Remains of Korean War POW coming home to Cambridge
US Army Corporal Ronald M. Sparks spent his last night in Cambridge more than 65 years ago, baby-sitting for his three young nephews before he left to fight in the Korean War.
The night made a lasting impression on one of the boys, 3-year-old Bob, who woke up and found Sparks reading a newspaper in his family’s living room.
Sparks, who was 19 then, never returned.
But Bob, who met Sparks for the first and only time that night, has found his lost uncle and is bringing him home decades after he died in a prisoner-of-war camp in North Korea.
“I’m so pleased to have brought an American hero home,” said Bob Sparks. “I feel like I’ve done something for Ron.”
The remains of the soldier, who died in May 1951 at age 20, are being flown Tuesday to Logan International Airport from Hawaii, where Sparks had been interred until scientists at a military lab recently identified his body through DNA testing.
Sparks, who received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, will be honored with a procession passing by his former home on River Street in Cambridge followed by a ceremony at Cambridge City Hall, said Neil MacInnes-Barker, director of the city’s Veterans’ Services Department.
Bob Sparks said he began searching for the lost soldier 11 years ago. His father, Bill, was dying and left his son with a mission: Find your Uncle Ron.
“On his death bed, he squeezed my hand and he said, ‘I know you will do everything,’ ” said Sparks, 68, who lives in Edgartown. “Then he breathed his last breath, and he was gone.”
At the time, Sparks said his family knew little about what had become of his uncle.
Initially, his relatives were told that Ronald Sparks went missing in 1951 when his unit was overrun by Chinese forces who backed the North Koreans. After the war, the family learned he had been wounded in that confrontation and was last seen being led away by Chinese troops. Ronald Sparks was presumed dead.
Bob Sparks said his grandparents, Herbert and Betty, contacted their son’s Army pals to try to learn more about what happened to him. They bought an extra grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett so Ronald could be buried with them and his brother, Clifford, who had been struck and killed by a car as a child.
“His parents died heartbroken,” Bob Sparks said. “Up until the very end that’s what they asked [my father]: ‘Bill, Don’t give up on Ron.’ ”
A few months after his father’s death, Bob Sparks said he visited the Pentagon and got assistance from the Army’s Past Conflict Repatriations Branch, which is devoted to identifying unaccounted-for soldiers.
The organization runs a DNA database, and a few years ago, Bob Sparks said he and his 41-year-old son, Jared, submitted samples for testing.
In June, the military called and said Jared’s DNA matched an unknown soldier whose remains had been buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii after the Korean War.
Bob Sparks had found the uncle who had saluted him in his family’s Fairmont Street apartment before tucking him into bed during their only meeting decades before.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” he said. “We’re going to have a funeral, and it’s going to be sad and there’ll be lots of tears, but there’s so much joy to bringing Ron home.”
Among those who plan to attend the ceremony in Cambridge is Moses Moore, 84, who went to the former Houghton Grammar School with Sparks.
Moore said he knew his childhood friend, who was nicknamed Sparky, had died in the Korean War, but had no idea that his body had been missing for 65 years.
“I’m just so happy that he’s going to be coming home,” Moore said. “They always said they will leave no one behind.”
The ceremony in Cambridge is also expected to draw members of the area’s South Korean community and South Korea’s consul general in Boston, who plans to present Sparks’s family with an award, according to the Rev. Paul Kim, pastor emeritus at Antioch Baptist Church in Cambridge.
“We are all indebted to someone like Ronald Sparks who gave his life for our country’s freedom,” said Kim, an Army veteran who was born in South Korea. “His life is so special to us.”
A wake is planned for Thursday evening at DeVito Funeral Home in Arlington, followed by burial Friday morning at Woodlawn Cemetery, according to Sparks’s obituary. His siblings, Irene and Lawrence, plan to attend, Bob Sparks said.
MacInnes-Barker said 190 Massachusetts soldiers who served in the Korean War remain unaccounted for, including two Marines from Cambridge.
Bob Sparks encouraged the families of unaccounted-for service members to ask the military for help.
“One thing I learned is that they never, never gave up,” he said. “These are not forgotten soldiers.”