French woman finds US veteran's tag from World War II

NEWARK, New Jersey (AP) - A small, weathered piece of silver has finally finished its journey from a backyard in southern France to the 90-year-old US veteran who lost his identification on the battlefield during World War II.

Sixty-nine years after losing his dog tag, Mr Willie Wilkins reclaimed it Wednesday in a surprise ceremony.

"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 Willie Wilkins was part of the Allied invasion, and his job was one of the grimmest. He was responsible for removing and identifying the bodies of dead servicemen and having them buried or transported back to the United States.

At some point, Mr Wilkins's 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," Ms 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 Willie 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 age 44, his daughter said.

Mr Willie Wilkins and his family were convinced his dog tag would remain buried somewhere in what were once the bloody battlefields of Provence.

But in a backyard 6,430 kilometers away, in Istres, France, Ms 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 the soldier died on the battlefield, and she held a ceremony to honour Wilkins and other U.S. war dead.

"I often thought of this poor soldier dead for FRANCE + FREEDOMS," Ms Crespo later wrote in a letter to Carol Wilkins.

Ms Crespo showed the "treasure" she found to visitors. One took photos of the dog tag and sent them to her brother, Philippe Clerbout. Mr Clerbout posted the pictures in an online history forum and got a reply from the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington.

Mr Clerbout became a man with a mission: finding Mr Willie Wilkins.

His quest was personal. Mr Clerbout's father was a prisoner in Germany from June 1940 until the camp was liberated in 1945. He returned to France with US troops and married Mr Clerbout's mother.

Mr Clerbout sent emails to anyone he thought could help, from the White House to media outlets. A woman from the US Department of Veteran's affairs located Willie Wilkins.

Ms Carol Wilkins thought the woman's phone call was a prank and insisted on calling her back. The call was legitimate.

The Wilkinses were presented with the dog tag on on Wednesday, Victory in Europe Day. Mr Bertrand Lortholary, the Consul General of France, attended.

Mr Willie Wilkins has been in a rehabilitation facility and suffers from Alzheimer's Disease and other ailments.

When asked if he ever thought he would see his dog tag again, he shook his head.

"I never did," he said.

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