An American flag, handmade by Mexican American Cpl. Joseph O. “Jose” Quintero, with the help of other prisoners of war (POW) while held in a Japanese camp during World War II, was recently added to the collections of the National Museum of American History from the Smithsonian.
The Texas-born son of Mexican immigrants, Quintero joined the United States Army a year after the United States entered the war and was sent to fight in the Philippines in the Bataan and Corregidor campaigns. Quintero would earn a silver star for his efforts in the defense of the island of Corregidor, which fell to the Japanese in 1942. After Corregidor surrendered, the Japanese armed forces captured the surviving American soldiers, transporting them to the Japan on what was described as a ‘ship from hell’ at the Niigata POW camp, located on the island of Honshu, Japan.
Quintero’s decision to fashion an American flag was meant to create a personal representation of patriotism and hope. His flag became a public symbol of the POW experience when Quintero, who had moved to New Mexico after the war, entrusted his treasure to former National Guard Lt. Gen. Edward Baca in the mid-1980s. 1990. Baca traveled to every state, displaying the flag during discussions of the role of Hispanics and New Mexico in military history. Following Baca’s death in the fall of 2020, his family fulfilled their long-held wish that the flag be entrusted to the Smithsonian’s flagship history museum. Following a September 8, 2021 ceremony in New Mexico, the flag was donated to the museum.
“Not only does each dot on this flag represent Quintero’s patriotism, but it also saved his life and the lives of his fellow prisoners of war because their camp did not appear on Allied maps,” said curator Jennifer Jones. “We are honored to accept it into the collection of national flags because it stands out as a one-of-a-kind gift. There is no other flag in our extensive collection with this kind of history.
“I so enjoyed watching Old Glory reach for the sky,” Quintero said in the book, Don José: The Courage and Faith of an American Soldier in Japanese Captivity, by Ezequiel L. Ortiz and James A. McClure. “When our mast was destroyed in Bataan, I promised myself that one day I would wave the stars and stripes in the faces of the Japanese people.”
Quintero told Ortiz and McClure that he would watch Japanese bombers blow up the American flag poles. Despite his imprisonment, Quintero worked underground to fulfill his promise to wave the American flag when the war ended.
While working in the camp infirmary, he befriended a Canadian POW who worked in the laundry room doing repairs on clothing and thus had access to a sewing machine. Quintero pieced together the flag from materials gathered around the camp. The red and white stripes were fashioned from sheets and blankets and the blue canton was fashioned from a pair of overalls issued to soldiers. He turned a bamboo prod that camp guards used to beat American prisoners into the flag pole. Quintero hid the flag under the floorboards under his bed.
On August 14, 1945, the Japanese Emperor addressed the nation, conceding defeat and announcing that the war was over. When the POWs learned of this, Quintero said, “I dug up my hidden flag and ran into the compound yard waving Old Glory.” Hearing the sound of American planes flying overhead, he climbed to the top of a camp building and waved the flag. As reported by witnesses, the American pilot of one such aircraft continued to fly, tilting his wings to acknowledge that he had spotted the flag-waving Quintero.
In New Mexico, where many veterans of the Bataan and Corregidor campaigns had settled, Quintero became a hospital technician at the local veterans’ hospital in Albuquerque, married, and raised four children.
Through unparalleled collections, rigorous research, and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History seeks to empower people to create a more just and compassionate future by examining, preserving, and sharing the complexity of our past. The museum is located on Constitution Avenue NW, between 12th and 14th streets. Admission is free and no pass is required. The doors to the museum are always open online, and the virtual museum continues to expand its offerings, including online exhibits, materials, and K-12 educational programs. The public can follow the museum on social networks at Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. For more information and museum hours, go to https://americanhistory.si.edu. For information about the Smithsonian, the public can call (202) 633-1000.
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