Derek Lucero stares at the flag spread out on a table in his West Side home – as if such intense scrutiny will suddenly unlock the secrets of the Japanese characters inscribed on the banner.
The pennant is a Japanese Good Luck Flag (yosegaki hinomaru), a gift traditionally presented to Japanese men serving their country in military campaigns. The flags were especially popular during World War II.
Japan’s national symbol, a red circle or sun, is in the center of the white flags. Hinomaru means “circular sun.”
Stretching out like rays from this sun are messages written by family, friends, neighbors, teachers, colleagues and local leaders, words that remind the recipient of his duty and/or wish him victory, safety and good luck. Yosegaki means “collection of writing.”
During World War II, Japanese military men usually carried the flags in a uniform pocket. If such a flag is in the United States, it may not have been good luck for the man it belonged to because it likely means he was captured or killed.
Derek Lucero’s late grandfather, Las Vegas, New Mexico native Benny Lucero, brought the flag now owned by Derek Lucero to this country. Benny Lucero served with the U.S. Army in the China-Burma-India Theater during World War II.
“But my grandfather did not kill the soldier who had this flag,” Derek Lucero said. He explains that the Japanese soldier died of wounds while being treated by the U.S. Army medical unit in which his grandfather served.
Now, Derek Lucero is trying to get the flag to the Japanese soldier’s family.
“I’m paying tribute to (my grandfather) by returning the flag,” he said. “My grandfather went to war and fought.”
And so did the Japanese man who carried this flag.
‘Send that back’
Derek Lucero is himself an Army veteran, having served with armor units before an injury forced a medical discharge. He received his grandfather’s flag as a gift for his 50th birthday, which he celebrated in May.
“I had grown up watching my grandfather with the flag,” he said. “It was a souvenir, a war trophy.” Almost as soon as he got the flag, Derek Lucero started thinking about giving it to the dead soldier’s family.
“I was talking to my first cousin about it, and he said ‘Yeah. You got to send that back.’ I got on Facebook and wrote ‘Can anyone help me? I want to get this to his family.’ ”
A Japanese woman was able to translate enough of the writing on the flag to suggest that it comes from Hita, Japan, a city on Kyushu Island. But the name of the soldier to which it was given remains a mystery.
Lonnie Lucero, Benny’s son and Derek’s father, was the keeper of the flag before it was given to Derek. Benny Lucero died in 2010 when he was 89.
Lonnie Lucero, 72, lives in Las Vegas, New Mexico. He said his father Benny was a carpenter before World War II and worked as a carpenter with his Army medical unit.
“They used him to make operation tables on the fly,” Lonnie Lucero said during a phone interview.
An article in the Jan. 6, 1945, issue of Yank Magazine, a U.S. Army weekly published during World War II, illustrates the ingenuity Benny Lucero employed while doing his job.
“T/5 (Technician fifth grade) Benny Lucero, plaster man and carpenter from Las Vegas, N. Mex., … constructs operating tables out of bamboo, ether masks from adhesive tape cans, ward tents with supply-drop parachutes and blackout operating rooms with walls and ceilings of GI blankets.”
Benny Lucero used trench shovels and scrap wood to make stands on which to rest the legs of patients suffering leg wounds or breaks. Yank described the innovative stands as looking like something dreamed up by Rube Goldberg or Salvador Dali.
According to the Yank article, the portable hospitals in which Benny Lucero worked were set up about 400 to 800 yards from the fighting lines, close enough that machine guns bullets some times ripped through the hospital’s grass roofs.
It may have been during just such a time that the Japanese soldier who owned the flag in question was brought to the American field hospital. Lonnie Lucero said he is not sure where that hospital was, but he thinks it was in Burma.
“My dad said that what happened there is that they brought in a Japanese soldier to keep him alive,” Lonnie Lucero said. “I guess he had penetrated pretty far into the American lines and got shot up. They put him on the operating table to keep him alive, but he did not live long.”
Benny Lucero found the flag while disposing of the dead soldier’s clothes.
It was Lonnie Lucero, doing research on the internet, who discovered that his father’s war souvenir was a Good Luck Flag. He told his father what he found out.
“Dad said he guessed that is what it was because other Americans had picked up similar flags,” Lonnie Lucero said. “I said ‘Maybe we can get this flag back to who it belongs to.’ ”
Now, that’s Derek Lucero’s job.
His next step is to contact the OBON SOCIETY, a non-profit organization whose mission is returning Good Luck Flags to Japanese families.
“I would love to go to Japan and return the flag to the family,” Derek Lucero said.
But, he admits, that’s just wishful thinking and not the most important thing. The most important thing is finding out who and where that family is.