after taking it on the battlefield. “I thought the flag might smell like my brother, and sure enough, it did,” says Tatsuya.

Strombo describes how he came upon the flag. "I saw the Japanese soldier laying there. He was laying on his back. I knew he was killed by the mortar and he was laid on his back and it was almost like he was sleeping. And there was no wound, no shrapnel wound or anything."

"I made a promise to your brother that I would return it someday to the family. And I felt better at that time. I’m so glad we finally got it back to you. And I’m sorry it took so long," Strombo continues.

“My family will treasure this flag forever. Thank you very much for coming today,” Tatsuya responds. "The war finally ended for me when I had the flag in my hands. I felt as if my brother had finally returned home," he says.

Strombo visits Tatsuya’s home and joins him in paying tribute to Sadao. “The flag has come home,” Tatsuya says.

“I’m so happy to return this flag after 73 years to the family in Japan where it belongs. I hope this will bring closure, healing and peace,” says Strombo.

More than 70 years after the end of World War Two, Strombo and Tatsuya’s flag exchange allowed them to overcome the sorrow of war and find a sense of peace.