Following the Flag


The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground

Depicting the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment at Fort Wagner, SC, this (2004) painting, “The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground” by Rick Reeves prominently displays the flag leading the troops in battle.

Today is Flag Day. On June 14, 1777, Congress passed a resolution to adopt the stars and stripes design for our national flag. In honor of that, I felt compelled to shed some light on how the impact of the flag holds for men and women who serve this country in uniform.

Throughout the history of our nation, the Stars and Stripes have had immeasurable meaning to to those serving in uniform. On the field of battle, the Flag has been a rallying point for units as they follow it toward the enemy. From their vantage points, commanding generals are able to observe their troop movements and progress throughout battles by following the flag.

Troop reverence for the national ensign was no more apparent during the battle during the early American conflicts (Revolutionary War through the Civil War). Carrying the flag in battle was a considerable honor and the bearer was especially vulnerable to enemy fire. If the color bearer was wounded or killed, the colors would be dropped increasing the potential to demoralize the troops. If the bearer was incapacitated, another soldier would drop his weapon and pick up the flag, continuing to lead the unit toward the enemy.

In the 1989 TriStar film Glory (starring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington), Private Trip (Washington’s character) prevented the colors from hitting the ground when the flag bearer was shot during the assault on Fort Wagner. At that moment, the troops were mired in the hail of Confederate gun and cannon fire and the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment casualties were piling up. The troops, seeing the flag raised even higher, rose to the occasion and broke through walls of the fort.

Though Glory was a fictitious portrayal of actual events, a similar factual event took place in the November 25, 1863 Battle of Missionary Ridge in Tennessee. A young Union officer, 1st Lt. Arthur MacArthur (father of future General Douglas MacArthur) took up the regimental colors, taking it to the crest of Missionary Ridge and planting it for his regiment to see, shouting, “On Wisconsin” rallying the (24th Wisconsin Infantry) regiment. MacArthur, the last in a succession of color bearers (each falling during the assault on the ridge), was awarded the Medal of Honor for this action.

cheering-pows

USS Grenadier crew member Engineman 1/c James Landrum holds the handmade American flag above a crowd of jubilant Omori Camp prisoners who were being liberated. August, 1945 (source: U.S. Navy photo).

Aside from their use on the battlefield, the Stars and Stripes has been known to rally servicemen and women to survive horrific and trying situations and conditions. In the numerous prisoner of war (POW) camps in Japanese-occupied territories and home-islands, American POWs were not permitted to possess a flag. When the Japanese military was on the verge of capitulation, the Americans gathered what materials they could to construct a flag which was captured in a famous image (snapped by an unknown photographer on August 29, 1945) of jubilant POWs celebrating their impending liberation.

Though I have seen the image countless times in my life, I never stopped to consider who the men were or what became of the flag. In my own collection, I have managed to maintain a few flag items of significant meaning (at least to me and my shipmates) from the first ship that I served aboard and until recently, I didn’t give them or any other flags a lot of thought. Instead my flags sat in boxes, tucked away for safekeeping. For the Omori POWs, the flag has a meaning that is tenfold more significant than the manufactured, government-issue items I possess.

My interest in this Omori POW flag was ignited when the daughter of WWI veteran Electrician’s Mate 3/c Charles Johnson, initiated a thread (on a militaria discussion board) in 2012 with a post detailing her pursuit of a hand-made flag that was made famous in a photograph of the liberation of an Allied POW camp in Japan. Her father was a survivor of the U.S. submarine, USS Grenadier (SS-210) and a POW at the Omori prison camp near Yokohama.

The daughter continued her post, “My father wondered what happened to the flag and was afraid it was molding away in someone’s attic (or) gotten thrown away by someone who did not know the story behind it.” She continued, “I promised him before he passed that I would continue to look for it.”

Over the course of the ensuing weeks, many helpful replies were submitted by forum members yet no certain leads on the flag were submitted. At the end of September a break in the daughter’s pursuit came when a gentleman submitted a post stating that he was the son of the man holding the flag (Engineman 1/c James D. “Slim” Landrum – USS Grenadier) when the photo of the POWs was taken.

The son of Landrum recalled his father’s story of how he attached the handmade flag to a fireman’s pike pole because he wanted the American flag to extend up higher above the others (displayed by the British and Dutch POWs).  Afterward, the senior Landrum returned the flag to the fellow POW who supplied the bed sheet.

Armed with this information, the daughter of Petty Officer Johnson was able to locate a 1973 news article that told of the flag’s history and disposition. The Aomori camp flag was made by (then) Boatswain’s Mate 1/c Raymond Jakubielski (survivor of the USS Tanager – AM-5) and a handful of fellow POWs. In 1971, Jakubielski told the story, “In August when we heard from the camp grapevine that the Japs were about to surrender, I figured we ought to have a flag to welcome our boys in. Being the camp tailor, it was easy to get hold of an extra bed sheet and steal a couple colored pencils. Four of the mates helped color the flag and we had it up on the roof August 15, the day the Japs (sic) offered to surrender. Later, when the boats came to rescue us, our boys ran the flag up on a pole.” Having attained the rank of lieutenant prior to retiring from the navy, Raymond Jakubielski further remarked, “It was a welcome sight after seeing that rising sun thing around all the time.”

The Jakubielski family presented the flag to the U.S. Navy at Submarine Base in Norwich, Connecticut (Sunday, July 8, 1973) to Admiral Paul J. Early (a noteworthy veteran of the USS Nautilus’ submerged polar ice explorations known as Operation Sunshine) to be preserved for posterity. Subsequent to the gifting of the flag to the U.S. Navy, then-Connecticut senator Abraham A. Ribicoff arranged to have the flag flown over the U.S. Capital in tribute.

Though the information helped to close the loop for Charles Johnson’s daughter, the current disposition of the flag remained unknown. My curiosity had been piqued and I was subsequently prompted to reach out to the folks at the Naval Historical and Heritage Command. I requested information regarding the current location of the flag and, if it was in their possession, I asked if it would be photographed and shared within their Flickr photography collection. Several months after contacting them,  I received the greatly anticipated affirmative response from the NHHC staff. They did, indeed have the flag within their collection and they had photographed and posted the flag at my request.

Omori POW Flag

Purported to be the first American flag to fly over Tokyo, this 48-star flag was made from a white bed sheet and colored with colored pencils by prisoners at Sendai Camp No 11 in Omori Japan. It was flown in August, 1945 (source: collection of Curator Branch: Naval History and Heritage Command).

The conclusion to this story (locating the Omori flag), as happy as it may be for some readers, is not always a good one for a handful of collectors. The value in having an artifact of such incredible historical significance in the hands of archivists who will strive to preserve it and share it with the nation is immeasurable. Had the flag landed into a private collection or, worse yet, befallen the fate described by Charles Johnson, the history could have been lost.

Learn more about the American POWs in Japan:

Related Flag-Collecting Articles:

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Posted on June 14, 2013, in Civil War, Flags, US Navy, Warships or Vessels, World War II and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Sydney Hennessy

    Excellent story and a happy ending for that woman’s family, the flag, and history!

  2. I am Mr Johnsons daughter who looked for the flag. Thank you so very much for this article. Mr Landrums son (Jerry) and I contacted each other and he and I along with 2 of his sisters actually had the opportunity to go to the Naval Museum and see the flag. I posted the video the Navy Dept filmed that day on the forum hoping you would get to see it.

  3. Jerry Landrum

    It is great that some still have an interest in past history. There are many amazing stories that have been untold because many of the servicemen were told not to talk about certain things that happened or they didn’t think that they did anything special during their service. I am one of the sons of James D. “Slim” Landrum (4 sons and 3 daughters) and had been looking for the Flag as well as the wreck site of the Grenadier for many years. The Internet and forums have done much to help with gathering information to obtain some of these goals. I was contacted by Jeanna Johnson Smith after posting on the forum. This greatly helped with the search for the Flag. We (my sisters: Denise and Cathy, Jeanna, and myself) went to the Navy Historical Museum in the Washington Navy Yard and saw the Flag on 3 July 2013. The Staff were fantastic and took very good care of us. They displayed the Flag on a table in the Conference Room and then gave us a tour of the museum. It was a fantastic day for all of us. One of the good things that came about this was to be put in contact with other familiy members of the crew. The Johnsons and the Albertsens ( whose dad Norman “Al” was also in the Liberation photo. Now there are other questions I would like to clarify and make available to family members and others. My dad passed away away in 1980 so alot of the stories told to me in the 50s, 60s, and 70s are not real clear to me now. I also went to several of the meetings with other crew members and heard some stories. I should have taken notes or recorded them, but that was not available to me at the time. I would like to get photos of all of the crew both in uniform and POW photos along with information from their experienses to put something together for all of the relatives to have access to (some have told me that their relative (Grenadier/POW) never talked about anything for that period. I would like to put names on those in the Liberation photo. My dad told me that there were others involved with making the Flag. I think he said 3 or 4, but it may have been more from what others have written. He mentioned Raymond Jakubielski, Norman “Al” Albertsen and himself from what I rembember. I would appreciate additional if available. I do know that the crew kept in contact throughout the years through newsletters and meetings and,during my travels, I have had the honor to meet some of them. I served 7yrs in the Army and 3yrs in the Air Force, but never with as close of a group as they were because of them all serving on a submarine and their POW expierence. They deserve to be remembered and honored for what they did for the Country and what the endured so we could be here today.

  4. I am floored by the responses from both Mr. Landrum and Ms. Smith! I am even more pleased that both of your families were able to visit the NHHC to see the flag and have a bit of a reunion after so many years. I am hopeful that this flag and the successful search for it will now keep your two families in touch for the foreseeable future. To think that a flag with such considerable history and how it symbolized freedom and liberation today embodied reunion and family connection adds such wonderful aspect to this artifact.

  5. I don’t know if you will post this, but there are some things I question about the events that lead to finding the Flag. I had called several museums and the Submarine Base in New London to try and gather information about the Flag. When I contacted the Naval Historical and Heritage Command at the Washington Navy Yard, I talked to one of the curators who personally looked for it in their warehouses. She contacted me by phone and e-mail to say she had found it. I arranged for Jeanna Johnson Smith, my two sisters Denise Armstrong, Cathy Chiocca and myself to go the the Navy Yard to see the Flag. The Officers and Staff welcomed us and we were treated as special guests. It was quite an experience. Ryan Nobles from our local TV station and his camera man filmed the event and aired it on WWBT 12 News. The navy also had a camera man document the event and they aired it on the Armed Forces Network. My emotions were of extreme pride and joy that the Flag finally surfaced and the story about those involved in making and flying it was told. My father named the following as being involved with the Flag: Raymond Jakubielski (USS Tanager), Norman “Al” Albertsen (USS Grenadier), Sgt. Lorenzo Miriszio (US Army).
    On 29 August 2013 (68th Anniversary of Liberation) a large group of our family got to visit the Washington Navy Yard and see the Flag again. Again we were welcomed by the Staff who were very gracious and we all had a great experience.
    During an interview with Sen. Warner, Ryan Nobles told him the story about the Flag and the Senator asked how he could help with having it displayed for the public to see. Through the discussions with the Naval History and Heritage Command, it was decided to temporarily display it at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond, Virginia. The Staff at the VWM were excited about the project and it was unveiled in April, 2014 and is on display there presently. Every time I visit, I get to meet visitors and answer some questions about its history. I have been able to meet family members from the submarine USS Grenadier’s crew who have shared stories about the crews experiences during and after the war.
    Another project is to find the wrecksite of the USS Grenadier which sank off the coast of Malaysia near Phuket, Thailand. There are several technical dive groups looking for the site. The depths are around 300 feet deep and the location covers a large area. I would like to one day visit some of the POW Camps they were in which include: Penang, Malaysia; Singapore; Ofuna, Fukuoka, Omori, Shinagawa, Noetsu, and Ashio, Japan. I will try to keep you informed on new information.

  6. I realy respect those comments by Jerry L andrum giving such a fine review of his wonderfil fath er and his great historical stance waving his flag to the world !! As Grenadier survivor I h ave a strong pride in having served with such fine men as these. Kevin D. Harty CDR USN {Ret}

    • When I saw your reply, I was honored to hear such kind words. I have retired now from the Police Department and have been trying to contact Grenadier crew and their families to share information about the experiences during the war and afterwards. To me they are all like family forged by a bond the crew had during their time together. I have read everything I could find, but there are still many questions I have about the crew and the submarine. I would like to put together photos, stories, etc. to share with others interested in history. I have read different accounts of the submarine and events including:

      1. If the Grenadier had the low-profile fairwater modification and what paint scheme.
      2.Description of first and second plane that attacked.
      3. Location where lost
      4. Separation of crew (time and location sent).
      5. Location where liberated, and route back to states

      My father’s diary contains some of the information and I have found rosters from different POW camps, but I cannot find some for all of the crew. My father didn’t write down some of the information like what route he took getting home. I found a record he made at a Red Cross station to send home while enroute which states he went to Guam then Pearl Harbor and then to California (where the record was made). Not sure if it was by ship or airplane.

      I know that some of the crew did not talk about their experiences and I would never push for information. I believe their stories are so important and our Country needs to be reminded of what they survived and accomplished in their lives to keep our Country great. After watching “Unbroken”, I heard many of the people say that it couldn’t be true, that no one could survive what was shown. When my family and I went to see it, we wore “t-shirts” with a photo of the USS Grenadier on the front and the Omori Liberation photo on the back in honor of all who served (especially the Grenadier crew). We were asked many questions which we answered as best as we could.

      The Liberation Flag from Omori is on temporary display at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond Virginia. It is one of the most popular and talked about displays there. I can’t begin to tell you how much it meant to me to hear from you. Thanks for your service, Jerry

  1. Pingback: To Whom do Artifacts Truly Belong? | The Veteran's Collection

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