They were playing hide-and-seek when they found the flag in a closet. It was furled around its staff and wrapped in a sheet.
“I thought it was my father’s gun from the war,” said Joseph F. Quintero. “I was disappointed it was a flag.”
But not just any flag. The American flag discovered by Quintero and his siblings when they were kids had been fashioned in secrecy and from fragments of material by their father, Joseph O. “Jose” Quintero, and other captives in a prison camp in Japan during World War II.
Quintero and his fellow POWs may well have been tortured or killed if their Japanese guards had discovered the flag made out of blue denim, white bedsheets, a red blanket, stealth and courage.
The story of the flag is now well known to many, but Jose never told it to his children.
“We didn’t hear about the flag until people started writing stories about it,” said Margaret Quintero Weber, Jose’s daughter.
Joseph Quintero said his father was scared that if the military found out about the flag they would take away his pension because the making of it had endangered the lives of his fellow prisoners.
Recently, I wrote a Journal article about the flag being donated to the Smithsonian Institution by the family of late Army Lt. Gen. Edward Baca, former adjutant general of the New Mexico National Guard. Jose had entrusted the flag and its story to Baca in the early ’90s.
I wondered how Jose’s family felt about the flag going to the Smithsonian.
And all I knew for sure about Jose was that he was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1918, served with the U.S. Army’s 60th Coastal Artillery Regiment in World War II, was captured by the Japanese on Corregidor, transported by ship to Japan, made that flag in the prison camp, left the Army as a corporal at war’s end, moved to Albuquerque in 1946 and died here at age 82 in November 2000.
Just who was this man who came up with the audacious and dangerous flag-making scheme?
Looking for answers led me to a chair in the shady and pleasant backyard of the North Valley house Jose Quintero lived in for the last nine years of his life. Sitting nearby were Jose’s daughter, Margaret, sons Joseph and Leo Quintero, grandson Nicholas “Nick,” Quintero and Jose’s widow, Gladys Ann Baltz-Quintero, 91. Jose and Gladys’ daughter, Mary Tafoya, was not able to be with us.
The family is pleased the flag will be at the Smithsonian.
“The Smithsonian will take good care of it, and we were told it would always be made available to the family when we visit,” Margaret said.
Joseph said he believes the display of the flag at the Smithsonian will appease his father’s conscience for hiding it in a closet for so many years.
Jose’s wife and children knew him as a happy, fun-loving, compassionate man who looked for people to help.
“He was a joker,” Margaret said. “He loved to make people laugh. My dad was always throwing parties.”
“He liked to cook,” Leo said. “Enchiladas, tacos, tamales, posole, menudo.”
“He would go to church on Sunday and bring somebody back to eat with us,” Joseph said.
The man who nearly starved to death in the filthy confines of a prison camp was apparently compelled to see that those around him did not suffer. The family said Jose would stop his white, Ford pickup, ask someone if he needed a ride and then bring that person home for a meal.
“My daddy brought a lot of people over to take showers and baths,” Margaret said.
Every now and then the memories were interrupted by a train rattling by on the tracks just west of the backyard.
Jose’s father, Faustino Quintero, worked for the railroad in Fort Worth. He and his wife, Lorenza Olivas, were immigrants from Mexico, and Jose was the second-oldest of their nine children. The family lived in railroad cars made available by the railroad for its employees.
Margaret said her father dropped out of school after sixth grade to earn money to help support his family. He worked on a chicken farm and a dairy farm, and, in his teens, got a job at a hospital, helping the cook at first and then cleaning rooms and going on ambulance runs.
Jose joined the Army in 1941. After his capture in 1942, he very nearly died of appendicitis while on the ship transporting him to Japan. Fellow prisoners performed emergency surgery in the grim conditions of the ship’s hold, using a razor blade to make the incision, spoons as retractors, a small can of ether to dull the pain and catgut to sew up the wound.
Jose settled in Albuquerque after the war because a fellow POW lived here. He got a job as an orderly at the veterans hospital and later worked as a medical research technician there and at Lovelace. It was at the veterans hospital in 1951 that he met Gladys, a nurse. Jose was several inches shorter than the tall, pretty Gladys, but that did not matter to her. She remembers the first time she saw him.
“He was just walking through the building, and I would follow him with my eyes,” she said. “One day I was waiting for the bus to take me home from work, and he said, ‘Can I give you a ride?'” They were married in December 1952.
Margaret said her mother has her father’s compassionate heart, that Gladys once worked through Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church to make sure people had enough food.
“They were in the service industry,” she said of her parents. “My dad was streetwise and my mom more protected. But they shared a strong faith.”
UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column.