NEWARK, N.J. - 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 said as her 90-year-old father opened it. "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.
"I am so happy," Carol Wilkins said. "You don't know what joy is in 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. 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, 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."
Willie Wilkins returned to Newark and worked on an assembly line, but his service as a quartermaster had taken a toll. He had a nervous breakdown and post-traumatic stress disorder, and retired at age 44.
He would sometimes talk about his war experience, especially when Carol was young, mentioning that he lost his dog tags. His family was convinced the small medallion would remain a piece of the history of the invasion.
In a backyard 4,000 miles from Newark in Istres, France, Anne-Marie Crespo was tilling the soil around an olive tree in spring 2001 and found the tag.
Crespo presumed the soldier had died in battle and held a ceremony to honor Wilkins and other American war dead.
"I often thought of this poor soldier dead for FRANCE + FREEDOMS," Crespo later wrote to Carol Wilkins.
Crespo showed the "treasure" to visitors. One took photos of the dog tag and sent them to her brother, who made it his mission to track down Wilkins.