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Major Japanese newspaper hopes to help Aurora veteran return dead soldier’s flag to family

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Updated: August 4, 2013 6:27AM

For the past few years, ever since life slowed down and the memories of his service as a battle-weary Marine finally caught up with him, Ken Udstad of Aurora has been on a mission: Return the Japanese flag he pulled off the body of a dead soldier on the island of Tinian during World War II.

On Tuesday, that quest took a major leap forward when The Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese daily newspaper with a circulation of eight million readers, sent a foreign correspondent to his Aurora home to interview him in hopes of helping locate the soldier’s family.

Writer Yoshiaki Kasuga, who works out of the paper’s New York Bureau covering the United Nations, was met by Auroran Karina del Valle, a friend of Udstad’s through his church who was instrumental in making this interview possible.

Del Valle, who moved to Aurora 10 years ago from the Philippines, became close to Udstad, and like so many who have heard his story, was compelled to help him any way she could. In the past, the former infantryman and tank driver sought assistance from political leaders, the Japanese consulate in Chicago, as well as a Japanese professor from Northern Illinois University and a historian from the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Washington, D.C.

Those efforts garnered a few clues about the flag that was taken from the body of a young sniper killed when a grenade was thrown into the dugout he was occupying. Among those facts: the silk flag was signed by well-wishers from the soldier’s hometown of Tago, a village that, unfortunately, no longer exists.

Now, however, Udstad will have the assistance of a major Japanese newspaper in his quest, thanks to del Valle, who took photos of the flag and other documentation with her on an April vacation to Kawasaki, a city near Tokyo. There, she met up with her sisters to celebrate their mother’s birthday. And as she retold the tale to loved ones, she said “everyone could feel Kenny’s spirit,” and wanted to do everything they could to help him.

As it turned out, her brother-in-law’s father, Kazuhiko Togo, is a well-respected Japanese scholar, author and diplomat who, upon hearing the story, contacted the head of The Asahi Shimbun. In May, del Valle received a call from a Tokyo writer who was interested in the story and requested a copy of the column that I’d written in January about Udstad’s flag.

A couple weeks later, Kasuga, who works out of the Times Square building for the Japanese newspaper, called to set up the interview.

The first thing the 41-year-old writer did after warmly greeting Udstad, who will turn 92 on Monday, was present him with a beautiful china bowl, a gift from his newspaper. Then the journalist closely examined the orange and white flag that still carries what appears to be faded blood stains from almost 70 years ago.

He pointed out that the large writing read “Good Luck in Fighting” and he said many of the well-wishes from the soldier’s loved ones asked for “good health” and for his “safe return.”

Kasuga pointed out these were kinder, more gentle messages than the usual commands that followed Japanese soldiers into the army: to lay down their lives for the emperor.

Kasuga sat in Udstad’s immaculate, Western-themed home for a few hours and listened as the Aurora vet started with his childhood and eventually worked his way to those years serving in the Fourth Division that landed him on the Marshall Islands during 1944-45. Kasuga listened intently as Udstad recalled hearing machine gun fire all night long, and how his infantry was so close to the enemy line they could hear the Japanese soldiers “getting high on opium and sake” at night.

Kasuga, referring to the Beacon story several times, apologized for asking for more details, and seemed concerned about how his questions would affect the former Marine. But Udstad told him as much as he could recall about finding the dugout filled with dead Japanese soldiers killed by a concussion grenade that had left their bodies intact.

“I saw the flag sticking out of his tunic,” Udstad said. So “I grabbed it,” in part, because he’d always been interested in the Japanese culture, and because he was “looking for souvenirs,” as so many Marines did during the war.

“We had a job to do and we did it,” Udstad had said earlier. “We were angry they attacked us. We wanted it over. We knew we had to kill the enemy in order to win.”

Thankfully, he added, “the Lord shows his mercy and somehow blocks from our memory what we were doing.”

It’s a concept hard for any of the younger generation on both sides of the world to comprehend, including Kasuga, who told me his grandfather served in the war.

“I want to try to understand,” he said.

As does his entire country, which is on a campaign to bring more awareness, more details, more stories, more facts to its citizens about the war.

This international interview with an old veteran in Aurora, Ill., is one way to fill in some of the missing pieces.

And yes, it will help bring an old but still proud flag home again.

“When we find them,” Kasuga asked his host, referring to the fallen soldier’s family, “what will you say to them?”

Udstad, whose almost 92-year-old mind still seems sharp as a tack, didn’t hesitate. “I hope I can give them peace of mind,” he replied, “and tell them ... it happened quickly … he did not suffer.”

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