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High school students help Alaskan son of WWII veteran return Iwo Jima relic

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 20, 2015

PALMER -- U.S. Army Sgt. James W. Keogh earned a Bronze Star in 1945 for his trips into the dank, death-stalked bunker tunnels of Iwo Jima.

Keogh brought home reminders of World War II: an officer's pistol, bullets, letters and photos.

He also brought home two captured "good luck" Japanese flags bearing hand-written messages to Japanese soldiers, flags carrying a family's messages and carried into war but never returned home.

Seventy years later, Keogh's Alaskan son and a trio of Japanese language scholars at Colony High School near Palmer found a home for one of those flags, with the help of a Japanese newspaper reporter.

A few weeks ago, the team tracked down the now 76-year-old son of the soldier who brought the flag to the embattled South Pacific island, but left it there.

Keogh, 67, a former Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assemblyman and Vietnam War veteran who lives in Chickaloon, hopes to travel to Japan by summer to personally return the flag.

"If I do manage to meet the son it will be this kind of unusual meeting," he said Wednesday. "The two aging sons of two old soldiers who fought on opposing sides of a battlefield in 1945."

Bloody beginning

The journey of the flags began at Iwo Jima, the volcanic island that saw some of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific.

U.S. Marines invaded in February 1945 and after 36 days of fighting took the island, but not without nearly 7,000 Marines killed and another 20,000 wounded. Only 216 of the 18,000 Japanese soldiers who fought them were captured. The rest were killed.

Jim Keogh's unit, part of Headquarters Company 1st Battalion, 147th Infantry Regiment, made up a small advance party of the first Army soldiers to come in behind the Marines. He served as battalion intelligence sergeant. His brother, Jack, served in the unit with him and the two often shared patrol duty.

In contrast to the 55,000 Marines on Iwo Jima, Keogh's Army regiment of 2,700 soldiers killed 1,602 Japanese soldiers and captured 867, according to author Tom McLeod's history of the regiment, provided by Warren Keogh.

The two ventured into the warren of small underground tunnels channeled into basalt by Japanese soldiers, encouraging them to surrender and gathering intelligence to protect U.S. troops. The men in the tunnels sometimes blew themselves up. Other times they were killed in place. Sometimes they emerged for capture.

Years later, in 2003, Jack Keogh told the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress that "those caves" were the worst part of the mission.

"It just was kind of spooky," Keogh said, according to a transcript of the interview. "In fact, it stayed with me so long that when I first came to this country, to Moab (Utah), when the mining boom was going on, and that was probably about eight years after I'd been at Iwo, and I'd go down in a mine, and every time I'd do that I'd have nightmares that night. Thinking about those caves. I got over it of course."

Jim Keogh earned a Bronze Star for meritorious service during that time.

The search begins

It's not clear to his son how Keogh came by the flags. The Japanese soldiers may have been killed or captured.

"Dad captured some Japanese soldiers by himself," Warren Keogh said.

In a eulogy after his father's death two years ago, Warren described his father as a tolerant, curious, book-loving man who didn't really talk about his wartime military experiences until his last few years, "when advancing age and the slow creep of Alzheimer's disease caused him to reflect and recount some of his experiences, combat related and otherwise."

Jim Keogh grew up in Detroit but spent summers on a family farm. He worked jobs ranging from laying asphalt and working an auto assembly line to shoveling chicken manure, but spent much of his professional life as a map librarian at the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver.

It wasn't until a few years ago that his father began talking about repatriating the flags he brought home from Iwo Jima, his son said.

Keogh took the flags to a Japanese language professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. One flag was easier to start tracing: the writing was very descriptive and the soldier's name unusual -- Matsukuma Torao. The other had less information and the soldier a more common name.

Torao came from the subtropical island of Kyushu, the southwesternmost of Japan's main islands.

Keogh wanted to engage Japanese language students from the start, "as an opportunity to improve spoken language skills and become more aware of historical events and become more aware of the cultural history of the last century," he said.

There weren't any takers at UAA, and Keogh was busy.

But earlier this year, in April, he reached out to Shunji Ninoyu, the animated and energetic Japanese language instructor at Colony for the last decade.

From there, things happened quickly.

Connection

Ninoyu, a trim, bespectacled and bright-eyed man, is the kind of teacher who engages students in an origami crane project by offering one donut for every five cranes.

The cranes go to children at Providence Alaska Medical Center -- the class had folded 800 as of last week -- and Ninoyu also asks his students to pray for peace over them. He takes classes to Japan every other year and makes sure they see Hiroshima, not to condemn the United States but to show the tragedy of war.

Ninoyu said he jumped at the chance to participate in the flag repatriation with Keogh.

"I told him this could be a good project for my students," he said.

Ninoyu chose his only fourth-level Japanese students: Erika Foldenauer and Emily Maxwell.The two talked with Keogh in the fall. They got a look at the flags. It took both of them to hold one.

"I could read some of it," Foldenauer said of one. "It was pretty messy, actually. But it looked cool."

The students wrote letters of inquiry to local newspapers in hopes of snagging a reporter's interest. They included a picture of the flag.

Ninoyu said he targeted one newspaper in particular after finding the name of an ironworks company on the flag and tracking down its locale. He said he "randomly picked a paper" in the area.

Success

Asami Minohara, editor of the foreign affairs department at The Nishinuppon Shimbun (The West Japan Daily), picked up the story. She published the photo of the flag with information about the Colony project.

Within a few weeks, Torao's son came forward. Minohara met with him.

Her story about the encounter published on Dec. 8 in Japan -- Dec. 7 in the United States with the time difference -- was the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That day that has deep personal significance for Ninoyu.

"Every year, I'm shocked. I cry," Ninoyu said. "Because there's nothing I can do. It's history."

The reporter didn't realize, Ninoyu said last week. She apologized.

The conflicting emotions triggered by the war in the Pacific haven't escaped Keogh, either.

"I told the students there's a certain need to be sensitive," he said. "Some families may not want to receive such a flag. The fact that Japan was defeated, their relative might have been captured, might have had to commit suicide … not all families would be necessarily excited to receive this."

They still haven't been able to track down the family of the soldier who left behind the other flag.

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