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First To Fly Over Japan; Historic U.S. Flag Going to Museum


MAR. 29, 1952 — FORT KNOX, Ky. — Seven years ago a Fort Knox colonel stood in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and watched misty-eyed as the rising sun emblem was struck from the flagstaff and Old Glory went up in its place.

It was a crudely-sewn flag pieced together from parachute cloth, its stars cut out jaggedly by sewing-kit tools and tin cans. But to the jubilant internees who had labored to make it in the first few hours after word came of Japan’s surrender, craftsmanship was unimportant.

Last week Col. Ralph T. Artman, chief of the urology section of Fort Knox Hospital, once again held in his hands that fragment of history he helped fashion and which he hadn’t seen since the day he left the camp for home.

The flag is now acknowledged history — the first to fly over Japan after that country’s surrender. As such, it will soon be on its way to the Pentagon museum collection, an Army museum or perhaps the Smithsonian Institution. Washington hasn’t decided yet.

Over the years Colonel Artman often wondered what had become of the hastily-made flag. His questions were answered four months ago in an unexpected letter from one of his fellow war prisoners.

An Eau Claire, Wis., police officer wrote the colonel that he had the flag. He was one of the three men picked to raise it that eventful morning and as color bearer for the camp, he had carried it at the head of the column as the liberated men marched out forever. It had been in the intervening years “one of my proudest treasures,” said ex-Sgt. Clifford Omtvedt.

But he wanted to share it with his countrymen. He wanted Col. Artman, who had been the only American officer in the camp (he was a major then), to come to Eau Claire to accept the flag for the Army, then turn it over to the proper agency.

Omtvedt’s wishes were carried out last month at a midwinter conference of the Wisconsin Disabled American Veterans in Eau Claire. Col. Artman was designated by the Army Secretary to represent him and to accept the flag on behalf of the Department of the Army.

Now the flag is resting briefly at the Fort Knox home of Col. Artman. He will deliver it soon to Washington authorities.

Looking at it, he remembers the tiny camp on Mukaishima Island — only 30 miles from the A-bomb blast at Hiroshima — getting word from International Red Cross officials that the fighting had ended, the Jap guards relinquishing their role as captors, the freed Americans taking over the prison.

He remembers how the men eagerly marked out their area with large letters — POW — so that it could be seen from the sky. American planes began dropping food and medical supplies ... red, white and blue parachutes floated down on Mukaishima.

In those first frantic moments of freedom, the ex-prisoners realized they had no American Flag. Col. Artman suggested making one from the parachutes.

This is the way he recalls it in a letter to Omtvedt:

“There was no means of sewing together the stars and stripes even after the patterns were cut. Since the Americans were in command of the situation at that time, I ‘commandeered’ the three local Japanese tailor shops to do the sewing after Americans cut out the parts according to rough specifications.

“We had the three tailor shops working constantly (and reluctantly) throughout all of one night in order to have the flag ready as soon as possible. At approximately 11 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 18, 1945, we lowered the Japanese flag which had been flying over the camp and its place raised our American flag.

“As the American flag was raised, we had a brief ceremony for the remaining time we were there, our improvised American flag flew over the camp. I do believe it is the first American flag raised on Japanese soil after the cessation of hostilities.”


PFC Charles Whaley for the Army Times



continued with article from the

Armored Center Public Information Office at Fort Knox




Colonel Artman looks over the bugle that figured in the flag-raising ceremonies.

OMTVEDT REMEMBERS that “To the Colors” was blown on a bugle confiscated from Japanese forces guarding the prisoners, that tears streamed down the cheeks of every prisoner, that some of them were so weak from starvation they were barely able to stand at attention.

This bugle was also returned to Col. Artman and is to be placed along with the flag in a museum.

Out of the 100 Americans who had come to the camp as prisoners exactly a year before, 99 still lived. There were also 78 British at the prison. Omtvedt, who had survived the Bataan Death March, and Colonel Artman were transferred there from a camp in the Philippines.

That trip was one of the worst experiences they had in their years of imprisonment. Colonel Artman recalls:

“We were herded into the hold of a ship, 1,137 of us. For 13 days and nights we had nothing in the way of medicines or drugs to keep down disease. When we disembarked we all had dysentery, malaria and vitamin deficiencies. We all gained some strength at the new camp, and Red Cross packets containing clothing, food and medical supplies arrived from time to time.”

The colonel’s oldest son, now 11, was the last American child born on Corregidor before the outbreak of hostilities. He was six weeks old when all American families were evacuated to the States. When the colonel saw him again, after liberation, the boy was 4-1/2 years old.

On Sept. 13, 1945, Colonel Artman, Sergeant Omtvedt and the other freed men left Mukaishima, led by their handmade flag, crossed the narrow channel to Onomichi, boarded a train for Yokohama — and thus began their long trip home.