Tattered World War II flag brings two families together

SEATTLE -- The saying, "time heals all wounds" is familiar to most, and for two soldiers and their two sons, it rings true.

It's important that a man understands his father so he can better understand himself. And when the fathers are gone, we cling to things -- belongings and symbols -- that show what they stood for and who they were.

In Centralia, Kim McDougal has learned new things about his father after finding a unique package.

Herb McDougal is 88-years old. He lives in a retirement home and suffers from Friedreich's ataxia, which makes it difficult for him to speak clearly. But his mind is sharp and clear, and it's full of devastating, vivid memories of a distant war.

"It seems like a long time ago to me," Herb said.

Herb fought in the Battle of Okinawa in April 1945, where he witnessed some of the most desperate, savage warfare the world has ever seen.

The Japanese were dug into an elaborate system of caves and tunnels, and the Allied Forces had to go in and get them.

Herb, young and scared, saw things 68-years ago that most people can't even fathom.

"Terrible, terrible," he said. "Well, I did what I had to do."

Four months ago, Kim's wife Shannon found a little box in Herb's drawer.

"I said, 'What's this?' And he goes, 'Well, it's a flag,'" Shannon said.

It was a Japanese flag, and it was stained with blood and dirt and God knows what else. Herb had taken it as a souvenir from one of the caves.

"Nobody wanted the flag, so I got it," he said.

Herb's granddaughter, Jennifer, has studied a little Japanese and sent a photo of the flag to Aki Suzuki, a teacher at South Puget Sound Community College.

"When I saw the picture of the flag, I spotted my hometown name was on the flag and I think, 'Oh my goodness. It's from my hometown," Suzuki said.

In addition to the name of her hometown, Suzuki spotted a name written on the flag.

"Hoshi, his last name, and Toji, his first name," she said.

The flag also had the name of a police precinct on it. Suzuki called them and the police did some digging in the Tokyo area. Soon, they found their man.

Hoshi Toji was a policeman before the war. The flag he carried had the signatures and well wishes of his fellow officers.

When he went off to fight, he said goodbye to a 3-year-old son named Tadataka. He never laid eyes on his boy again.

He carried his flag into the caves, where he was ordered to fight to the death. It was almost certainly on him the moment he died.

The flag in the drawer had always bothered Herb. It made him uneasy. He wasn't ashamed of it, but he wasn't proud, either.

"I did not own the flag. I never did own it, even when I got it it belonged to somebody else. All I did was take care of it," he said.

It turns out Suzuki had planned a trip to Senju, Japan, to see her parents. And so the McDougals packed up the flag and met her at the airport.

"I'll miss it, but it's not mine," Kim said.

Once in Japan, Suzuki met up with Tadataki Hoshi, who lost his father so many years ago.

"I have few memories of my father. When he returned for a brief visit, he let me ride on his shoulders. He carried me, gave me piggy back rides, and played with me. Those memories are faint, but I remember them," Hoshi said.

The family home burned down during the bombings of Tokyo at the end of the war, and at 71-years-old, Hashi owned nothing of his fathers. That changed with Suzuki handed him the flag.

"My father's spirit is finally coming home," he said. "We are so excited to finally welcome him home. I can carry my father's spirit with me as long as I live,"

In a quiet ceremony, two men who will never meet are now bound together by an act of decency and the flag of a father.

At a press conference held at the police precinct, Hoshi was more aware than ever that it's important for a man to understand his father.

"I want to return to the pre-war days, have a drink with my father and catch up," he said. "This time as two grown men."

And when the fathers are gone, we cling to things, belongings, symbols of who they were and what they stood for.

It's all we can do.