NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Carol Wilkins leaned over the side of her father's wheelchair and handed him the small red box, a heart-shaped cutout revealing its contents: a weathered, bent silver dog tag.
"Oh, Daddy, look," Wilkins exclaimed as her 90-year-old father opened it, his eyes beaming and smile wide. "They're back."
Sixty-nine years after losing his dog tag on the battlefields of southern France, Willie Wilkins reclaimed it Wednesday after a trans-Atlantic effort to return it to him that started more than a decade ago in a French backyard and ended with a surprise ceremony in Newark City Hall.
"I am so happy," Carol Wilkins said. "You don't know what joy is on my heart for what you have done for my father."
In August 1944, Willie Wilkins was an Army corporal fighting in the Allied invasion of southern France. Amid the horrors of battle, Wilkins's job was one of the grimmest. A quartermaster, Wilkins was responsible for removing and identifying the bodies of dead American servicemen and having them buried or transported back to the United States.
At some point during the invasion, Willie Wilkins's silver dog tag somehow slipped off his neck.
"It could have been an arm, it could have been a hip that dragged it off, because he was picking up dead bodies," Carol Wilkins said. "He said it was horrible. Blood everywhere. Parts. All he knew was to pick up those bodies for the family members of dead soldiers."
Willie Wikins returned to Newark and work on the assembly line at Western Electric in nearby Kearny. He was a happy man who doted on his only daughter, but his service as a quartermaster took an enormous toll. He had a nervous breakdown and post-traumatic stress disorder and retired at age 44, Carol Wilkins said.
Willie Wilkins would sometimes talk about his war experience, especially when Carol was young, mentioning that he lost his dog tags. He and his family were convinced the small medallion would remain a tangible piece of the history of the invasion, buried somewhere in what were once the bloody battlefields of Provence.
In a backyard 4,000 miles from Newark, Anne-Marie Crespo was tilling the soil around an olive tree tucked into a corner when she found the dog tag. She was enjoying an early spring day in 2001 in Istres, France, a village about 35 miles northwest of Marseille.
Crespo hit a small piece of metal stamped with a name and numbers. She brought it inside, cleaned it and tried to straighten out the tag's bend, only to break it slightly.
Crespo knew the tag belonged to a soldier and kept it on a bookcase shelf. She presumed the soldier died on the battlefield, and held a ceremony at her home to honor Wilkins and other American war dead.
"I often thought of this poor soldier dead for FRANCE + FREEDOMS," Crespo later wrote in a handwritten letter to Carol Wilkins, dated April 13, 2013. "WILLIE WILKINS what a pretty name, as it sounds good for us French, for me anyway."
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