In the autumn of his life, Clair Weeks, is seeking to give up one of the prized mementos of his youth.
For nearly 50 years, Weeks, 83, has kept as a war trophy a Japanese flag that he took off the body of a Japanese soldier killed in a firefight in a Burmese jungle during World War II.
Over the years, Weeks regaled friends and family members with stories of his exploits as an intelligence captain with the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, which assigned him to the British army in India and Burma. The 27-inch by 23-inch bloodstained silk flag had often been a prop in those tales of youthful bravery.
But now Weeks is seeking to return the flag as a goodwill gesture, and to put some closure on his own wartime memories.
“It has no more value to me at this stage in my life,” said Weeks, who this year began the search for surviving relatives of the Japanese soldier, Miyauchi Motohiro. “I thought it would be a nice gesture, with all this talk about our MIAs in Vietnam.”
Hundreds of other World War II veterans have contacted the Japanese Consulate in Los Angeles over the years with similar offers to return flags, medals, uniforms, swords and other items that were taken from dead Japanese soldiers during the war.
James Aoki, a cultural affairs assistant at the consulate, said the number of offers has increased considerably over the past two years, probably because next year marks the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of the war in the Pacific. Japan surrendered to Allied forces on Aug. 14, 1945, and the surrender was formalized on Sept. 2, 1945, aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
Aoki said Japanese soldiers carried the flags or wrapped them around their waists as a patriotic gesture or for good luck. Some of the soldiers believed the flags could stop bullets, he said.
“These were given by friends or family members, with little messages for good luck, prayers for their safe return and to get them through the rough time of battle,” he said.
Motohiro inscribed his name on the flag Weeks has, along with his birthplace, the village of Moji in the Fukuoka-Ken Prefecture.
In Kanji , one of the three main forms of Japanese writing, one which uses Chinese characters, Motohiro wrote: “Now I am to die for my country. Great Heaven and Earth testify to the existence of God.”
Weeks said that a neighbor of Japanese descent helped him translate the writing on the flag.
Weeks, who returned to his job as an animator with Walt Disney after the war, said his efforts to return the flag have been unsuccessful. About six months ago, he wrote the Japanese government and contacted the Japanese Consulate in Los Angeles.
Aoki, the consular officer, said that even with names and addresses of dead soldiers, it is often hard to trace their relatives because a large number of Japanese have moved from their wartime residences.
“A lot of the villages were bombed,” Aoki said. “And it’s been 50 years. It’s hard to keep track of people.”
He said requests to return the items are relayed to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, which in turn asks the Ministry of Public Health to locate the addresses. From the time the consulate in Los Angeles receives a request, it takes about six months before information comes back from Japan.
In almost all cases, the relatives cannot be found, Aoki said.
Two years ago, Nicholas and Peter Thompson of La Habra went to Japan to return a flag their father, Cochran Thompson, took from a dead Japanese soldier after a battle in Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines.
The Thompson brothers found relatives of the soldier after a photograph of the flag with the inscriptions was published in a Japanese newspaper.
Weeks said that he has no such contacts in Japan, but he has made the flag available for war memorabilia exhibits, such as the one currently at the Los Alamitos Museum, in the hope that someone will find a way to return it.
Now mounted in a wooden frame to help preserve it from the elements, the flag is the featured attraction at the exhibit, which includes uniforms of American soldiers who fought in Europe and the Pacific and miniature replicas of the B-17 bomber and German tanks.
Weeks, born to Methodist missionaries in India, said that he was sent to Burma in 1945 because of his knowledge of Asia and his fluency in some Asian languages. He was assigned to the 15th Indian Corps, which was part of the British army.
He served with a unit that gathered intelligence about Japanese forces, which by then were beginning to retreat deep into the Burmese jungle.
During a patrol outside a village in Burma’s coastal Arakan region, Weeks’ unit was ambushed by a platoon of Japanese soldiers. After a 45-minute firefight, the enemy retreated, leaving their dead behind.
Some of the dead had flags wrapped around their waists or chests, Weeks said. A British officer, Capt. Harold Buckingham, asked if anyone was interested in taking some of the flags.
“I thought it would be a nice memento,” Weeks said. “I’d heard about these flags and the Shinto tradition that they were supposed to keep the soldiers from harm.”
Weeks said he removed the flag from the body of a soldier in his early 20s, who was later identified as Motohiro.
With the end of the war just months away, Weeks said he saw little combat in 1945, but was able to collect impressive war trophies that included a Japanese officer’s sword, and knives and hats from the Gurkhas of Nepal, who fought with the British army.
The collection was a source of pride all these years, Weeks said, but now that he’s growing older and none of his children are interested in keeping the Japanese flag, his final mission is to return it.
If he’s not successful, he said, he will donate it to a veterans organization or a museum.
“It’s been nearly 50 years,” Weeks said. “It’s time to put the memories to rest.”