Monica Meehan Berg never knew that her father had stashed away the yellowed flag of Japan that ended up on her Torrance doorstep.

It was stained with some holes and covered in Japanese writing - an obvious reminder of his World War II years. James Leo Meehan, a U.S. Army paratrooper, was stationed in the Philippines from 1942 to 1945, starting right after high school.

"I can question how he got it," said Berg, 59. "From what I've heard in talking to people ... it was common for the Army GIs to take these things. It was kind of a trophy in a way, and that's the pity of war."

Sometime before Meehan's death on Dec. 24, 2010, he'd handed down the Japanese Good Luck Flag to Berg's brother Michael, who died a few months later. And that led the family to discover it, and for Berg to eventually embark on a mission to find the flag's original owner.

It was Berg's sister-in-law who found the folded-up flag at her home in Hawaii as she sorted through her late husband's belongings. She decided immediately that she didn't want to keep it, and called Berg, who agreed to take it off her hands.

When the flag arrived in the mail, Berg consulted a local World War II shopkeeper and did some Internet research. She wasn't alone in having one of the Good Luck Flags, as she soon found out while scanning listings on eBay.

But Berg decided selling wasn't an option.

These flags were handed out decades ago to Japanese soldiers heading off to war, giving them a chance to collect signatures from friends, family members and co-workers.

"They would take a brush and ink and generally put their names on the flag," said Michael Bortner, a Florida dentist and World War II historian who has published a book on Good Luck Flags and owns many himself.

"And then the guy, wherever he was serving, he could take that flag and open it up," he said. "It was like reading and re-reading letters from home."

Berg eventually turned to the Japanese consulate in Los Angeles for help. After sending in a picture of the flag and learning its owner's name, she filled out a request asking the consulate's office to investigate "lost articles," and was warned that finding the family of the flag's original owner - if even possible - could take a year or more.

She couldn't be sure what her father would think. He was a private man who never talked of the war, and said as much when she and her siblings asked questions, she said.

When Meehan returned to Los Angeles after he was honorably discharged in 1945, he went to work in the offices at Chevron's El Segundo refinery.

He also married Ann Hicks, a high school friend, in 1947. They had four children together - two boys and two girls - and raised their family in the Hollywood Riviera section on Torrance. Meehan retired as a banker.

Berg said she and her siblings "sort of stopped asking" about their father's war experience while growing up, knowing he didn't want to talk about it.

"I think he was tortured by the war," she said from her living room, where a picture of her father as a young soldier hangs on the wall. "I think he probably did things and saw things that ate him up on the inside."

Just as the consulate's office had warned her, Berg's effort to find the flag's first owner would require patience. Thirteen months would pass before she got any sort of communication.

There are different views about whether it's best for collectors to keep or attempt to return Japanese Good Luck Flags.

The consulate's office did not have answers to questions about how frequently it receives such artifacts, whether returning them is encouraged, and how often it succeeds in finding the owners or next of kin.

Guidelines for handling Japanese World War II items and initiating investigations through the office are spelled out at http://bit.ly/VyL5uP/.

Bortner, the author of "Imperial Japanese Good Luck Flags and One-Thousand Stitch Belts," recalled one Japanese veteran telling him that oftentimes Americans place more value on these and other World War II items than younger Japanese citizens do.

Collectors he's met over the years tend to be historians who are "well-versed" in how to protect the flags, he added. 

"We have a whole different perspective of our World War II generation than the Japanese do," said Bortner, who also collects thousand-stitch belts, strips of cloth that are decorated with 1,000 stitches, each made by a different woman, that also were given to Japanese soldiers headed to war.

Bortner, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees in history and anthropology, obtained his first flag as an 11-year-old boy attending an antique military show at the Orange County fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

"It's not really, and it's never been a typical kind of thing for the Japanese to get really involved in having these things returned," he said.

For Berg, though, attempting to return the flag to its original owner was the only option. And she said she respected the consulate's protocol discouraging attempts to contact a soldier's family.

So it was a rush to get an answer in the mail from the office just before Christmas.

The Dec. 19 letter says, "We are happy to inform you that the investigation initiated by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has been successfully concluded."

The flag that James Meehan kept neatly folded all those years belonged to Takehiko Araki, a solider who served in the Army. The letter suggested Berg send the flag to the consulate's office, which would take the steps needed to return it to his nephew, Shintaro Araki.

"On behalf of the Consulate General of Japan," the letter reads, "let me express our deepest appreciation for your goodwill and cooperation."

Berg didn't let much time pass before she packed up her father's flag and put it in the mail again.

"I guess at this point I'm willing to take the chance that he would be proud of me doing it because I think it's the right thing to do," she said of her father, who died at 86.

Not only will she never know what her father would think, she won't be able to reach out to the Araki family for their reaction.

But she can only hope the flag will be appreciated.

"Had it been my uncle that died, I would be so grateful that I would just be overjoyed," she said. "If I get contacted, that's just icing on the cake."

kristin.agostoni@dailybreeze.com

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