It was a hot, dry summer – like most summers in North Dakota, really – 39 years ago.
I was going into seventh grade in the fall. But that was a few months away. Like most sixth-graders in those days before video games, I spent my days biking, playing sandlot baseball and football (usually behind the Stutsman County Jail), and spending lots of time at the library – which was the only building to which I had regular free access that had air conditioning.
But boredom drew me to a lot of other things.
One of my favorite haunts was the Stutsman County Historical Society – an 1890’s vintage mansion on Third Avenue in Jamestown, built by, of all things, a North Dakota timber baron.
I kid you not.
The museum’s lovingly-preserved rooms were a time capsule of life in central North Dakota from about 1860 to probably the ’50s; rooms were dedicated to the kitchen, entertainment, children and schools, stores, doctor’s offices, the railroad…
…and, on the second floor, to Fort Seward. An army outpost built in 1867 to protect the railroad’s construction crews, the Fort covered the crossing of the James River right around the confluence with Pipestem Creek. It was there, where the rivers and train came together, that Jamestown formed.
The Seward room covered the city’s military history – the fort, and Jamestown’s contributions to the wars since then; the 1st North Dakota Volunteers who fought in Cuba during the Spanish American war, and Company H of the 164th Infantry, which fought in both World Wars 1 and 2 and Korea.
I knew all this. My first “big kid” book, at age 5, was my dad’s old book of World War 2 aircraft, from when he’d been about my age. I’d learned them all – and, as my parents walked among the people getting ready for the town’s Memorial Day parade in, probably, 1969 or so, I showed the book to one of the National Guard guys who was getting ready to march in the parade.
“Yeah”, he nodded. “I was there”. And he had been; into middle age now, he’d been a teenage infantryman at the end of the war.
So I took to this stuff early. And as a 12 year old military history buff, I was able to rattle off the story behind each of the pieces of equipment in the room to the attendant – the .45-70 Trapdoor Springfields of the fort’s original infantrymen (three companies of the 20th US Infantry), the M1903 Springfields of the WW1 doughboys, the Garands that the town’s GIs carried on Guadalcanal and Bougainville and the Philippines and Korea, the various uniforms, and on and on.
The ladies who worked there were impressed enough to ask if I’d like to come in and be the “docent” for the room. It was something to do – so I spent a few Sundays explaining, and knowing me, over-explaining the room, to passersby.
Not that it was that busy.
The “job” – I got paid in cookies and lemonade – left me lots of free time to explore. One the things I explored was a large wooden trunk sitting below the Fort Seward room’s window.
One day, I opened it.
I found a large piece of red and white fabric, folded many times, neatly stored in the trunk. On top of it was a small typewritten piece of paper. It was actually a Japanese “Rising Sun” flag.
But not just any flag. The flag that’d been given by the Japanese delegation at the surrender ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, to General Douglas MacArthur, as a traditional part of the surrender ceremony.
The piece of paper noted that the flag had been given by MacArthur to a Colonel DuPuy, a US Marine who was a native of Jamestown. This, he took home with him, and at some point in the fifties or early sixties, gave it to the Stutsman County Historical Society.
Which put it in the trunk and forgot about it.
Until that sweltering Sunday afternoon in August of 1976, when I found it.
I told the museum ladies – the museum owned a big piece of history.
“That’s nice, Mitch”, they nodded. There was a reason I was handing the Fort Seward room; it really wasn’t their subject.
I told my parents. “That’s interesting, Mitch”, they said, not very interested at all.
I told other people, over the years, but nothing much came of it. It was only me, after all.
Sometime about 20 years ago, my dad called me; some history buffs had “found” the flag. They’d carefully unfolded it – it was huge – and gotten a picture taken; it made the front page of the Jamestown Sun, along with the story behind how it got to Jamestown.
Twenty years after I found it and tried to tell people the story, naturally.
It was good preparation for being a conservative in Saint Paul, actually.
My good friend First Ringer and I just finished writing our six-year-long series on the seventieth anniversaries of events of World War 2 yesterday.