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Courtesy Ken Hooper

Folks at VFW Post 97 in southeast Bakersfield were amazed when a man walked in off the street and turned in a box containing a Purple Heart. The rear of the medal was dated Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day.

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Courtesy Ken Hooper

Folks at VFW Post 97 in southeast Bakersfield were amazed when a man walked in off the street and turned in a box containing a Purple Heart. The rear of the medal was dated Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day.

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Courtesy Kris Wilson

Mark Bates, of Wills Point, Texas, is the nephew of the late Navy seaman Robert Bates. Mark Bates is expected to take possession of his uncle's Purple Heart medal, which was inexplicably found on a street in Bakersfield.

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Courtesy Kris Wilson

Kris Wilson, pictured here with her granddaughter Nadia Rae McDermott, is a niece of Purple Heart recipient Robert Bates, who was killed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

For those who have worn the uniform of the U.S. armed forces, a Purple Heart is more than just a keepsake.

The medal, awarded to those who have been wounded or killed in action, is considered precious -- perhaps even sacred.

That's why the folks at VFW Post 97 in southeast Bakersfield were astounded when a man walked in off the street and handed over a box he had found a few weeks ago on Union Avenue, not far from the post.

Inside the box, among other items, was an old, time-worn Purple Heart -- a medal without an owner.

"Something like this is very precious to us," said Bill Potter, senior vice commander of Post 97. "We want to make sure the medal is returned to the family."

But there were few clues to go on. Engraved on the reverse side of the medal is the name Robert A. Bates. There's also an abbreviation believed to signify the rating "pharmacist's mate," and the letters "USN," meaning Bates had served in the United States Navy.

Also engraved on the medal is a date: Dec. 7, 1941 -- the day the Japanese navy launched a surprise and devastating attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet docked at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. That attack forced America into World War II.

The veterans at Post 97 knew they needed help to unravel the mystery of the lost Purple Heart, Potter said, so they called Ken Hooper, the Bakersfield High School teacher who for years has enlisted the help of students to research local history, including a lot of military history.

Austin Erwin, 18, a senior in Hooper's archiving class, said students used online search tools to begin tracking the family of Robert Bates.

The search soon expanded to include the National Archives website, amateur genealogists from around the country, the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, and a newspaperman in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Hooper learned that Bates was aboard the doomed battleship Arizona when it was sunk. Like hundreds of his fellow crewmen, his body was never recovered.

An apparent misspelling of Bates' name on the memorial in Hawaii caused confusion.

But after more digging, a few trips down blind alleys and a lot of help from others, Hooper reached Kris Wilson of Brownsboro, Texas.

Wilson, 47, turned out to be Bates' niece. And she was floored by what she was hearing.

Although she never knew her uncle, she and her brother, Mark Bates, of Wills Point, Texas, had long sought more complete information, not only about Robert Bates, but about other members of their family as well.

There had been divorces, deaths, estrangements and lost connections. And they felt a hole existed where there should be something of meaning and substance: family.

"This is such an amazing story," she said. "Mr Hooper is a pretty amazing guy.

"For over 20 years, we've tried to find the missing pieces of my dad's family," she said.

Besides making the connection with her "Uncle Bob," the research opened doors of communication with cousins in Virginia and revealed the location of her grandmother's grave -- "just 45 minutes from us in Longview," she said.

The phone call with Wilson, Hooper said, was emotional. Family history lost for so long to one side of the family had suddenly been found. Something as simple as being able to visit the grave of her father's mother had been made possible.

The joy was almost too much to bear.

"I lost it," Hooper said. "We both started crying."

And like a pebble tossed in a pond, the ripples keep flowing outward, he said.

No one is quite sure how the medal ended up where it was found.

But thanks to support from the Kern County chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, and some local individuals, Hooper and a member of the chapter have been chosen to fly to Texas and hand-deliver the lost medal to Wilson and her elder brother, Mark Bates, a Marine Corps veteran who will keep the Purple Heart safe to be handed down to succeeding generations.

The siblings' father, Herbert Bates, died in the early 1990s. The family doesn't even have a photo of Robert, who was only 22 when he went down with the Arizona.

"He loved his brother," Mark Bates said of his dad. "He never really got over the loss."

Both Bates and his sister had high praise for those in Bakersfield and elsewhere who worked with no expectation of reward to return the Purple Heart to its rightful place.

"I sure do thank them for all the work they did," said Mark Bates.

Erwin, the BHS student who participated in the search, said the experience was indeed rewarding.

"It's really one of those moments," he said, "when you get to feel like you're doing something important."