View Full Version : A flag and the Marine who saved it

07-03-03, 05:46 AM
A flag and the Marine who saved it


By BRIAN ANDERSON / Dallas Web Staff

A few threads are frayed and a few crudely mended holes are evident,
but just as the patriotic saying goes * these colors didn't

Cpl. Otto Erler's tattered American flag, part of the vast
collection of artifacts at the Dallas Historical Society, had a long
and dangerous journey to reach Texas, much like the Marine from
Dallas for whom it served as a constant companion.

Together, they sailed the treacherous waters of the Pacific,
survived the cruelty of the Japanese POW camps in World War II and
buried dozens of brothers in arms.

Melanie Sanford, visiting curator of textiles for the Dallas
Historical Society, says the 45-star flag is in good condition,
considering what it's been through.
"For the history of it, it's in pretty good condition,"
said Melanie
Sanford, visiting curator of textiles for the Dallas Historical
Society, as she gently unfolded the flag recently at the Hall of
State in Fair Park.

With white cotton gloves, she turned each corner with a careful eye
for detail. She recounted the common ailments that often plague the
aging banners of time gone by.

"With the wool, you have dye bleed, lots of tears, a lot of old
repairs," she said, scanning the cloth for potentially fatal
imperfections. The flag's fly end, typically battered by flapping
the breeze, was intact. The seams were strong and the colors true.

"Once we get the conservation under way, we can make a nice
of it," Ms. Sanford smiled.

Displaying the U.S. flag was a crime punishable by death inside
Japan's POW camps, though some Americans risked all to harbor
patriotic symbols * their only comfort against disease, hunger

"You see teeny tiny flags that were kept by the soldiers, but
anything this large," said Alan Olson, collections director for
historical society, as he watched Ms. Sanford's inspection.
got wear and tear, but it's an interesting item nonetheless."

The Second Alamo

The smoke had yet to clear from the skies over Pearl Harbor when the
Japanese descended on the Philippine Islands, where a contingent of
Filipino and American servicemen were standing guard.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the defending forces held on for almost
five months, slowing the Japanese advance in the Pacific and buying
precious time for U.S. forces to rally for the war.

Marine Cpl. Otto Erler (standing) and his brother, Cpl. George Erler
of the Army Air Forces, pose with the tattered 45-star flag in this
October 1945 Dallas Morning News photo.

In March 1942, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was ordered to leave the
collapsing defenses in the Philippines for the safety of Australia,
but his troops fought on until the brutal conditions forced the
surrender of American forces on the Bataan Peninsula in April. A
month later, in what some would come to call "The Second
Alamo," the
last of the defenders were ordered to surrender the tiny island
fortress of Corregidor following a relentless Japanese assault.

"The last three weeks, they couldn't send any food out to us.
just hung on to what we had," said Jack McDowell, 84, of Los
Angeles, who was a Marine sergeant assigned to defend the
beaches. "We knew they were coming, and they did. There
wasn't much
of us left when they finally got on the island."

It was during that final stand on Corregidor that Cpl. Otto Erler of
Dallas was knocked unconscious by the concussion of an artillery
shell beside his foxhole. He awoke to find his position overrun and
the U.S. flag ripped from the sky by enemy hands.

An unexpected find

Cpl. Erler wasn't looking for keepsakes when he briefly slipped
from a group of captive Marines in Japanese-occupied Manila in
October 1942. After five months' imprisonment, dysentery was
ravaging the U.S. troops. Toilet paper was the prize for which he
was searching.

But as the tall, lanky Texan crept through the abandoned offices
adjacent to Pier No. 7, he made an unexpected find in a dusty corner
of a dark closet.

"There were dozens of American flags there," Cpl. Erler, the
son of
a Dallas police officer, said in an October 1945 interview with The
Dallas Morning News. "Why they had been there and why they had
overlooked, I don't know, but I grabbed one."

With only 45 stars, Cpl. Erler's flag predates the states of
Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii. Mr. Olson of the
Dallas Historical Society said the flag was likely a relic of the
Spanish-American War, left behind from the days in which Gen.
Douglas MacArthur's father, Arthur MacArthur, commanded troops in
the Philippines.

Risking possible death, Cpl. Erler smuggled Old Glory aboard the
dingy transport ship where he and his fellow prisoners of war would
spend the next 36 days traveling from Manila Bay to POW camps on the

Burial at sea

The stowaway flag remained a secret until a well-liked Marine named
Campbell "Ding" Loverux, a professional boxer in his civilian
died at sea.

Bill "Johnny" Johnson, 83, of San Antonio remembers learning
of his
friend's death as word spread through the cramped hold of the

"We were packed in like sardines," Mr. Johnson said. "You
even lie down. You had to sit up and draw your legs up."

The fallen Marine's body was taken topside, where common practice
was for the Japanese crew to toss the remains overboard. But the
Corregidor defenders argued that nothing less than an honorable
military burial at sea would do, and Cpl. Erler stepped forward to
offer his flag. To everyone's surprise, the ship's captain
the request.

"I wondered at the time where they procured the flag * where
it came
from," Mr. Johnson said, recalling how he arrived for the
service to find the colors draped over his deceased friend.

After a few solemn words, Mr. Johnson and three other Marines
hoisted the canvas body bag to the ship's railing, and Ding
became the first of more than 25 U.S. servicemen to find peace
beneath Otto Erler's 45 stars.

"They had the body on a board," Mr. Johnson said. "We
just lifted it
up and let him slide off from under the flag and into the sea."

Patriotism punished

Through the typhoons of the stormy Pacific and the torpedoes of an
Allied submarine attack, the POW ship sailed on, eventually
delivering its human cargo to Fusan, Korea. A cramped train then
carried most of the prisoners to an abandoned Russian Army camp at
Mukden, Manchuria.

Personal items were rare among the imprisoned ranks. Items not
confiscated during frequent searches were often traded to other
captives for food. Still, Cpl. Erler's flag somehow avoided

"Most of us didn't know he had it," Mr. McDowell said.
"He had been
hiding it under the barracks."

But during an impromptu holiday celebration fueled by smuggled
alcohol, Otto Erler's bravery finally got the best of him.

"Out came this flag," Mr. McDowell said. "Everyone
surrounded him
and everyone who could got a hand on it."

Wrapped in the red, white and blue, Cpl. Erler paraded through the
camp in defiance to bewildered Japanese guards. The POWs sang and
performed skits in a rare display of revelry.

"We knew we were going to have to pay for this," Mr. McDowell
said. "I think that cost us half a ration for about a month, and
were happy Otto didn't get killed. I think (the guards) were

The Marines were adamant when they reluctantly handed over their
beloved flag * it was to be handled with care, treated with
and returned when they left the camp.

The incident earned Cpl. Erler a place among 100 other captives,
including Mr. Johnson, bound for forced labor in Japan's lead
The May 1944 work detail was intended as punishment for those POWs
who rebuked Japanese authority or participated in acts of sabotage
against the prison camp's operations.

"We were people who caused them trouble," Mr. Johnson

But as the POWs prepared to depart for Japan, Otto Erler made yet
another gutsy move for Old Glory * he asked that his flag be

"They evidently were so surprised that they figured if he was
enough to do that, let him have it," Mr. McDowell said. "They
had it
folded and presented to him."

Fifteen months later, an emaciated Cpl. Erler volunteered his flag
for one last act of duty after almost 3 1/2 years of captivity. The
war was over. The guards were gone. The Stars and Stripes replaced
the rising sun above the last POW camp that would ever hold Cpl.
Erler and his fellow Marines.

"It means everything," Mr. McDowell said of the tattered
flag. "It
stands for everything we did * all the tough times we had and the
times we faced death, especially on Corregidor."

Family pride

Otto Erler and his flag returned to Dallas and a hero's welcome
October 1945.

"I've seen sights tourists pay thousands of dollars to see
* from
Mount Fujiyama to the great palaces of the Far East," Cpl Erler
the Dallas Times-Herald. "And the greatest of them all is that
turning horse on the Magnolia Building."

Bill Strouse, 64, of Bedford was only 8 when the newly liberated
Cpl. Erler returned home.


07-03-03, 05:47 AM
"I always called him uncle, but he was actually a cousin,"
Strouse said. "He was always around, especially in the early days
after the war. Unlike a lot of folks who went through that, he would
actually talk about it."

As a child, Mr. Strouse spent hours listening to tales from his
family's own war hero, though many more years passed before he
learn the whole truth of Otto Erler's plight as a POW.

"At that time, I didn't know the full story," Mr. Strouse
said. "He
never really mentioned the flag."

It wasn't until Mr. Strouse joined the military himself, serving
both the Army and the Texas Air National Guard, that "Uncle
began to share the more difficult details of his experiences. Only
then, Mr. Strouse said, could he fully appreciate his relative's
sacrifice and his commitment to the cherished flag.

Likewise, the experience of combat with the U.S. Army in Vietnam and
a later stint with the Marines gave Bud Erler, Otto Erler's
a new level of understanding.

"World War II was a terrible nightmare," said Mr. Erler, 46,
Loogootee, Ind. "Vietnam was just a skirmish compared to

But now, Mr. Erler knows firsthand the terror his uncle must have
felt while surrounded in a foxhole on Corregidor.

"Otto was definitely a very blessed man. I think his would make a
good story for a lot of Americans," he said. "We can get
life without giving up."

Otto Erler died quietly in his sleep in 1967 after 46 hard-lived
years, but Bud Erler and Bill Strouse have remained committed to his
memory, visiting those who served alongside Cpl. Erler and
preserving the tale of the flag for future generations.

Bud Erler faithfully wears a flag pendant as a reminder of his uncle.

"It says this is my family. This is where I come from," he
said. "(The flag) was a piece of America he held on to and he
give up."

For Mr. Strouse, a dream came true when he recently arranged to view
Otto Erler's flag at the Dallas Historical Society, where it was
donated upon the end of World War II.

"It was just fantastic. It was hard to believe it. I had heard so
much about it," he said. "The flag, as a symbol, means a heck
of a
lot to me, as it does anyone in the military."

Former POW Mr. McDowell couldn't agree more.

"It meant a great deal to us * to our spirit. Spirit was what
lived on," he said. "It was one of a kind * Otto and his

E-mail briananderson@dallasnews.com

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07-03-03, 08:09 PM
"The flag is the embodiment, not of sentiment,
but of history.
---Woodrow Wilson

07-09-03, 10:47 PM
I think one of the most disheartening things in WWII, we all had the knowledge that Guam and the Philippines would be lost, however there was still hope for those on Wake Island. A Convoy was...