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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:

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