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Remains Of Cambridge Soldier Killed During Korean War Returned Home 65 Years Later04:14
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Tyler Cataldo, 7, holds an American flag and a sign to honor Army Cpl. Ronald Sparks, whose remains were finally returned home on Tuesday, 65 years after he died in a North Korean POW camp at 20 years old. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Tyler Cataldo, 7, holds an American flag and a sign to honor Army Cpl. Ronald Sparks, whose remains were finally returned home on Tuesday, 65 years after he died in a North Korean POW camp at 20 years old. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
This article is more than 4 years old.

A Cambridge soldier who died 65 years ago in a prisoner of war camp in North Korea received a somber welcome home on Tuesday.

For years, the body of Army Cpl. Ronald Sparks lay unidentified at the National Memorial Cemetery in Hawaii. That was until the Army was able to positively identify his remains through a DNA match with his nephew.

The motorcade carrying the remains of Cpl. Ronald Sparks arrives at Cambridge City Hall Tuesday. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The motorcade carrying the remains of Cpl. Ronald Sparks arrives at Cambridge City Hall Tuesday. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Dozens of soldiers, police officers, firefighters, city employees and ordinary citizens stood at attention as the hearse carrying Sparks' remains rolled up Massachusetts Avenue through Central Square Tuesday morning, before pausing in front of Cambridge City Hall.

Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons greeted the Sparks family on behalf of the city.

"I wanted to present you with a proclamation from the city of Cambridge in honor of your fallen family member," Simmons said to Ronald Sparks' youngest sister, Irene. "I want you to always know that we have pride and commemoration for his sacrifice, for your family's sacrifice."

With tears in her eyes Irene Sparks accepted the proclamation, and a plaque from the Republic of South Korea in honor of her older brother, who died when he was 20 years old. Irene Sparks was just 5 when she learned her brother had gone off to war, never to return home alive.

"I'm very happy getting my brother home," Irene Sparks said. "We're going to lay him to rest soon."

Ronald Sparks' sister, Irene, and her family were presented with a plaque honoring the memory and service of her older brother. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Ronald Sparks' sister, Irene, and her family were presented with a plaque honoring the memory and service of her older brother. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

It was a promise Ronald Sparks' nephew, Bob, made more than a decade ago that lead to Tuesday's homecoming. Bob Sparks promised his dying father that he would keep looking for an uncle he only remembers meeting once, when he was only 3 years old.

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"I woke up in my bedroom that I shared with my brother Billy, and I found a stranger in the living room," Bob Sparks told reporters gathered in front of Cambridge City Hall Tuesday. "But I looked into his eyes and he looked very familiar, because he looked just like my dad. And I wasn't frightened because he was a stranger, because I knew there was something familiar about him. He picked me up and he asked me, he said, 'Are you Billy?' and I said, 'No, I'm Bobby.' I said, 'Are you a soldier?' and he said yes, he was going away. And I said, 'Where ya going?' And he said 'There's a war on and I'm a soldier.'

"And it wasn't until 50 years later when my dad on his death bed asked me to find Ronnie," Bob Sparks continued. "I knew there was a reason that I woke up that night and looked into his eyes. So I knew Ronnie. I knew his face. I knew what he looked like. And somehow I knew that my dad knew that I would find him."

Bob Sparks and his son gave DNA samples to the military several years back, but he never thought he'd receive the call he got two months ago saying it was a 100 percent match — that they had positively identified Ronald Sparks.

The scene outside of Cambridge City Hall Tuesday during the ceremony to honor the return of Cpl. Ronald Sparks' remains. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The scene outside of Cambridge City Hall Tuesday during the ceremony to honor the return of Cpl. Ronald Sparks' remains. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"My throat tightened, my eyes welled up, and I had to call back because I couldn't speak. It was such overwhelming joy that I just couldn't speak," Bob Sparks said. "I knew that 65 years after falling in the service of his country, 11 years after my dad asking me to find him, we found him. And he was coming home. And today he's home, he's back here in Cambridge."

From City Hall, the cortege passed Ronald Sparks' childhood home on River Street as citizens lined the route holding American flags.

A wake will be held on Thursday, and on Friday Ronald Sparks will be buried with full military honors, next to his parents at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett.

This segment aired on August 16, 2016.

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Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's senior State House reporter.

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