Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Veteran reunited with WW2 dog tag

The dog tags that belong to Willie Wilkins, who lost them while serving in France in August 1944 (AP/Julio Cortez)

A small weathered piece of silver finally finished its journey from a back garden in southern France to the 90-year-old US veteran who lost his ID on the battlefield during the Second World War.

Sixty-nine years after losing his dog tag, Willie Wilkins reclaimed it in a surprise ceremony in Newark, New Jersey.

"I am so happy," his daughter Carol Wilkins said. "You don't know what joy is on my heart for what you have done for my father."

In August 1944, Mr Wilkins was part of the Allied invasion, with one of the grimmest jobs - removing and identifying the bodies of dead servicemen and having them buried or transported back to the United States.

At some point, Mr Wilkins' silver dog tag 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."

Mr Wilkins later returned to the US and worked on an assembly line. He was a happy man who doted on his only daughter, but he had a nervous breakdown and post-traumatic stress disorder and retired at 44, his daughter said.

He and his family were convinced his dog tag would remain buried somewhere in what were once the bloody battlefields of Provence. But in a back garden 4,000 miles away, in Istres, France, Anne-Marie Crespo was tilling the soil around an olive tree on a spring day in 2001 and found it.

Ms Crespo knew the small piece of metal stamped with a name and numbers belonged to a soldier and kept it on a bookcase shelf. She presumed he had died on the battlefield and held a ceremony to honour Mr Wilkins and other US war dead.

The Wilkinses were presented with the dog tag on Wednesday, Victory in Europe Day, at a ceremony attended by French consil general Bertrand Lortholary.

Mr Wilkins has been in a rehabilitation centre and suffers from Alzheimer's disease and other ailments. When asked if he thought he would see his dog tag again, he shook his head. "I never did," he said.

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