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Japanese media surround Aurora vet as he brings flag back home

Televisiclip about Kenny returning flag.

Television clip about Kenny returning the flag.

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Updated: January 9, 2014 6:19AM

Because of poor cell phone reception, I’ve not yet spoken with World War II Marine veteran Ken Udstad since he left for Japan last week. But I can happily report the flag he took from the body of an enemy soldier almost 70 years ago and so desperately wanted to return to its country, is finally back home.

And even though I could not understand what was being said in the Japanese television clip I watched of the ceremony held Thursday afternoon in Shizuoka Prefecture, it’s clear in any language that Udstad is a happy man.

Last week’s journey from Chicago to Japan couldn’t have been easy on the 93-year-old Aurora man who is in failing health. But he was determined to make this trip that was put together in large part by Kazuhiko Togo, a well-known Japanese ambassador and brother-in-law of Karina Del Valle, Udstad’s church friend who accompanied him on this trip.

According to my sources with OBON 2015, a not for profit trying to return over a million of these flags (Yosegaki Honomaru) taken from the bodies of Japanese soldiers, the ceremony was well attended by the press and dignitaries, as well as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, of which Udstad is a member.

In a quick email he dashed off to me at 3:30 in the morning from Japan, John Gaglione, another friend who also made the trip with Udstad, told me “every news outlet in the country covered the ceremony, including all television networks.”

The crowd was so big, according to OBON’s Rex and Keiko Ziaks, that one of their group’s principal researchers, a Gokoku Shrine priest, could not get close to Udstad. He tried to talk to Gaglione, but a translator was not available.

This researcher, the Ziaks say, is trying hard to find the family that owns this long-lost flag taken by Udstad, an infantryman and tank driver with the Fourth Marine Division, on Tinian Island. These flags, signed by well-wishers, were given to each soldier going off to war. Since there is no soldier’s name on this particular one, the researcher tracked down the owner of the shipyard named on it, as well as the children of eight individuals whose signatures were on the flag. One is still alive at age 94 but suffers from memory issues, they told me.

The OBON researcher is now doing a search backwards, from battlefield to the family home. There is a special archive that lists the names of the 8,300 soldiers who died on Tinian Island. So far he has searched 1,200, but is “determined to find Ken’s flag’s family.”

It’s that same determination from Udstad that got the flag this far. Whether the Aurora veteran lives to see the flag returned to the dead soldier’s family or not, the smile on his face in that Japanese news clip said it all.

This Marine’s mission is accomplished.

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