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Aging WWII Vets Head To Tokyo To Take Care Of Some Unfinished Business

Seven Pacific Northwest veterans of World War II leave for Tokyo Thursday. They're carrying 70 captured Japanese flags to return for the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.

Dallas Britt last set foot in Japan nearly 70 years ago. Back then he was a battle-hardened infantryman in the U.S. Army's occupation force. Now, the 89-year-old chiropractor from Auburn, Washington, is going back to Japan on a new mission to resolve some old business.

During the War in the Pacific, many soldiers collected mementos from the battlefield -- especially flags. Britt himself took one during a battle in 1945 that ousted the Japanese from the small island of Ie Shima, near Okinawa.

Good luck flags

"The flag is basically about 2.5 feet long and maybe 1.5 feet wide,” Britt said. ”It has a red rising sun in the middle of it. Then it has all this Japanese writing all around it.”

Britt's war prize was so common it has an English name: a “good luck flag.” It was a personal item, a traditional send-off gift from family or coworkers to a Japanese soldier or sailor. The Japanese name for "good luck flag" is yosegaki hinomaru, which literally translated means “group-written flag.”

"This flag was taken off of a dead soldier,” Britt explained. “Just happened to be a souvenir to be picked up."

Britt said he didn't understand until this summer the significance the flag might hold to the fallen soldier's family.

"It is like if you found a dead G.I. and taking his dog tags off of him and being able to send it back to his parents,” he analogized. “That's the only connection they would have because you wouldn't know where he was buried or nothing else. What a wonderful thing to be able to return it to these people and get it back to their relatives."

The family attached to this flag hasn’t been identified yet.

'The spirit of reconciliation'

Britt is joined on the repatriation mission by six other WWII combat veterans from Oregon and Washington. Pearl Harbor survivor Ed Johann of Lincoln City, Oregon, said the group travels in the spirit of reconciliation.

"I have no animosity towards any of those people. Their military and our military were just following orders. We had no say-so. Our feelings didn't matter," said Johann, a 92-year-old Navy vet who has never been to Japan before.

Between them, the seven veterans will deliver 70 war flags to high-ranking Japanese officials or priests in Tokyo.

"I think it's a gesture that should be appreciated by everyone,” Johann said.

Sending a powerful message

A relatively new humanitarian nonprofit based in Astoria, Oregon, conceived this mission and gathered the flags from aging veterans or their children around the U.S. The nonprofit, co-founded by Japanese-American couple Rex and Keiko Ziak, is called Obon 2015.

Rex Ziak said they could've just mailed the flags to a Japanese ministry, but concluded hand delivery by former combatants would send a more powerful message.

"We thought, when in history has there ever been a time when soldiers who were fighting against an enemy return 70 years later with items that were taken from the battlefield as souvenirs showing ‘I captured and dominated this enemy,’” Ziak said. “And now they are being returned with the sentiment of, ‘Here we hope this brings closure.’"

The Ziaks picked their couriers from a list of healthy and mobile WWII vets. The list came from another nonprofit called Honor Flight Network.

Ziak assumed the Defense Department would provide free transport and housing for the week-long trip to Tokyo based on early enthusiasm shown by military contacts stateside and in Japan. But the logistical support fell through at the eleventh hour when the Pentagon determined the delegation did not qualify for military transport.

'We are trying to make it happen'

"Keiko calls the bank and tries to get as much credit on her credit card,” Ziak said. “We had to make a choice. Do we say, ‘OK, the military says they won't support us.’ Do we tell everybody it's over or do we try to make it happen? We are trying to make it happen."

So far they’ve charged more than $40,000 in plane tickets alone. Ziak fears the trip will “nearly bankrupt” his household. He and Keiko are losing sleep over it. A friend has set up acrowdfunding site to raise money.

Rex Ziak estimated the total trip will cost $60,000 to $80,000. Tokyo routinely ranks among the most expensive cities in the world.

Besides Britt and Johann, the other veterans now booked on a commercial flight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport are former Navy sailors Burke Waldron, 91, of Bremerton, Washignton, and Harold LaDuke, 90, of Kent, Washington, former U.S. Marine Eldon Shields, 92, of Eugene, Oregon, and fellow Eugene residents Vern Thompson, 90, and Paul Boeger, 89, both of whom served in the Navy. Each of the veterans was invited to bring along a family member or personal assistant.

Ziak said about five to seven of the 70 good luck flags they will carry home have been connected to a specific family based on names and clues in the writings on the banner. The provenance of the rest of the flags requires more research before they can be reunited with relatives or descendants. That research will be done by Obon 2015's partner organizations in Japan.

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To learn more about good luck flags, visit a temporary exhibit in downtown Portland:

"Yosegaki Hinomaru: Souvenir, Heirloom or Art?"
Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center
121 NW 2nd Ave., Portland, OR 97209
July 25 to September 27, 2015

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.