Writings on a tattered flag have tugged at Herb McDougall for 68 years. The flag, stained with blood, was recovered after the ferocious World War II battle for Okinawa.
McDougall, a retired combat engineer, is now limited in his mobility and Friedreich's ataxia has made it difficult for him to speak. But at 88, he set out to complete a final mission he began on the other side of the world.
"I did not own the flag. I never did own it," he said. "Even when I got it, it belonged to somebody else."
The flag is a Japanese flag, marked with handwritten messages and blood stained corners. McDougall found it in a cave in Okinawa.
It was April 1945. Herb had deployed from Washington state to Japan as a 19-year-old, where he witnessed the bloodiest fight in the Pacific during World War II.
More than 12,000 American soldiers died. More than 110,000 Japanese troops were killed, as allied forces fought to secure an island to use as a military base in its fight against Japan.
The costly toll left the island littered with personal treasures soldiers carried into battle: family photos, personal letters, and in the case of Japanese soldiers – flags, signed with good luck messages.
"It's called a soldier's flag. Many Japanese received them from family or co-workers," Kim McDougall, Herb's son said. "It was common for Japanese to carry them into battle. This one had been stashed in a cave somewhere and the soldier never came back."
Herb kept the flag as a keepsake, quietly tucked away in a tiny candy box for years. Kim McDougall and his wife stumbled upon it in May during routine house cleaning, unlocking a past his father had never shared.
"He said he found it on Okinawa, and that's where it all began. Just sitting in a box on his dresser," Kim McDougall said.
The McDougalls set out to find the flag's rightful owner, at Herb's request.
They began by calling his granddaughter's former Japanese teacher at Puget Sound Community College to find out what the writings on the flag said.
"When I saw the picture of the flag, I spotted my hometown name was on the flag," Aki Suzuki said. "I thought – oh my goodness, it's from my hometown"
Written on the right side of the flag, Suzuki spotted the words "Senju Police Station." Above it, a handwritten prayer and a simple message: "Good luck."
Suzuki also found the name of the flag's owner – Toju Hoshi.
She took those clues to Police Officer Nobuya Kogure in Tokyo, who poured over thousands of records to find Hoshi's family. It led him to Tadatoshi Hoshi.
"When I first heard the story, I was just in disbelief," Tadatoshi Hoshi said.
Tadatoshi was just 3 years old when his father died. His remains were never returned. Five grainy photos are all he's had, until now.
Earlier this month, Aki personally delivered the framed flag to Tadatoshi in Tokyo, giving him that connection to his father he had longed for, for so many years.
"My father's spirit has finally come home," he said, with the flag by his side. "I can finally have that drink with him, as an adult."
The flag came with a handwritten letter from Herb McDougall, including these words: "Your possession – never been mine."
"That flag is going home," said Herb McDougall. "You can't believe the sense of relief and peace that filled me when they called and told me they found the family."
Two men, once sworn enemies, now united thanks to one final act of service.