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DENNY SIMMONS / Courier & Press

This Japanese "prayer flag" was found by Jerry Reller of Holland, Ind., in an old cedar chest left to him by his late father, Cleo Reller, a U.S. Army infantryman who served in World War II. Now, after an extensive investigation by workers at Toyota's Princeton, Ind., operation and Japanese volunteers near the original owner's home town of Shinshiro City, Japan, the flag will be returned to the high school the sailor, Yoshio Inagaki, attended before heading off to fight in World War II.

Going back home

By ROGER MCBAIN Courier & Press staff writer 464-7520 or
July 9, 2005

Jerry Reller may never know how a Japanese prayer flag, signed and presented to Yoshio Inagaki before he went off to train as a kamikaze torpedo pilot in World War II, wound up in a cedar chest in his Holland, Ind., home.

The only thing he is sure of is that it's time for the flag to go home.

The red and white silk flag, covered with the brushed signatures of Inagaki's high school classmates, returned to Japan on Friday.

Yuko Sullivan, the Okinawa native who helped Reller unravel some of the mystery behind the flag, took it with her when she returned to Japan for a visit. She is delivering it to Shinshiro City, to the high school Inagaki attended before entering training to pilot a manned, suicide torpedo designed to sink American ships in the final year of World War II.

Inagaki apparently never took that ride, however. He survived the war, married, raised a family and died last year.

Reller doesn't know how his father got the flag. He knows Cleo Reller served in the U.S. Army infantry in World War II, fighting in the Philippines. His division, the 25th Infantry, occupied Japan's main island of Honshu after the fighting ended, but Reller never heard his father mention being in Japan.

All he knows is that the flag and a long Japanese sword were among World War II souvenirs left to the family when Cleo Reller died in 1970.

Jerry Reller, 55, only found the flag last year, while rummaging through an old family cedar chest. When he saw the brushed Japanese characters on the flag, he decided to try to find someone who could translate it for him.

He wound up calling Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana in Gibson County, figuring someone there might be able to help. Sullivan, a Toyota public affairs specialist who has lived nine years in the United States, volunteered. She translated the names on the flag and discovered a shrine stamp that helped locate where the flag had come from. She passed her findings, along with a digital photograph of the flag, onto the man in Japan who did the real detective work, said Sullivan.

Kiyoshi Nishiha operates a Web site (its home page is titled: "Let War Memorabilia Come Home") dedicated to helping owners of Japanese World War II memorabilia return it to the original owners or their families. Nishiha learned Inagaki's identity and found the high school whose students signed and gave the flag to their classmate as he left for Yokaren, the shortened name for a Japanese naval flight-training program. About 80 percent of its graduates died in battle, many of them in suicide attack operations mounted in the last year of World War II, after the Allies invaded the Philippines.

Nishiha's research indicated Inagaki was to be trained to pilot a "special attack submarine," a modified torpedo extended to enclose a single canvas seat, guidance controls and a crude, fixed periscope, and loaded with several thousand pounds of high explosives in the nose. Inagaki obviously never completed such an attack. Nishiha's report doesn't note how or where he wound up when the war ended.

Since both veterans are dead, Reller probably won't ever learn how his father ended up taking home Inagaki's prayer flag, but he is not concerned about that.

"I'm glad it's going back there to Japan," he said. "It means more to them than me because they knew the man. It's just a souvenir to me."