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Chance encounter in D.C. lifts  survivor’s guilt from WWII vet

Ken Udstad is World War II veteran who served Pacific. While there he recovered Japanese flag from dead soldier. Now

Ken Udstad is a World War II veteran who served in the Pacific. While there, he recovered a Japanese flag from a dead soldier. Now he's looking for the family of that soldier to return the flag. | Sun-Times Media file

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Updated: February 15, 2013 6:25AM

Ken Udstad insists this story not be about him.

He’s got a great tale to share, as do most of those old vets still around to reminisce about World War II. But a compelling part of the Aurora man’s narrative — his desire to return the Japanese flag he took from the body of a young enemy soldier on this island of Tinian — has already been told on these pages years ago.

That Storyteller chronicled how Udstad, during a reconnaissance mission as part of Company B of the Fourth Tank Battalion of the Fourth Marine Division, took this flag attached to one of a half-dozen Japanese snipers who had been killed by a grenade thrown into a cave. He kept this war souvenir all these years with little thought, until a few years ago when — as happens to so many of these vets — the horrific memories came flooding back.

That’s when he made a vow to return the flag to the family of the dead solider. With the help of former Marine-turned-Aurora alderman (recently turned-state Rep.) Stephanie Kifowit, Udstad tried the Japanese consulate in Chicago, as well as a Northern Illinois University professor of Japanese. He learned plenty about the flag, including the fact it was signed by well-wishers from the soldier’s hometown of Tago. That village no longer existed, however, and Udstad reluctantly dropped his attempts to return the flag to its original home.

But this column is not about that flag. “The story should be about the people who make it possible for vets like me to go to the World War II Memorial” in Washington, D.C., insisted 91-year-old Udstad, his vibrant blue eyes gaining intensity as he spoke.

For Udstad, it’s folks like those he met through his church: John and Jennifer Goodine; or John Gaglione, who urged him to sign up for the Honor Flight’s free trip to the museum. The waiting list is long for the popular Honor Flights, however. And when Udstad developed health issues, Gaglione suggested they make the trek on their own.

The trip last November was memorable. In addition to enjoying the war monuments, they got a personal tour of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, thanks to Gaglione’s daughter, who had done her college internship there. And that’s where the story would have ended — had a throng of school children not packed the museum’s cafeteria, forcing the Aurora visitors to grab lunch at a nearby pub.

It was while enjoying bowls of soup, recalled Gaglione, that the pair struck up a conversation with another man at the bar. It turned out he was a museum historian; and when he saw the Fourth Division patch on Udstad’s hat, he forgot all about the steak he’d just ordered.

That’s because 38-year-old Patrick Mooney was making a documentary on Udstad’s company. He was especially interested in Capt. James L. Denig, Udstad’s tank officer, who, before being killed in the invasion of the Marshall Islands on Jan. 31, 1944, had made a name for himself by redefining how tanks communicated with each other. Denig was the son of Brig. Gen. Robert Denig, U.S. Marine Corps public relations director, who, according to an archived story from Time magazine, found out about his son’s death as he anxiously awaited casualty reports coming over the wire at a Navy conference in Washington, D.C.

Mooney was ecstatic that he had unexpectedly found someone to provide details of the Fourth. As the impromptu chat turned into a 90-minute interview, the historian was even more excited when Udstad, who served as an infantryman and assistant tank driver, told him that among his war souvenirs back in Aurora was a rare invasion map of the Marshall Islands.

But that chance encounter yielded something special for Udstad as well. When he revealed his story about the flag, Mooney expressed confidence his contacts could help find the Japanese family. Then he offered another piece of information that lifted an even bigger chunk of guilt the old Marine had been carrying for more than 65 years.

In February 1945, Udstad was kept back at company headquarters in Maui instead of being sent to Iwo Jima. The U.S. lost more than 6,800 men in that five-week historic battle, including the tank captain who had replaced Denig. As a result, Udstad always carried a deep sense of guilt and inferiority — that he’d “not been good enough” to go into battle .

But sitting in that D.C. pub, he learned the opposite was true. Mooney informed him that when an invasion was expected to bring heavy casualties, the protocol was to hold back 10 percent of the Marines so they would have a cadre to rebuild the battalion. They kept back the good ones, the historian told Udstad, and he had the correspondence from generals to prove it.

And so, in the end, this story is about an old Marine ridding himself of a cruel form of survivor’s guilt. Of course, if friends had not seen to it he made that D.C. trip, that burden would have been taken to his grave.

“I always felt like I didn’t quite measure up,” Udstad said, tears welling in his eyes. “I guess that wasn’t true after all.”

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