By Jason B. Cutshaw, USASMDC/ARSTRAT Public AffairsJune 29, 2016
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Alabama -- A family shows ultimate respect to a once bitter enemy by returning a flag that had been lost more for more than 70 years.
Billy G. Traweek, range engineer and ground safety officer, Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and his wife, Lauren, returned treasured flags to warriors and family members of those who fought for their nation in World War II.
The flags, named Yosegaki Hinomaru, were 3-feet-by-3-feet Japanese flags signed and blessed by the soldier's priest, families, friends and even their teachers before they left to fight. The soldiers would fold them up and carry them next to their heart, under their uniforms.
"I searched the Internet for 'World War II Japanese flags with writing' and found Rex and Keiko Ziak with the OBON Society," Lauren said. "When they explained the flags were Yosegaki Hinomaru, and their importance to the families of the soldiers, I was thrilled to send them to OBON to be repatriated, if possible."
The OBON Society is a nonprofit group founded by the Ziak's from Naselle, Washington, to facilitate the return of flags. OBON devotes all of their own time and money to return the flags to the families of the soldiers.
When Billy and Lauren moved to Kwaj in 2001 they made friends with two long-time residents, who worked at the Kwajalein Hospital for many years. One was Ray Wolff, who arrived on Kwajalein in 1960 as a medic and left in 2008.
"He was an avid collector, and loved all things Eastern," Lauren said. "He had a fine collection of oriental carpets and many lovely carvings from Indonesia and Japan, including a collection of netsuke.
"He also had two Japanese flags, covered in kanji, carefully wrapped in tissue that he would occasionally show to special friends, and always with great reverence," she added. "He didn't know what the flags meant, only that they were obviously very meaningful. Sadly, we never learned how or where he obtained them, and he was never in World War II, or even in the military."
The other friend was Kathy Campbell, a nurse at the hospital, who arrived on Kwajalein in 1975 and left shortly after Ray left in 2008.
"They were very old and dear friends and when Ray's health began to fail, Kathy moved Ray and all of his collections into her apartment in Portland, Oregon, to care for him," Lauren said. "After he passed away in October 2013, Kathy had the daunting task of distributing Ray's belongings that he had so carefully assembled and cared for his entire life.
"One year after Ray's passing, Kathy returned to Kwajalein with Ray's ashes to spread on the beautiful blue water in the atoll, and to give me the flags, in the hopes I could somehow find their best resting place," she added. "Initially I had thought to give the two flags to one of the Japanese bereavement groups that come to Kwajalein once a year."
Lauren said she would like to emphasize Ray Wolff and Kathy Campbell's involvement.
"Not only did they take beautiful care of the flags, but especially Kathy was so pleased to find this resolution before she passed away," she said. "Both were longtime members of the Kwajalein community and loved by all."
The first flag found its way to Taiwan to two grandsons of a Taiwanese soldier who enlisted with the Japanese.
"It was returned with great ceremony on May 9, 2015," Lauren said. "The remaining heirs of the soldier, who claim the flags, believe the spirit of the soldiers are actually in the flags, and treat them as if they are the actual person. These returning ceremonies are very poignant."
After sending the flags to the Ziaks in November 2014, the second Yosegaki Hinomaru found its way back to the veteran, named Katsutaro Kuroda.
The Returning Ceremony was hosted in Miyako City, Japan, on June 2 and the Traweeks were invited to attend. The event brought family members together that Kuroda had not seen in a while. His family said he was 'reinvigorated' by the whole affair, and was staying in Miyako City to celebrate his 95th birthday on June 4.
"As soon as I heard we had been invited with only three weeks to spare, I jumped on the reservations for hotels, transportation and leave requests," Billy said. "It was a challenge to get us there on time, with time to spare for some sight-seeing. I was able to find where my family lived when I was 8 years old and my Dad was stationed in Japan. It was a great trip, totally unplanned and successful in every way. It was a very emotional to see this whole experience come to fruition."
Lauren said it was very emotional for her too.
"Although nobody but the OBON volunteer spoke English, I could tell he was very appreciative," Lauren said. "He poured over it, as each signature was from his family and friends, from 70 years ago. The Japanese are very reserved, so there weren't any hugs or even handshakes, but lots of bowing.
"I don't quite understand why this was my job, but I took it very seriously, flying all the way to Japan," she added. "When I actually handed him the flag, I cried."