by Henry Sakaida

Many veterans returned from the war with souvenirs to remember their life and death adventures. As the years passed, the items began to lose their importance. Their children and grandchildren could not appreciate the significance of the artifacts. Family members have heard his old war stories for decades.  It goes in one ear and out the other. Grandpa’s war memorabilia is like your old high school yearbooks. It only means something to YOU. Many such items are eventually given away, sold at garage sales, or simply tossed.

Retired Maj Ralph Wandrey is an air ace with 6 confirmed kills against the Japanese. He flew P-38s and P-47s with the 49th Air Group in the Pacific. He often flew as wingman to Dick Bong, our top “ace of aces.” Ralph brought back a Japanese flag when he returned home. It had many signatures on it, and he knew that well wishers had signed the flag as a token of good luck. Who was the owner of this flag and what happened to him? Ralph simply could not discard the flag; he had this crazy idea to try and return it to the family!

ralph wandrey p38 lightning p47 thunderbolt ace

1/Lt Ralph Wandrey with 5 Japanese flags denoting his air victories. After they routed the Japanese from Hollandia Airfield, Wandrey flew from there for 2 – 3 months.

One day, I received a letter from Mr. Wandrey. I have the moniker of “The King of Returning Stuff” amongst collectors and historians. It’s amazing how my name gets around! He had a request and wrote: “I got the flag from the Japanese pilots’ barracks at Hollandia (now Jayapura, Indonesia). Our troops moved so swiftly to take the airstrip there that the enemy troops fled into the jungle, leaving many things behind. The barracks were full of personal items…I even got a bolt of silk from under a bunk!”

“The flag was under a bunk, and I only took items I figured I could bring home with me…Our officers decided to burn the buildings because of disease risk, so some of us went in to see how our opponents lived! That’s all I can recall for now. I think you should receive credit for returning it if you locate the family – my kids don’t have any use for these things, so I’m glad we have this chance.”

Ralph asked me if returning the flag was “doable.” I explained to him that with so many names on the flag, it was very doable. Typically, these flags were signed by the family members, relatives, friends, and organizations. The owner’s name is signed  prominently in large kanji characters in a dedication. The geographical location from where the flag originated can be  determined. For instance, the flag may be signed by “Kitakami City Young Students Organization” or “Iwate Prefecture Judo Federation,” etc. So now, we know that the flag originated in Kitakami City in Iwate Prefecture of Japan. And we have the family name. All Japanese families are registered. It’s that easy. But it gets very difficult when entire sections of the city were firebombed, entire families wiped out,  and family registries at city hall were destroyed in the conflagration.

There is also the big problem of the flag’s authenticity. Enterprising GIs in Occupied Japan started cranking out “authentic Japanese battle flags” by employing Japanese citizens to scribble names on them, for packs of cigarettes, etc. “Isn’t it odd, Henry, that this Japanese battle flag has many signatures on them, all in the same handwriting?!” a Japanese man once said to me at a military collector show. So, not every Japanese flag, is a captured battle flag. Beware!

Privacy laws in Japan were very different from our’s back when I worked on this case in the year 2000.  Perhaps things have changed since then. I knew the routine since I have returned quite a few war artifacts to the next-of-kin in Japan from American GIs. I simply wrote to the Japanese Ministry of Health & Welfare in Tokyo, giving them details about the flag, Mr. Wandrey’s background, and his desire to return it to the family. Four months later, I received a response from the Japanese Office of Foreign Affairs, Social Welfare & War Victims’ Relief Bureau. They did their research and provided me with the name of the 1st son of the flag owner, and their address! They contacted him and the son affirmed the family’s desire to have the flag returned. I informed Ralph and he was blown away!

The time to return Japanese artifacts ended about 10 to 15 years ago. This is because the grandchildren of the Japanese veterans have no interest. The siblings of the veterans have mostly passed away. It’s sad that in Japan, old photo albums are discarded and mementoes such as battle flags, uniforms, and medals are sold at swap meets.

On 3 December 2000, Ralph Wandrey received a letter from the head of  the Obara Family in Iwate Prefecture of Japan, along with a color photo of the family members posing in front of the family’s Buddhist shrine. They considered the return of a flag a miracle. Good ole Ralph Wandrey, the Miracle Worker, lives in retirement in Arizona.

For Books by Henry Sakaida Check Out:

Heroes of the Soviet Union 1941–45

Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941–45

I-400: Japan’s Secret Aircraft Carrying Strike Submarine, Objective Panama Canal

Genda’s Blade: Japan’s Squadron of Aces: 343 Kokutai

Aces of the Rising Sun 1937–1945

B-29 Hunters of the JAAF

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