A lost and forgotten World War II Japanese flag, found in an Alabama middle school closet 15 years ago, was recently returned to the son of the soldier who once carried it, thanks in part to a few members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
How it happened is something of a family history miracle, said Dennis Sellers, a Montgomery, Alabama middle school math teacher and Mormon who helped reunite the family with the flag.
"God had a hand in this," Sellers said. "It was special for the son to have something from his father, to keep the memory of his father alive."
It all started when Veronica Hill, a history teacher, found the national flag of Japan, featuring a white rectangle with a red circle in the middle, folded in the corner of a teacher's closet, according to Associated Press. Japanese writing encircled the red symbol.
Hill kept the flag and learned that it was a "good luck soldier flag," Sellers said. It was customary for Japanese family and friends to sign it and for the soldier to carry it with them into battle. Apparently, this flag was taken by an Allied soldier when its owner was killed, Sellers said.
"One of the most common and precious token they gave was a flag from their home or community to be signed by family and friends," Hill told the Montgomery Advertiser. "Many Japanese soldiers, with their dedication and honor knew they would not be returning. This flag was very precious to them."
Hill wanted to return the flag to the family of the soldier. She knew that Sellers had served an LDS mission in Japan and asked if he could help her find the family.
Sellers enlisted the help of the Nozaki family, a Japanese family in his Montgomery, Alabama, LDS ward. With the soldier's name on the flag, they translated what they could and searched. Eventually the group learned that a Japanese government agency specializes in finding and returning these flags. The flag was sent to Japan, Sellers said.
After two years of searching, Hill was notified in February that the family had been located. She received a translated letter from a man named Katsuhiko Hata and cried for two days, Sellers said.
"Reading the letter about broke my heart and I realized that we did the right thing in returning it to them," Hill told the Montgomery Advertiser.
Katsuhiko Hata, 71, said his father, Shigezo Hata, was 35-years-old when he went to war while he was only five-months-old, leaving him with no memories of his father beyond a photo and what his mother told him, the letter said.
His father was killed at the Admiralty Islands in May 1944. News of his death came from a public service announcement by the Japanese government. The body was not returned. There were no dog tags. All the family received was a rock from the area where he died. The flag he carried with him, signed by family and friends, would have been his most prized possession, Hata wrote.
Hata was surprised to learn about the flag's existence because it had been more than 70 years since his father died, he wrote in the letter to Hill.
"I was half in belief and half in doubt," Hata wrote in the translated letter. "When I received and saw the actual flag, I was moved completely. ... I sincerely thank you for returning the flag to us. I would like to thank all ... from the bottom of my heart."
Hata said he got "goose bumps" as examined the white flag and recognized the names of his uncle, aunt, cousins and co-workers written on the fabric. This realization "made my whole body shake and me realize his present strongly," Hata wrote.
Sellers said he was grateful to help and felt he was spiritually sent to help Hill return this flag.
For Hill, whose father and grandfather were soldiers, returning the flag was a journey "to right a wrong and to ease the pain of a family far away," she told the Montgomery Advertiser.