BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Strangers sat around a dining room table, brought together by a man who died nearly 70 years ago and never came home.
DiAnne Blouin scarcely remembers her Uncle Jakie. What she does remember is her mother and Jakie's mother sitting on the front porch talking about him while they waited for news.
Her brother Ellis James is a little older. He remembers Jakie's house where his Uncle Jakie lived in the 1940s.
"They had a large place, so we would play in the woods like kids do," Ellis remembers. "When Jakie joined the Army, I lost all contact with him."
Jakie Joseph Vignes joined the army in 1949, not long after his 17th birthday. At the time, the world was in relative peace. World War II had ended just four years earlier, and Jakie could hardly wait to join the Greatest Generation. Korea seemed a world away.
Jakie was stationed in Hawaii, then Japan, as part of General Douglas MacArthur's 25th Armored Reconnaissance Company. He helped keep the peace and rebuild the cities war had ruined. When the North Korean Army overran the 38th parallel dividing the communist north from the capitalist south touching off war on the small island, Jakie was in the first wave of American soldiers ordered to stop them. It was called Task Force Smith, and those 500 men made their stand near the Port of Pusan.
Jakie's position was overrun one day later, just a month short of his 18th birthday.
"My mother had gotten a telegram. It was a shock to all of us," said Ellis. "The telegram, as I remember it, was that he was captured and killed as soon as he was captured."
Jakie's body never came home. Ellis and DiAnne are the last remaining members of Jakie's family. They were left without even a picture to remember him.
The stranger at the table came to know Jakie in 1992. Maggie Madden was a sophomore at Woodlawn High School. Maggie remembers the day like it was yesterday.
"I'm just walking in the field, and something kinda caught my eye," she said. "So, I looked down, and it was a medal."
She had never seen anything like it, so she brought the medal to her father. "I showed it to my dad, and he said, 'That's a purple heart.'"
The medal was worn. The clasp was broken, and the ribbon was missing, but Maggie knew she had to find the owner. The only clue she had was the name on the back: Jakie Joseph Vignes.
Back in 1992, there was no internet, so Maggie took the purple heart to the Jones Creek Library and started looking through phone books. She found a few Vignes, but no Jakies, no Js, no Josephs. Without a service branch, or even a war to connect to the medal, Maggie was stumped.
Maggie knew all about war. She had heard her grandfather's stories of World War II.
"The most I knew about Korea," Maggie said, "only that the MASH re-runs came on every day, and we watched them every single day."
When the reference section at the library failed, the purple heart went into Maggie's jewelry box, but it was something she always wondered about.
"I kind of always pictured -- what I Imagined what he would be -- who this person was -- it depended on where I was in life," Maggie said. "If I was doing something big, or grand -- when I went to England with my school, it went with me. It's been skydiving, zip-lining. It's been hiking. It was with me when my son was born."
And Maggie never stopped searching. "I just knew that this was something very precious to somebody," she said. "Somebody sacrificed something to get this. They sacrificed their health. They sacrificed their life. they sacrificed -- I don't know. I didn't know. But something about it being left in a field behind my dad's gas station -- part of me just felt like, well, it's special to me, and this might be the only way he gets honored."
Earlier this month, Maggie's son was digging through her jewelry box and found the medal. "He said, 'Can I have it?'" Maggie said. "I said, 'No. You didn't earn that medal, and we need to find the rightful owner.'"
Maggie tried one more Google search. This time, it hit, and Jakie's story came to life.
"I immediately broke into tears," she said.
After a round of phone calls to the Department of Defense, Maggie was in contact with Ellis and DiAnne. But she could not just hand over a worn, broken medal with no ribbon.
That set off a frantic search and more phone calls to every military installation within 150 miles. She eventually found the correct ribbon in, of all places, an Army surplus store. After a trip to the jeweler for a cleaning, Maggie was ready to finally bring Jakie Vignes home.
Yesterday, the day before Memorial Day, Maggie handed Jakie's purple heart to Ellis and DiAnne.
"It's great to have the purple heart," Ellis said. "It's a reminder of Jakie. He was a fine fella."
For Maggie, it's bittersweet. "This was such an important part of my life," Maggie said. "I want to believe that, though Jakie's body never made it home, maybe he can rest in peace now. The medal itself was only a symbol for what is possibly the most important thing he ever did. I want to believe that he knew when he died that his sacrifice was as important is it was. I am so happy bringing it where it belongs, but at the same time, it occurs to me that I had it longer than he lived. Jakie and I had a lot of adventures. I hope he watched, and more importantly, I hope he approved."