With tears streaming down her face, Ester Reed gently placed her fingers on a display case of military honors awarded to her long-lost love, Robert M. Williford.
"Bob was the love of my life," she said softly.
Reed's pain resurfaced Saturday, Nov. 2, during a medal presentation at the American Legion Post 75 in Cortez. Turns out, a Purple Heart and other medals awarded to her fiancée nearly 70 years ago were discovered last fall by a complete stranger at the base of a tree outside of Mena, Ark. Reed had no idea the medals existed.
"After Bob's parents passed away, his aunt, Viola, and her husband eventually moved to Mena," Reed said. "I'm assuming she had the medals, but I have no idea how they got out into the woods."
Williford disappeared while aboard the USS Scorpion in 1944. Attacked by Japanese forces on three attempts, the vessel was last seen on its fourth World War II mission on Jan. 5. The day Reed heard the news that her 19-year-old lover was killed in action was forever carved into her soul.
"It was a long time ago," Reed said, wiping tears. "I'm just glad Bob has been given so much honor."
Although it's unclear how the medals disappeared into a forest near the Arkansas-Oklahoma line, the discovery by a hunter was most shocking to Williford's living relatives. Everett Williford, nephew to the lost submariner, recalled seeing photographs of his uncle's military service inside his grandmother's home, but he too had no idea the combat medals even existed.
"Nobody in the family knew about the medals," he said.
The military honors finally returned home to Cortez on Saturday, thanks to members of the Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado Patriot Guard Riders. Representatives from each chapter hand delivered the case, relinquishing custody at the appropriate state lines.
"These medals mean the world," said Rick Romero, captain of the New Mexico Patriot Guard Riders. "They were fought for and earned."
After there discovery, the medals were turned over to an Arkansas funeral home, and a yearlong search ensued to discover what happened to the man whose name was engraved on the medals. With the help of some Internet magic, Wayne Williford, a nephew of the vanished submariner was located in Cortez.
"It sounds like an old episode of Unsolved Mysteries," said Ken Hoyle, Ute Mountain Post 75 Adjutant.
In addition to the engraved Purple Heart, other honors found in Arkansas included an Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, a World War II Victory Medal, a WWII Navy Good Conduct Medal and an American Campaign Medal.
Petty Officer Robert Roland Williford was a Motor Machinist Mate 3rd Class in the U.S. Navy. Assigned to the USS Scorpion SS-278, the vessel was credited with sinking a Japanese gunboat, freighter, passenger-cargo ship, merchant vessel, two combat vessels and destroying multiple sampans, or flat-bottom boats.
Either in the East China Sea or Yellow Sea, crews aboard the USS Herring last sighted the Scorpion on Jan. 5, 1944. Never heard from again, the Navy vessel, which had previously came under attack on at least three occasions, was declared lost on March 6, 1944, 18-months after commissioning.
Awarded three battle stars, the USS Scorpion was one of 20 boats of her class lost in combat in World War II. Seventy-eight sailors were assigned to the Scorpion.