STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It took 65 years to find out what happened to Robert Dakin. He left home in 1950. He went off to serve in the Korean War as a sergeant in the United States Army. He fought in one of the most tragic and haunting battles in American history. And he was declared MIA - missing in action. His family has waited generations for news of him. And they spoke with Lisa Mullins of member station WBUR in Boston.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Here thousands of Marines and other United Nations forces are trapped by overwhelming masses of Chinese reds who encircled them near the Changjin Reservoir.
LISA MULLINS, BYLINE: In the winter of 1950, Chinese forces stampeded across the frozen border with North Korea. American troops were surrounded and outnumbered.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: In the subzero weather, they make camp.
MULLINS: It became known as The Battle of The Chosin Reservoir. It left thousands of American soldiers and Marines dead or wounded. Many Americans just went missing for decades. Among them was 22-year-old Sgt. Robert Dakin of Waltham, Mass.
DAVID CLINE: Bob was the apple of my grandmother's eye. I mean, she was just so proud of, you know, what he could do.
MULLINS: David Cline never met his uncle, Bob Dakin. He was born two years after Dakin disappeared. But the man is legend to him and to David's siblings and their children. They all know the lore of Uncle Bob. Bob Dakin was born in 1928 in working-class Waltham, not far from Boston. He was the only boy with four sisters. When Dakin was a teenager he helped his father deliver huge blocks of ice off their truck. He had the muscle for it. He was a star athlete in football, basketball and track. His mother, Louise, was always in the stands to watch him. And at home he watched over her when his father became abusive.
CLINE: This picture here I believe was taken in 1949. He's in his Army uniform. He's in front of his barracks.
MULLINS: David Cline's proud to show off what snapshots he has of his uncle.
CLINE: There's another one. Oh, here it is here actually. Yeah, so you can see how tall he is next to the other GI - that he's at least a foot taller. That's why I'm kind of stunned. I thought he could have got out of any scrap he got into.
MULLINS: But he couldn't get out of the one at Chosin Reservoir.
CLINE: My grandmother always held out hope that he was a prisoner of war. But we kind of knew differently that he was probably had passed and dead.
MULLINS: Bob's mother kept a sketch of him hanging over her bed. She wrote letters to the Army and implored officials to find her son. All she heard back was that they'd tell her if they found anything. The family felt a void year after year. Thanksgivings were especially hard. The nephew, David Cline, says there were other problems. Sgt. Dakin's father was abusive at home. Family members moved away. Lives came apart. Relatives lost touch. The fact that Dakin was missing somewhere in Korea made things harder. And it wasn't only family that felt the loss.
LORNE MACARTHUR: I met Bob Dakin when we were in the ninth grade together at the North Junior High School here in Waltham.
MULLINS: Lorne MacArthur is 87 years old now.
MACARTHUR: Bob missing in action really, really affected me greatly. I don't think a day ever went by that I didn't think of him - ever. Missing in action, no body, a war so far away. The war that - the forgotten war they called it.
MULLINS: MacArthur became superintendent in the Waltham public schools. Twenty-five years after his friend went missing, MacArthur created an award to be presented every year to the outstanding athlete who ran cross-country. He called it the Bob Dakin Award.
MACARTHUR: Bob's mother called me. And she said, Lorne, after 25 years I thought everyone had forgotten except for me, and my heart's been broken over all these years. And she was crying.
MULLINS: It wasn't until 20 years after that that North Korea turned over the remains of hundreds of American troops. There were 208 boxes. Each box contained the bones of several men. The military laboratory at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii had the tough job of identifying the remains. It was a painfully slow process. The lab first got some of Sgt. Dakin's bones back in 1993 then more in 1999 and over the next two years. But it was only last November that David Cline and his family got news that the remains of his uncle, Bob Dakin, had been positively identified.
CLINE: I just wish the government had worked a little quicker.
MULLINS: It was too late for Sgt. Dakin's mother. She died 14 years ago.
CLINE: I realize that it was a daunting task for them to take all these GIs' remains and sort it out and do the DNA. But to give her hope, even to go to her and ask her for her DNA would have been just so much, because I know in her dying breath she waited for Bob and wanted to know something that he wasn't laying in a foreign soil forgotten about.
MULLINS: Last December, 65 years to the day after Sgt. Robert Dakin went missing in Korea, his hometown celebrated his return. Hundreds of people lined the sidewalks and waved American flags.
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MULLINS: Uniformed soldiers and veterans on Harleys formed a procession. Pallbearers lifted Dakin's casket into a horse-drawn carriage that made its way to the church for a funeral mass and finally to the cemetery. Bob Dakin's nieces and nephews and their children came in from across the country to honor him, too. David Cline says it was the first time they'd seen each other in years.
CLINE: We only had Bob's remains that really kind of brought the family back together. It was the missing link. I think my grandmother would be so proud of her family knowing that we stepped up and we did what was right for Bob and the family. We gave Bob closure.
MULLINS: In one last gesture, the family buried the ashes of Bob's mother, Louise Dakin, with her son who's finally home. For NPR News, I'm Lisa Mullins in Boston.
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