INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — “You can only consider yourself alive if you actually go out and live.”
That’s what I told myself one Thursday in May. It’s not like I went out and skydived, traveled abroad or anything like that. It was a simple trip, just me finally making the journey from south Kansas City to Independence to see the Truman Library and Museum — a place I wanted to visit since moving here three years ago.
I walked in, bought my ticket, and watched the short film that highlighted the 33rd president’s life. Upon entering the exhibits from the theater, a woman asked if I could take her and her husband’s picture by a flag.
Without hesitation, I snapped several photos — landscape and portrait — and handed the iPad back to her.
“My father made this,” said the husband, Jim Bass, as he gazed at the hand stitched, 48-star American flag.
Jim and his wife Sue are from Macon, Georgia, and were visiting the library for the second time. The first time the family was in Independence came shortly after Jim learned of the piece of history created by a familiar face.
Jim’s father, Luther Bass, was a prisoner of war in Japan during World War II. After his father’s death, Jim’s aunt told him that Luther made a flag while overseas in the prison camp.
“About seven years ago, I just googled him,” Jim Bass said. “I Googled Luther Bass POW.' All this stuff pops up about what camp he was in, ship he was on with all their names. In the corner, it said, 'Camp flag sewn by Luther Bass on August 26,1945 when parachutes dropped.'”
The Basses learned Luther’s flag was on display at the Truman Presidential Library and Museum and made arrangements to come visit.
Private Luther D. Bass
According to his son, Luther was in college studying to be a chemical engineer when the United States entered World War II. He was drafted and sent to the Philippines. In April 1942, the U.S. surrendered the Bataan Peninsula, located on the Philippine island Luzon, to the Japanese. Nearly 75,000 Filipino and American troops, including Luther, were forced to walk 65 miles to prison camps. Many died during the walk due to harsh treatment by their captors. It became known as the Bataan Death March.
Jim said his father was sent to Japan to work as a slave in the mines.
“I asked him one time, ‘How did you survive?’ He said, ‘Well I had to get home. I had brothers and sisters that I had to raise,'” Jim said.
Survival came through sewing, a self taught skill.
“Some days, they would hold him out to sew, which extended his life not having to be in the mines. The Japanese guards would slip material to him and he’d sew clothes for their children so they then would slip medicine to him to keep him alive,” Jim said.
On Aug. 14, 1945, the Japanese surrendered — ending the war.
Clay Bauske, curator at the Truman Library and Museum, says the flag of liberation was an important artifact from the war.
“He (Bass) stitched it together from the parachutes that had been used to drop supplies to the camp survivors between the time the Japanese surrendered and the time American troops could get in and actually liberate the camps," Bauske said.
A photo was taken on Aug. 26, 1945, with Luther Bass and the rest of Camp No. 8. The formal surrender ceremony wasn’t until Sept. 2, 1945, on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbor.
How the Flag came to Missouri
In 1973, Earl Short contacted the Truman Presidential Library and Museum. Short was a POW during World War II and the highest ranking official at Camp No. 8, the same camp as Luther Bass.
Short gave the library the flag Bass created and a scrapbook that documented what happened during World War II. The flag has been on display in the museum since 2001.
“We don’t really know too much,” Bauske said when asked about Bass and the other POWs. “The only person we actually know about is Earl Short, who was the senior officer at this camp.
"There were about 70 people represented in this photograph of the flag and that’s about all we know. We do have in this collection a scrapbook from Earl Short that sort of recounts some of his experiences as a POW during the war.”
The Flag Today
Bauske said the flag, along with other artifacts, will be removed soon so the museum can go through a complete renovation, but will remain in the museum’s possession for research and study.
“We’re going to do what museum people call ‘give the flag a rest,’ and take it out of the light,” Bauske said.
The flag will most likely make another appearance at a later date in a special exhibit.
On the second trip, it was just Jim and Sue and the visit brought on different emotions. Jim said his father only weighed around 80 pounds and was in the hospital for six months after his return to the U.S.
“The things he saw, a man’s eyes shouldn’t see,” Jim said. “So really, this time I was thinking about his condition both mental and physically to be able find what it took to do something like that.”
What would Luther Bass have thought if he’d known his flag would live on?
“He would be astounded,” Sue said. “Growing up, he said very little, but most men didn't talk about their war experience.”
“Healthy and Strong”
“You never know when they’ll take it down,” Jim said during his May visit. “You never know when your health is gonna reach a drought. So while we’re both healthy and strong.”
What he said modeled my thought early that day. At the end of it all, I gained new insight to President Truman and World War II, while making two new friends. HIstory hits different when it’s personal.
Explore what’s around you - you’ll never know what or who you will find.