Debbie Beck kept her uncle’s flag in a box in her Davenport garage for 30 years.
Even before William Kulbieda, Beck’s uncle and godfather, died in 1984, she had that flag.
Beck had no idea until Tuesday that the Japanese Imperial battle flag she had casually tucked onto a shelf in her garage is an important piece of military history. In fact, she didn’t even know it wasn’t still in her garage.
She was unaware it had been donated to the Davenport Goodwill store, where workers recognized the flag could have value and put it up for auction on the Goodwill website. When the bidding exceeded $4,000, Goodwill put the brakes on the sale.
“When I discovered the item was an important part of our military history, our retail leadership team didn’t feel right about selling the flag,” said Jason Wilcox, Goodwill’s e-commerce leader.
He contacted the National World War II Museum in New Orleans and offered the relic as a donation.
Told of the discovery Tuesday, Beck shuffled details in her mind until she arrived at the only possible conclusion: Shortly before her mother passed away in April, her son came from Las Vegas for a visit and to offer support. Eager to help his mother, he cleaned out her garage.
“I’ll bet that flag got caught up in that stuff that he took to the Goodwill,” Beck said. “He would feel so bad if it had been destroyed. I feel good, and I know he’ll feel good, too, that it’s going to the museum.
“Maybe this was meant to happen.”
Toni Kiser, assistant director of collections and exhibits for the National World War II Museum (formerly the National D-Day Museum), said flags from the wars are fairly common. The one that belonged to Kulbieda is not.
“What’s more interesting is they wrote on it — where it was captured and what unit captured it,” she said. “For us, we’re mostly looking for flags like that that are one-of-a-kind. We do love to get these, because they are rare.”
It is likely the museum would add Beck’s family photos of her uncle to the museum’s exhibit, Kiser said, adding it could be included in next year’s 70th anniversary of the U.S. Marine Island Hopping Campaign.
The campaign included the island of Tarawa, which is where Kulbieda captured the flag in his unit’s campaign to push the Japanese back from the series of islands.
“Uncle Bill gave it to my dad, and my dad gave it to me,” Beck said of the trophy. “My son was Dad’s only grandson, and he was always giving things to me.”
Beck was close to her parents and to her uncles.
Her dad, Henry “Hank” Kulbieda and his three brothers, William, Stanley and Walter, all served in World War II. Her Uncle Bill was the only brother to serve in the South Pacific while the others were assigned to the European theater.
Beck wasn’t the only recipient of her Uncle Bill’s military memorabilia.
Her sister, Connie Kulbieda, also of Davenport, has a relic from the war that she treasures.
“I have Uncle Bill’s prayer book, which he had in his breast pocket when he was shot,” she said Tuesday. “It has a plate over it, and you can see where the bullet hit the plate and didn’t go through.
“The bullet would have gone through his chest.”
She called her father and his three brothers “remarkable men,” adding that they rarely spoke of “the bad stuff” from the war. Instead, her father kept the good memories alive.
“Amazingly, they all made it back home,” Beck said.
William Kulbieda and dozens of his fellow Marines received the Silver Star after the battle to take back Tarawa. He died in 1984 and is buried in Niles, Ill.
Bill and Hank were twins, and they made a point of visiting each other about once a month, Beck said.
“I’m glad the flag is going into a museum,” she said. “Maybe it was an accident that was meant to be.”