Orval Amdahl of Lanesboro wields the katana or “samurai sword” he took from a Nagasaki warehouse in 1945 while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. Following a search for the original owner of the sword, it will be given back to Tadahiro Motomura, the grandson of its original owner. A “return of the sword” ceremony will take place on Saturday, Sept. 21, near the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden in St. Paul as organized by the St. Paul-Nagasaki Sister City Committee. ANTON ADAMEK/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
Orval Amdahl of Lanesboro wields the katana or “samurai sword” he took from a Nagasaki warehouse in 1945 while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. Following a search for the original owner of the sword, it will be given back to Tadahiro Motomura, the grandson of its original owner. A “return of the sword” ceremony will take place on Saturday, Sept. 21, near the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden in St. Paul as organized by the St. Paul-Nagasaki Sister City Committee. ANTON ADAMEK/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
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Orval and Marie Amdahl enjoy watching PBS's Antiques Roadshow. The stories of forgotten heirlooms and priceless treasures discovered in attics and closets intrigue the Lanesboro couple just like those people on the show. The Amdahls haven't been on the show, but they do have a treasure of their own that is just as unique and even more meaningful on an international level.

Orval has had a sword sitting in his closet for 68 years. Every time he took it out to oil, he would see its leather-covered wooden scabbard. He would wrap both hands around the two-handed leather grip and feel the weight of 26 inches of steel. When sheathed, the three-foot sword would look like a cylinder with only a slight taper near the point. When drawn, the blade's singular edge would warn anyone near it to be careful.

Orval possessed a katana; a samurai sword. However, it wasn't his. Attached to both the hilt and scabbard were wooden tags with Japanese script inked on them. The 94-year-old Lanesboro man often wondered what the characters meant and whose sword it actually was.

Coming into possession of such a foreign product as the sword would not have occurred had Orval not enlisted into the Marine Corps in 1941. Growing up in Lanesboro and having graduated from Lanesboro High School, Orval's original intentions were to become a veterinarian. He attended St. Olaf College to major in biology, but he admitted, "Things didn't work out quite the way I wanted them."

Orval enlisted in the Marine Corps and was sworn in on May 5, 1941, and graduated from St. Olaf College on June 4, 1941. Prior to being called for officer training, Orval taught math in Lanesboro.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, Orval told the school district they would need to find a replacement for him. He left for training in Quantico, Va., in April of 1942.

While in Virginia, Orval underwent a time of both physically and mentally grueling preparation. "If you didn't cut the mustard, you got out," he stated.

He received his commission on June 14, 1942, and went into Reserve Officer Training for special weapons and heavy artillery until October.

Having a choice where to serve, Orval decided to head into the Pacific. "I felt I was called to serve my country," he expressed. "Personally, I wanted to retaliate."

He left for the Hawaiian Islands on Nov. 19, 1942, and became part of the First Marine Amphibious Corps in the 20mm anti-aircraft gun battery. Island-hopping, the corps made its way to Tulagi and then the Russell Islands, where they protected airstrips and harbors from Japanese who flew over the island to get to Guadacanal.

Orval said the corps was supposed to get some rest and recuperation in New Zealand, but was called into action at Enewetak in the Marshall Islands. There, Orval took over as captain of the 90mm gun battery. After 25 months of moving around the Pacific, Orval was able to be home in time for Christmas in 1944.

He had married Marie in 1942 after he received his commission and was happy to finally be home. "I figured I wouldn't get sent overseas again," he stated.

However, he got called back into field artillery training in Quantico and took over a battery in Saipan in June of 1945. During that time, military forces were preparing to invade Japan.

Orval's group was aboard a ship heading toward Japan when they heard about atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"We knew there was something big, but didn't know the truth about the bombs," he said.

Postponing entry, the group finally arrived in Nagasaki in October of 1945. "The devastation was unreal and I hope I never see it again," Orval recalled. While there, they faced no direct opposition by Japanese forces or the Kamikaze suicide-bombers.

At that point, Orval said the U.S. military was working with the Japanese. "Their way of life was different, but they were human beings," Orval added.

The sword

As part of his mission in Nagasaki, Orval and his group swept buildings for contraband and other items that could damage the military's security. Group members were also given typewritten index cards that gave signed sanction to take any item they so chose back home.

"I wouldn't say it was looting. We are allowed to go in and take a souvenir," explained Orval.

The group went into a warehouse located at the airfield in Omura, a city within the Nagasaki Prefecture or province. "You never seen so many swords," Orval said, explaining his observation of what his group saw upon entering. "I got in there and I was baffled."

The warehouse was filled with swords from Japanese military officers that the government had collected. As the rest of his group took up swords with ornate scabbards, Orval's eye was caught by a simple looking sword that laid on top of a nine-foot pile. Climbing up to the top, he grabbed it and saw the leather work on the handle and scabbard.

"I liked horses and figured it belonged to a cavalry man," he said. After bringing back the swords to camp, the other men discovered with dismay that many of their blades had severe damage and rust issues. "When I pulled out my sword, it was perfect. A beautiful samurai sword," he recalled.

He brought it home to Lanesboro and showed his family, but otherwise kept it in a closet, oiling the blade occasionally.

As the years passed, Orval wondered what the Japanese on the wood tags meant, but didn't decide to start investigating those meanings until around 10 years ago. Orval didn't have any contacts or people he knew who could help him figure out what the Japanese said and who the sword actually belonged to. Nagasaki was far away from Lanesboro and so the task began to seem nigh on impossible.

A "miracle" contact

While writing a book about a Nagasaki woman who had survived the atomic bomb blast as a small girl, writer and educator Caren Stelson was searching for Pacific-front veterans who had been in Nagasaki. During the summer of 2012, she made her way to the Minnesota History Center and the Oral History Collection, trying to find someone she could interview who was from Minnesota.

Her lone search result: Orval Amdahl.

"His name was the only one that popped up," she remarked.

After securing an interview and getting settled into the Amdahls' living room overlooking the Lanesboro valley, Orval asked Caren, "Would you like to see something?"

When he brought out the sword, Caren quickly realized, "My mission had changed. I was in a different story."

She told Orval she would be able to get the tags translated and possibly even find the family who owned the sword. What followed was a research experience she labeled as "kind of a miracle."

As it so happened, Caren was a member of the St. Paul-Nagasaki Sister City Committee. This city-to-city relationship is the oldest Asian-American relationship, having been formed in 1955 before President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced the International Sister City Affiliation program in 1956.

She connected with the vice-president of the Nagasaki-St.Paul Sister City Committee and told her Orval's story. Caren also gave her the family name of Motomura, which had been determined from translation of the tags and further family line research.

"It's not an uncommon name," explained Caren, who was wondering how long it would take to find the family. The vice-president compiled a list of Motomura families and called the first one. Bingo.

Tadahiro Motomura is the grandson of the sword's original owner, Yuisaki Isaku. When the phone call came, he was on his way to a family funeral and his wife had taken the call. Upon mentioning the word, "sword," Motomura became very interested.

"They knew about the sword," Caren continued. Motomura's father had died during the 1980s and the story of the sword had been left with his mother. According to Caren, the story followed that Isaku had been forced to give up the sword when Japan was disarming following the war. Motomura had been born the same year Orval took the sword home with him. Through his father and mother, he had learned of the missing sword.

Then, after 68 years, he was suddenly informed that the sword he had never seen before might be located in the United States.

Caren remembered asking the vice-president, "Are you sure? Are you sure?"

The family had been found in only a few hours time.

Orval was notified of the successful search and soon became wrapped up in plans he had never foreseen when he first showed the sword to Caren.

"For many years I had been wondering and thinking I would like to get rid of it and find out where it should belong," Orval explained.

International reconciliation

"We don't come across this sort of thing every day," remarked Jo Ann Blatchley, president of the St. Paul-Nagasaki Sister City Committee (SPNSCC).

Upon getting involved with helping Orval find the sword's owner, the SPNSCC has spared no effort in making sure this story builds upon an already "very active sister city relationship."

A "Return of the Sword" ceremony has been slated to take place on Saturday, Sept. 21, World Peace Day. According to Blatchley, the ceremony will be "an act of peace and reconciliation. People are getting involved in the friendship and I think it will be wonderful."

Several significant St. Paul-Nagasaki connections will be highlighted as part of the event. The ceremony is taking place in Como Park near the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden, which was designed by Nagasaki-native Masami Matsuda. Also nearby is a cherry tree grove started in 2012 as a 100-year-anniversary of the cherry tree gift to Washington, D.C.

"It's a perfect venue," said Blatchley.

Prior to the ceremony, Motomura and his family will arrive and take the opportunity to travel throughout the United States.

The event will begin on Saturday morning at 9 a.m. and will be emceed by Clifton Truman Daniel, a grandson of United States President Harry S. Truman. Daniel had been in contact with Orval about a book he was writing on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, which were ordered by his grandfather.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman will greet the crowd and the Japanese Consulate will also share words.

Then Orval and Motomura will exchange words via interpreters. "I don't know what I'll say, but I'll talk from the heart," stated Orval.

The sword will be returned to Motomura and his family. Afterward, Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Richie will share words during a private lunch for the families.

"This has gotten to be outside the realm of returning a sword," shared Orval. "It's gotten to be international."

The Japanese government normally does not allow weapons to pass through customs into the country. Motomura has been working to get the sword certified so he can actually bring it home.

Japanese sword expert Bill Rannow, who also worked on cleaning the sword, said returning weapons to Japan is very uncommon. "Most families don't want anything to do with the war," he shared.

However, the sword makes a great story Motomura will be able to share with the local newspapers in Japan. That may be easy since he is the president of the Nagasaki Shimbun newspaper.

If there are any issues with bringing the sword back, former U.S. Vice President and United States Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale has expressed his willingness to negotiate the sword's repatriation.

Expectations are that there will be no problems with Motomura returning with the sword. It has already become a symbol of peace between two nations and two peoples.

Upon returning

Despite living on a rural driveway high above a small Minnesota town, Orval has attracted the attention of several news media outlets and expects there will be more of the same following the ceremony.

Quietly, he and Marie will return home without the sword, which will be on its way to Japan for good. No longer will he need to oil the razor-sharp blade.

"I think this is a form of closure," he reflected.

A connecting piece to his days in the Pacific will be gone, yet in its place will be left an even stronger connection: a more human one. "It's going back to the rightful owner."

The story of the sword could not have started without a man receiving it while serving his country. It could not have been continued without Orval taking it home across the ocean. It could not have been rediscovered without Caren's summer visit. It could not have had its richness added without a deep sister-city connection. It will not be able to continue without its return to Japan and its family.

The story of the sword continues and throughout the future generations, a family will sit down and start telling it, from the beginning.