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Le Center, Minn. resident’s World War II keepsake turns out to be 400-year-old samurai sword

The sword's trip to Le Center, Minnesota is a story hundreds of years in the making.

The sword's trip to Le Center, Minnesota is a story hundreds of years in the making. KARE 11

Sam Traxler, an army vet with an interest in martial arts, had always been interested in his father’s antique samurai sword.

It had been sitting in Jeff Traxler's display case of World War II memorabilia for 20 years. Sam wanted to know what the characters engraved on the sword’s wooden tag actually meant.

Jeff Traxler had nothing but a shrug for him. The sword had been a gift from a friend, Jeff Fowler, whose late father brought it home as a souvenir from World War II. Fowler told KARE 11, he had been prepared to burn the blade along with a few other unwanted possessions, but spur of the moment, he offered it to Traxler instead. Traxler wouldn’t accept the blade without paying for it in some fashion, so Fowler let him dig him a septic system with the help of a backhoe. It had been on display at Traxler's hunting preserve clubhouse ever since.

Fowler's father, Colin, didn’t talk much about the war, and had never revealed how he got the sword in the first place. So when Sam expressed his curiosity and Jeff Traxler suggested he look into it, Sam and his girlfriend, Allie Trnka posted pictures of the sword on Reddit and asked for help with translation. That’s when Takashi Yano, a retired antique expert in Japan, got in touch with them.

This, it turns out, was no ordinary war souvenir. Yano determined the sword had been made in Nichinan City, somewhere between 400 and 500 years ago. Its original owner, he said, was the leader of the Ito Clan, which spent the majority of the 1400s and 1500s warring with the rival Shimazu Clan for control of the feudal stronghold, Obi Castle, and a large swath of southern Japan.

It's unclear where the sword went from there, or how it ended up in Colin Fowler’s hands. Plenty of prized Japanese blades ended up stateside after the war ended, and the U.S. decreed all Japanese families had to turn over their weapons -- including precious family heirlooms. The ruling was eventually overturned, but not before a lot of swords were dumped into Tokyo Bay, melted down, or smuggled home in the duffle bags of American soldiers.

The sword is, in a word, priceless. It could probably fetch the Traxlers and Fowler a good deal of money.

“...But we’re not interested in the money,” Jeff Traxler told The Mankato Free Press. “We just want to return it.”

Later this month, Sam and Allie will be taking a trip to Japan, paid for by the fundraising efforts of Nichinan’s residents. There, amid ceremony and pageantry, they will return the ancient sword to its town of origin and complete a journey up to 500 years in the making.

It isn't the first Japanese blade to find its way home after a layover in Minnesota. Orval Amdahl, a World War II vet who arrived in at the desolation of Nagasaki just days after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on it and killed 70,000 people, took a samurai sword from a warehouse of surrendered weapons back to Lanesboro with him. In 2013, Tadahiro Matomura, the son of the soldier who’d used that sword in battle, accepted it back from Amdahl during a ceremony at Como Park.