NEWARK, N.J. — Carol Wilkins leaned over her father's wheelchair and handed him the small red box, a heart-shaped cutout revealing its contents: weathered, bent silver dog tags.
"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 tags on the battlefields of southern France, Willie Wilkins reclaimed them Wednesday after a trans-Atlantic effort that started more than a decade ago in a French back yard 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' 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 tags slipped off his neck. It's unclear how it happened.
Wilkins 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. It did for 56 years.
Then in 2001, Anne-Marie Crespo was tilling soil around an olive tree in a corner of her back yard in Istres, France, a village about 35 miles northwest of Marseille, when she found the dog tags.
She knew the tags belonged to a soldier and presumed he had died on the battlefield. But an lengthy online search eventually led to him.
When the phone call came, Carol Wilkins thought it was a prank: The dog tags had been found. Wilkins said her dad "was just smiling. He was so happy."
Willie Wilkins was honored in a ceremony in Newark City Hall, where Mayor Cory Booker presented the Wilkinses with the dog tags on Wednesday, Victory in Europe Day. The ceremony was attended by Bertrand Lortholary, the Counsul General of France.
When asked if he ever thought he would see his dog tags again, Willie Wilkins shook his head.
"I never did," he said.