(ST. LOUIS) — Just in time for Memorial Day, a mystery that started with a surprise discovery by Goodwill in Missouri had a happy ending.
A box of World War II medals, awards and other mementos was discovered by MERS/Missouri Goodwill earlier this week.
Lewis Chartock, chief executive officer of MERS/Missouri Goodwill, said he believed the box was donated to Goodwill but was likely flagged by a processing person.
Ron Scanlon, Goodwill’s director of loss prevention, noticed the box when it made its way to the MERS/Missouri Goodwill headquarters in downtown St. Louis. He notified Chartock.
“He spotted it and understood it was important,” Chartock said.
“There’s all kinds of stuff. If you ever watch ‘Antiques Roadshow,’ you know they love to see all of this stuff together: a picture of the whole platoon, combat medals, and a Silver Star.”
A citation indicated the Silver Star was awarded to Sgt. James J. McKenzie, a Marine vet who was also a prisoner of war during World War II. McKenzie was born in St. Louis in 1918 and joined the Marines in October 1940. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch said McKenzie spent three and a half years imprisoned in Osaka, Japan, and was released as Japan surrendered in September 1945. He died in 1979 of lung cancer at age 60.
Following a “heavy Japanese artillery barrage” on Corregidor Island in the Philippines on April 13, 1942, McKenzie rescued his comrades as they were trapped in tunnels, the citation described.
“Disregarding the imminent danger of collapsing walls and roofs, Sgt. McKenzie heroically entered the tunnels, assisted in extricating trapped soldiers, and gave first aid to the wounded,” the citation said.
Workers from Goodwill found McKenzie’s last address and learned the home’s last owner was his daughter, Rebecca McKenzie. However, a demolition crew was gutting the home on Thursday and indicated that it was recently sold.
Chartolk’s staff contacted the home’s realtor, who gave them the name of a person who had helped clean out the house and eventually tracked down Mackenzie’s daughter-in-law, Deborah Anne Ellis, in Avon, Ind.
Ellis directed the Goodwill to McKenzie’s daughter in Pollock Pines, Calif., Michele McKenzie.
When Chartolk called Michele McKenzie on Friday, she said she cried tears of joy.
Michele McKenzie, a retired attorney, said she is not sure how the Silver Star made its way to Goodwill. She said the last time she talked to her stepsister, Rebecca McKenzie, was about three weeks ago, but she did not know her current whereabouts.
Though Rebecca McKenzie was not related by blood to Sgt. McKenzie, Michele said he adopted Rebecca after his second marriage.
Rebecca McKenzie could not be reached for comment. Her mother, Sgt. McKenzie’s second wife, Toby McKenzie, died in 2006.
Michele’s younger brother, Sgt. McKenzie’s son, died two years ago.
Michele McKenzie’s parents, Sgt. McKenzie and Grace Francis “Mimi” Woodlock, had divorced when she was five-years old. Her mother died in 1994.
Though Michele McKenzie only saw her father on weekends and Wednesday nights, she said they had a close relationship.
She remembers when her father would pick her up from school in the third grade, when he was a salesman.
“Suddenly, I would see my father down on one knee in front of the school, screaming, ‘Mike’, which was a boy’s name, but I know he didn’t mean it that way,” she said. “I would drop my books and would run as fast as I could run to him.”
But he never wanted to talk about the war, even when she asked. Eventually, she and her mother moved to California in 1969 when Michele was 19 years old.
She knew her father was awarded the Silver Star, but after he died, her stepmother told her it was lost or stolen.
She and her husband weren’t sure what they are going to do with the mementos.
She said it’s a “sad thing” that her husband, named Jim, never met her father. When Michele McKenzie got married in 1976, she couldn’t fly because of a head injury and her father was sick and also couldn’t travel.
“They would have liked each other,” she said.
Michele McKenzie said she offered to have a notary send proof to Chartock that she is Sgt. McKenzie’s daughter.
When asked how she might feel when she first sees her father’s mementos, she said, “Hold onto them and kiss them — something like that.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Debra Goldschmidt, CNN
Lorenzo Ferrigno, CNN
Andreas Preuss, CNN
Dylan Byers Sara Murray and Kevin Liptak, CNN