The Victory Flag of Fukuoka Camp #6

THIS FLAG WAS RAISED at Fukuoka Camp #6 in Orio, Japan simultaneously with the signing of the surrender by the Japanese at 8:00 AM 2 September 1945 on board the U.S.S. Missouri, thus claiming Camp #6 for the United States of America. This flag was then flown daily as the official flag over Orio Camp #6 until 13 September 1945, at which time, 1st Lt. James Beverley, Chief of U.S. Army Repatriation Team #21 arrived with his team to repatriate the prisoners held by the Japanese at Orio Camp #6. From that day until the flag came into the possession of the Idaho Historical Society, the history of the flag is sketchy.

This historical artifact was made by Rodney P. Kephart with the assistance of Ryland Barnett; both were American civilians held prisoner by the Japanese. At the time, the Americans had dropped clothing and food at Camp #6 during the last days of August 1945 by parachutes made of red, white, and blue nylon.

About 9:00 AM on 1 September 1945, two American officers (also fellow prisoners), came with an armful of parachutes. They confronted Mr. Kephart with the question, "Can you make us an American Flag so we can have an official "Raising of the Colors" at the same time the Japanese sign the surrender tomorrow morning? You know all the men have uniforms and we can be in full dress." Mr. Kephart answered in the affirmative, as he had a Japanese sewing machine that had been rounded up for him to alter the Army uniforms that had been dropped for the prisoners. With Mr. Barnett to assist him, Mr. Kephart took up the challenge and immediately began the project.

The obvious question was, "Where to start?" Neither of them had seen an American Flag in almost four years. It was a design from memory challenge. Mr. Kephart remembered how his mother had taught him as a boy how to make a star by folding a piece of paper a certain way, so that with one cut of the scissors, a five-point star was made. He proceeded to make a pattern out of paper from cement sacks. With the star pattern in hand, the next step was to lay out a field that would accommodate 48 stars. Remember, Alaska and Hawaii had not yet gained statehood.

Once the field and stars were established, arriving at the layout of the stripes was the next challenge. With thirteen stripes, the only option was to have seven red and six white. The top and bottom stripes had to be red to establish an edge to the flag. The field, being blue, needed a white stripe below it to accent it. This gave the division of stripes, seven at the end of the field and six below the field. The width of the stripes was determined by dividing the distance across the end of the field by seven. Six equal stripes were then added below the field to give the width of the flag. The width of the flag was then used as the length of the stripes at the end of the field. This gave the length for the six stripes below the field, the length of the flag.

With the general layout of the flag complete, it was necessary to calculate the added material needed to allow for the seams. The next problem was how to handle the flimsy material in order to make the stars. The stars needed to be manageable, as there needed to be 96 stars in order to sew them on both sides of the blue field. The decision to glue the material to paper from cement sacks by using rice gruel for glue solved the problem. Mr. Kephart had become familiar with the Japanese sewing machine. He took on the job of sewing and Mr. Barnett set out to cut the 96 stars, 48 on each side. As Mr. Kephart began sewing and had completed the first two stripes, they were not satisfactory. Rather than take the time to do them over then, it was decided to wait until the flag was complete and see if there was any time for making changes.

By 1:00 AM 2 September, Mr. Barnett had finished cutting out the material for the flag. The sewing machine was so noisy that conversation was not possible. Rather than just sit, Mr. Barnett decided to retire as only one could sew at a time. Mr. Kephart completed sewing the flag at about 2:30 AM, 2 September 1945. At that time in the morning, there was not even a thought of making any changes. Mr. Kephart delivered the flag to the American officers and retired.

When awakened by the sound of a bugle, Mr. Kephart was so utterly exhausted, he turned over and began to sob. He missed the Historical Raising of the Colors that he had just made possible by the long night of strenuous labor.

The flag which became the official flag for Camp #6 at Orio, Japan until repatriation on 13 September 1945 was not seen again by Mr. Kephart until he saw it on display in Coos Bay, Oregon in September 1981, thirty-six years later. He was attending the Survivors of Wake, Guam, & Cavite, Inc. convention in Coos Bay, Oregon at the time. The display was overseen by Audrey Haakenstad in cooperation with the Idaho Historical Society.

John E. Wallin had turned the flag over to the Survivors organization, and the Survivors had in turn, turned it over to the Idaho Historical Society. Ownership of the flag was never established. The history of the flag over the intervening thirty-six years was sketchy or non-existent; nevertheless, the Idaho Historical Society claimed ownership.

In 1992, the Survivors of Wake, Guam, R Cavite, Inc. met in convention in Bismarck, North Dakota. Ben Comstock and Rodney Kephart made the arrangements for the convention. One condition for the convention to he held in Bismarck, North Dakota, was to have the Victory Flag on display at the convention in Bismarck. The Dakota Heritage Center worked with the Idaho Historical Society in arranging for the display at the North Dakota Heritage Center during the convention in late August of 1992. At the close of the convention the flag was returned to the Idaho Historical Society.

In the spring of 1994, contact was made by Carl Bloomquist of Devils Lake, North Dakota, to have the Victory Flag displayed at The Dakota Bull Session in Devils Lake, North Dakota the last of April. There had already been a request from the American Ex-POWs to have the flag displayed at their convention in Jamestown, North Dakota, the first week of May. Mr. Kephart worked with Carl Bloomquist of Devils Lake and the Idaho Historical Society. Arrangements were made to have the flag sent to Mr. Bloomquist for display at The Dakota Bull Session. The flag was then to be transferred to Minot, North Dakota, for a display in a museum there for a week and then transferred to Jamestown for display during the American Ex-POW Convention.

With the arrangements finalized, the flag was shipped to Carl Bloomquist at Devils Lake. Following The Dakota Bull Session, it was discovered that the Museum in Minor did not open until 1 May, the time of the start of the American Ex-POW Meeting in Jamestown, North Dakota. Minot did not have a secure place for the flag for the intervening week. To resolve the matter, Mr. Bloomquist transferred the custodial care of the flag to Mr. Kephart who would be attending the Jamestown meeting.

At the close of the American Ex-POW display in Jamestown, Mr. Kephart was confronted by Raymond Seerup, the Veterans Service Officer from Miles City, Montana. His question to Mr. Kephart was, "What do you intend to do with the flag?" His simple reply was, "I suppose I'll send it back to Idaho." To this, Mr. Seerup replied, "You are crazy if you do! You made it, didn't you?" Mr. Kephart said, "Yes, I made the flag." Mr. Seerup said, "Then keep it!"

It was at that moment that Mr. Kephart realized that a Miracle of God had just unfolded before him. THE AMERICAN FLAG WHICH HE HAD MADE AS A PRISONER OF WAR IN CAMP #6 AT ORIO, JAPAN FORTY-SIX YEARS EARLIER HAD JUST BEEN RETURNED TO HIM!

Mr. Kephart retained the flag and informed the Idaho Historical Society that he intended to keep the flag as they had not shown proof of ownership. This, of course, triggered a lawsuit by the Idaho Historical Society charging theft of property and threatening fines and imprisonment.

After Mr. Kephart talked to the Idaho Attorney General and explained what he proposed to do with the flag, he was asked to supply affidavits from fellow prisoners and was given a letter by the Attorney General that put the matter to rest. Mr. Kephart holds possession of the flag to this day.

Prepared by Rodney P. Kephart
7 May, 1999 at Stanley, North Dakota.

Note 1: The distortions in the flag are due to the shrinkage in the cotton thread used to sew the nylon which did not shrink.

Note 2: The proportion of the flag is not correct. When folded, the flag is 1½ folds short.

Note 3: The bias tape at the top of the flag was not part of the original flag.

Note 4: Star number 38, representing South Dakota, was lost sometime in the last 46 years, perhaps while the flag was flying over Japan.

Note 5: The document 'My Commission,' and the two affidavits are part of this 'History of the Victory Flag.'

War and Miracles:
The Story of Capture, Survival and Witness

by Barbara Wright Carlson
Assistant Editor
Bethel College FOCUS Magazine

Spring 1998

Rodney Kephart '49 [Class of 1949, Bethel College] believes in miracles. Through divine intervention at strategic moments in his life, this 80-year-old minister has evaded execution, bombings, death by starvation and torture, and other brutalities. Miracles have also provided him moments of great joy and victory, including the day last fall when, as a civilian with military status earned by supporting the Marines in the defense of Wake Island, he was honored with the military's coveted medal for wounded service personnel, the Purple Heart.

The story began in 1941, when 23-year-old Rodney Kephart took a job as a civilian construction worker and lay chaplain to the men constructing a U.S. military airstrip on Wake Island, a small piece of coral jutting out of the Pacific Ocean about 2,200 miles from Hawaii. On that beautiful atoll in the deep blue of the Pacific, he worked as a carpenter and led Bible studies and Sunday services for the men of the Morrison-Knudsen Construction Company of Boise, Idaho.

From May until December the crews worked hard transforming the once tranquil island into a busy construction camp. And when their daily tasks were done, the men preparing the island to become a Marine base enjoyed every form of entertainment available. Motion pictures colored the screen of the outdoor theater six days a week; workers played tennis, baseball and volleyball under the tropical sun. Card games, pool, snooker, and billiards were available 24 hours a day. A full-service canteen with plenty of soft drinks, ice cream, and tasty food helped keep hunger at bay. Kephart was thoroughly enjoying his time on Wake.

Then on December 7 -- a day that would "live in infamy," as President Roosevelt later declared -- Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and brought the United States into World War II. That same day the Japanese bombed Wake Island, Kephart remembers standing on a loading platform looking into the face of a Japanese pilot flying over the treetops. "I guess I was too dumb to be scared," he said "I just stood there and looked. Little rocks jumped up all around me as machine-gun fire spit on the ground."

The bombings continued for 16 days. Meanwhile, Kephart did what he could to help with the dead and wounded. After a long night of assisting in the M.A.S.H.-like surgery, the camp doctor finally urged him to get some sleep so he'd be better prepared for what was to come -- either more bombing or the rebuilding of the military base. So Kephart found a quiet, comfortable room in the hospital and decided to rest for a while. But as he tried to enter the room a still, small voice told him "no." He couldn't force himself to go any further. Three times he tried to walk through the door, but couldn't.

Heavy with fatigue, he finally stumbled to his barracks and went to sleep. Several hours later he awoke with a start to the sound of bombs exploding. He soon discovered that an incendiary bomb had exploded in the hospital room he had intended to nap in." There was an angel in that doorway," he said. "I didn't know it then, but I know it today."

Kephart was captured by the Japanese on December 23, just two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He and the other men on his work crew were subjected to a terrifying strip search before a squadron of Japanese soldiers with drawn bayonets. After retrieving their clothes from the pile of quickly shed uniforms, the newly captured prisoners were ordered to sit on the coral sand airstrip for two days under tropical sun without shade or water. That experience, Kephart soon learned, was just the beginning of the horrors he and others would endure as prisoners of war.

By the following October, the Japanese had sent most of the Wake Island prisoners to camps in Japan and China, but Kephart was among those still on the island. That month, however, the captors were given orders to send the rest of the men to Japan, keeping only a doctor and 97 craftsmen, engineers, and equipment operators to assist them in rebuilding the bombed-out military base for Japan.

Kephart was relieved to find he was among the prisoners slated to remain on Wake; staying on the island with fellow prisoners who had become fast friends was far more inviting than facing the unknown of a Japanese prison camp. However, at the last minute he was switched with another prisoner, a medic, so the Wake doctor would have someone to assist him. Later, Kephart learned, all 98 prisoners left on the island were executed. "I was literally the last guy to get off Wake Island alive," he said.

Despite the sudden change in life circumstances brought on by the war, Kephart's life of ministry continued. Only now he was trying desperately to give hope to pained and brutalized war prisoners. Hope was vital to existence. Men who lost hope, he said, were buried within 24 hours. He officiated at more than 50 burials while acting as prison camp chaplain.

The prisoners tried to keep each other going with constant bantering and joking -- "We might have been eating rice, but we were dreaming of T-bone steaks and cherry pie" -- but Kephart credits faith in God as his key to survival. "Number one, I was a Christian," he said. "As a young man I was given the verse 'Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass.' That was my anchor, really. We prisoners (who survived) always hoped to get back. We never gave up hope."

Finally on August 15, 1945, the weary prisoners were notified that hostilities would be halted, and soon they would be free. A few days later, American B-29s flew over the camp, dropping food parcels to the starved men. Scrambling for cartons as they floated earthward under red, white, and blue parachute canopies, the men were mad with excitement. The food, Kephart said, tasted like manna from heaven.

On the morning of September 1, 1945, the day before the signing of the Japanese surrender, senior American officers who were also prisoners in the camp came to Kephart and fellow prisoner Ryland Barnett with the parachute silk from the food drop. Knowing their liberation was near, the officers asked the men to sew an American flag.

Since he was the only one who knew how to operate the camp's old Japanese sewing machine, Kephart went straight to work. He and Barnett started the flag at 10:00 a.m. and didn't quit sewing for more than 16 hours. In the early hours of the next morning, with the flag completed, Kephart fell into his bunk and slept. As dawn crept over the eastern sky, he was too worn out to get up. But he heard the reveille bugle and cheering prisoners as his flag was raised over the No. 6 prison camp in Orio, Fukuoka, Japan, at the same time the Japanese signed the surrender.

"I just rolled over in my bunk and started sobbing," he said. That moment marked the end of 45 agonizing months as a prisoner of war, making Kephart one of the longest-held prisoners of World War II. His flag flew proudly over the prison camp for 11 days until he and the camp's other 1,700 American and Allied prisoners were rescued.

At the time, Kephart and the other prisoners had no idea it was the atomic bomb that had helped to hasten the end of World War II. About 140,000 people died when the United States released a bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. Three days later a second bomb was dropped over Nagasaki, Japan, killing about 70,000 people and prompting the Japanese surrender.

As the newly-freed Kephart traveled by train from the prison camp to an evacuation ship, the train passed through the area of the second bombing. The horror of Nagasaki shook Kephart's soul to silence as he looked over the ruins of the city. He gasped, swallowed hard and tried to believe his own eyes. The ground was scorched. No vegetation remained on the terraced hillsides. Where tall buildings once stood, only twisted steel remained. Smokestacks miles from the epicenter of the explosion were bent from its force.

Shortly after his repatriation, Kephart learned that the bomb that decimated Nagasaki had originally been scheduled to hit Yawaka [Yahata], a city near his P.O.W. camp. Due to bad weather in that area, however, the bomb was diverted to a secondary target. This "near miss" still astounds Kephart, who concedes, "I'm here because of a rainy day!" Working underground. In a coal mine a full 100 miles from Nagasaki that day, he had felt the earth shake but escaped the force of the initial explosion and the spreading radiation.

After his release in 1947, Kephart went back to his home state of Idaho and married Ruth Erickson '40, whom he had met while in pre-seminary studies at Bethel College in the late '30s. They returned to St. Paul two years later so he could complete his Bethel education, then eventually moved to North Dakota where their son and daughter were born and reared. There he worked construction, helping to build the Garrison Dam. Through the years, Kephart tried his hand at many jobs -- sixth grade teacher, business manager for the Chicago Baptist Association and the Ohio Baptist State Convention (ABC), office manager of a furniture store -- before retiring in 1980. Through it all his devotion to God and ministry never wavered, and after a lifetime of lay ministry he was ordained to the priesthood by the communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches in 1997.

Though World War II with its misery and miracles may seem ancient history these days, Kephart believes he experienced yet another war-related miracle this past November, 52 years after his release from the Japanese prison camp. Unlike the military personnel he had been with on Wake Island and in the Japanese P.O.W. camp, he hadn't been eligible for service medals since he was never officially inducted into the military. However, Congress recently changed laws to allow certain heroic civilians who became prisoners of war to receive their well-deserved medals.

On November 20, 1997, Rodney Kephart received the Purple Heart. Like soldiers and sailors who served in the war in the South Pacific, he also received the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, the American Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.

A few years after the war ended, at the urging of his family, Kephart wrote a self-published book titled Wake, War and Waiting.... Wanting younger generations to know of the bravery and suffering of the men who served in World War II, he poured out in graphic detail his still-vivid memories of the horrors of war. He wrote about the noise and confusion of the bombardments and midnight air attacks. He described being sardined in unbearable heat in the cargo hold of a Japanese oil tanker for nine days. He detailed the constant pain of starvation that reduced his 5' 10½" frame to a ghostly 85-pound skeleton. And he penned the pain of the grueling construction work he was forced to do in a starved, weakened condition while standing knee-deep in icy water.

These days Kephart continues to tell the story of his miraculous survival. In fact, in 1996 his story was featured in the documentary "The Stories of Miracles" on the Learning Channel. He and several fellow prisoners also made compelling videos about their experiences on Wake Island and in prison camps. Entrusted with the flag he made long ago in Japan, Kephart hopes to take it to all 50 states, sharing the power of hope and faith in a never-failing God.

For a copy of Kephart's book Wake, War and Waiting... send $5.00 plus $1.50 postage to: Rodney Kephart, Box 453, Stanley, ND, 58784-0453.

NOTE: Rodney Kephart passed away on February 5, 2003, after suffering a massive heart attack.

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