From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Stars and Stripes from Odds and Ends

It is the Fourth of July, and Pleasantville, Iowa, is staging its annual parade. People flock from neighboring towns to join in the celebration. American flags are flying everywhere, as they are in towns and cities all across America on this Independence Day. In the home of Keith and Billie Davis, their own Stars and Stripes are carefully displayed in the front window—for the first time in fifty-four years.

This isn’t just any flag. This flag has a story. If you peer at the white stripes, which after all these years have become a bit dingy, you can make out twenty-five faded signatures. The blue of the flag is faded, too, but the red is as bright and brilliant as it was on those long-gone days in 1945. . . .

The war was just over. Staff Sergeant Keith Davis and the two dozen soldiers in his platoon had seen plenty of combat in the months before the end of World War II. They’d watched men die—friend as well as enemy—and they were thankful that, with Germany’s surrender, those days were finally over.

Their new mission was to maintain order in a tiny German village populated by a few farmers and their families. It was a tedious time for that small group of soldiers, men from Alabama and California and Florida—a typical cross section of Americans—who wanted nothing more than to go home.

There wasn’t much to do in the town. Just maintain order. And wait.

The thing was, something important was missing for these soldiers. This unit had no flag.

Every morning, military units around the world raise the American flag, and every evening, they gather again, salute and bring it down.

It didn’t feel right not to have an American flag. This, they decided, would have to change.

The soldiers moved through the village, looking for help. They soon found a German seamstress—her name is long forgotten—and asked her to make their flag.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the woman was reluctant. She didn’t want to do it, she told the men, and, besides, there was no material.

“We’ll find some,” they said.

And they did. The blue came from a villager’s shirt, the white for the stars and the stripes, from a bed sheet. Red was a problem. Then somebody noticed a discarded German flag, the hated symbol of Nazism, the black swastika on a blazing banner of red.

The seamstress had her materials, and she agreed to do the job. She cut each of the white stars and carefully sewed them on the blue of the shirt; forty-eight stitched on each side of the flag. And then she cut and sewed the red strips along with the white of the bed sheet. Reluctant this seamstress may have been, but she took pride in her work; the result was a magnificent American flag.

Within days, the men in Davis’s platoon were flying their flag over their small headquarters. Each morning, they brought the Germans to the center of town and saluted as the flag was raised. Each night it came down. Daily, the flag kindled their pride in their country; it reminded them, in that strange land far from home, of what they held dear, of why they had fought this terrible war.

When the orders finally came and the soldiers prepared to head home, Davis had each man in the unit sign his name and hometown on the white stripes. Then he packed this remarkable flag away and brought it back to Iowa.

For over half a century, the flag was stored in a closet, wrapped in tissue paper, tucked inside a brown bag. Keith hardly mentioned it. His wife, Billie, would get it out once a year and air it out, turning it over gently in her hands. She would marvel at the skill of the seamstress, who had double-sewn the seams along the stripes with a finesse that even Billie, who had sewn all her life, felt she could not have matched.

Then, after all those years, when Keith’s health started to fail, he began to talk about the unusual origin of their flag. And Keith and Billie agreed that now was the time for more people to hear about it and share in their memory.

So in 1999, for the first time since it was saluted and lowered for the final time that day in Germany, the fine flag made from odds and ends was put on display again.

People who stopped and inquired that day in Pleasantville learned how an old shirt, a bed sheet and an enemy flag had been transformed—changed into a symbol that had the power to cheer two dozen GIs in a lonely German village as a hard but lasting peace fell on Europe so many years ago.

John Carlson

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