CARLISLE – Sometimes prayers are answered by the most peculiar of angels.
Perry E. Ball works in a nondescript office in a maze of rooms at the U.S. Army War College. A professor of international relations, he keeps his desk neat and orderly; the artifacts in his office reflect two things — a man who spent his life as a U.S. foreign service officer, and a son of a proud Army veteran of World War II.
"One of my earliest memories with my father was visiting the graves of his friends at the U.S. Military Cemetery outside of Manila, the Philippines," he said. "He told me he hoped he had led a life that honored the ones who never came home."
He held his father’s sense of honor throughout his life, attending the annual military reunions of the 25th Infantry Division, even after his father’s death in 1998.
At the last reunion in Knoxville, Tenn., in August 2001, Ball began the long journey of answering a soldier’s prayer.
He was sharing a story with 10 veterans from Company G about the return of a Japanese soldier’s wartime diary when Emil Matula, an Army lieutenant during the war, asked Ball to help him return a flag he had taken from the helmet of a dead Japanese soldier.
Matula, commander of 1st Platoon, Company G, 2nd Battalion, was ordered to capture a hill northeast of Kapintalan in the Philippines; after several bloody battles with the Japanese, his platoon settled into a captured foxhole.
During the night, one of Matula’s platoon riflemen informed him of a cave underneath them, filled with Japanese soldiers. Matula lowered a satchel of TNT into the cave and exploded it.
Hours later, he crawled into the dark 20-by-20-foot cave with a flashlight and found 18 soldiers kneeling in platoon formation, all killed by concussion or suffocation.
As his men removed the dead soldiers from the cave, a white cloth protruding from a helmet caught Matula’s eye. It was a folded silk battle flag, and Matula took it as a keepsake.
Fifty-six years later, he told Ball he was haunted by it and wanted to return it to its rightful owner.
Matula mailed the flag to Costa Rica, where Ball was then an economic and political expert at the U.S. Embassy. There, the second secretary of the Japanese Embassy determined the flag belonged to Cpl. Keiji Yamada. It was signed by some 30 Yamada family members and friends, who added messages such as "Sacrifice yourself for your country seven times" and "Cut the Gringo devils in eight pieces."
Across 12 years, thousands of miles, scores of countries and countless conversations and dead ends, Ball drilled every Japanese diplomat, businessman or nonprofit official he met, seeking help to return the flag to the Yamada family.
It was not until he moved to Carlisle that he finally found the right person with the right connections: One of his students at the Army War College volunteered last June to help him locate Cpl. Yamada’s family.
On Dec. 23, 2013, Yamada’s flag was delivered to his youngest brother, Kiichi Yamada, then 89, in Chiba Prefecture south of Tokyo. The elderly Yamada’s eyes teared when he saw the flag and said, "Keiji, you finally come home."
Four days later, Matula died at the age of 95, pleased that his prayer had been answered.
Matula, an outstanding footballer, was playing for the 35th Infantry Regiment in a big divisional game at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii on Dec. 6, 1941. Sixteen hours later, he and his unit witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor, then went on alert for an anticipated invasion by enemy troops that never came.
In the course of the war that followed, Matula was shot in the jaw, injured by a spray of shrapnel and shot in the leg; he earned three Bronze Stars for heroism and a Purple Heart.
After the war, he went home to Texas and married his girl, Evelyn. And after 68 years of marriage, six children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, he left this world honoring those who served with him but never made it back.
He went in peace, thanks to an unconventional angel.
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]