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World War II veteran's family tracks down symbol of courage

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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) -

Twenty-seven thousand Americans were captured and kept as prisoners of war in Japan during World War II. Each one has a story.

One of those prisoners is from Richmond and is featured in an iconic photo that shows he and his fellow captives being rescued. In that photo, James "Denny" Landrum is holding an immense American flag.

That flag has an incredible story, which is still unfolding at this moment.

Pride fills Jerry Landrum's voice when he tells the story of his dad, a prisoner of war in the Omori camp off the coast of Japan.

"He got down to 92 pounds," Jerry recalls. "Which was pretty small for someone that size."

The 6' 4" Landrum and his fellow American sailors were held captive for 18 months after their submarine, the U.S.S. Grenadier, was sunk.

"They couldn't dive anymore," said Jerry. "Their gun was blown off, a couple of torpedo tubes were inoperative."

As prisoners they found anything they could to keep their sanity and their loyalty to their country. In this case, it was a flag. But not just any flag. 

"You know they made it with colored pencils and a bed sheet," said Landrum. "They could've been executed for even possessing it."

Those colored pencils were valuable commodities. Jerry also has a diary from his father, where they were clearly used.

The bed sheet probably meant the prisoner who donated it, went to sleep cold.

So, it is no surprise that the makeshift flag was front and center the day they were rescued. With Denny, one of the main artists, holding it high in the air with a stolen fireman's pipe.

"They wanted to make sure the U.S. knew they were there," said Jerry.

But after being rescued, that flag became an afterthought. In the late 1970s Jerry's father started a search with no luck. He passed away at the age of 56 in 1980.

That left the job of finding this remarkable flag to Jerry. He never gave up hope, but had low expectations.

"I was thinking maybe it had been in an attic and it had been eaten up and everything like that," he said.

So, for more than 40 years Jerry and his family were on the hunt for this flag that represented so much of his father's struggles in that Japanese POW camp. That search finally came to an end here at Washington's historic Navy Yard and what Jerry found he could not believe.

"This is it," said Jerry when it saw the flag for the first time. "It's amazing."

The flag had been donated to the Navy in 1973 by the captive whose bed sheet was used to create the symbol.

"I had never heard of this flag before," said Naval History and Heritage Command Curator Allison Russell.

Russell learned of the flag's significance from Jerry.

"I was able to do some research, find it quickly, went to our facility our storage facility to look for the flag and was able to find it," she said.

The flag that the Landrums had spent 40 years looking for was on a shelf in a Naval warehouse.

Despite being almost 70-years-old and made in a POW camp, it is in close to perfect condition. It was beyond Jerry's wildest imagination.

"It is awesome," Jerry said in awe as he looked at the flag for the first time. "I spent a lot of nights looking for it."

It is a symbol of hope for a group of prisoners praying for a safe return home. It remains as beautiful today as it was back in 1945.

For now, that flag remains on a shelf in the appropriate Naval Naval History and Heritage Command warehouse, but Jerry has taken up a second mission. He would like to see it displayed at Virginia's War Memorial. There is already movement to make that happen. Senator Mark Warner's office has sent the Navy a letter requesting the flag be loaned to the Richmond museum.

We will continue to track the latest developments.

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