may 6, 2013

World War II Veteran and Newark Resident Reunited With His Lost Dog Tags after 69 years on Anniversary of VE Day

Veteran who lost his dog tags in France during WWII receives lost tags during ceremony with GI Go Fund, Mayor Cory Booker, and French Consul-General Bertrand Lortholary

GI Go Fund Executive Director Jack Fanous (left) and Newark Mayor Cory Booker (center) present to Army Corporal Willie Wilkins (right) of Newark the dog tags he lost while serving in France in WWII, along with the NJ Meritorious Service Medal.

NEWARK, NJ - Willie Wilkins was 21 years old when he was fighting Nazis as a member of the US Army Quartermaster Graves Registration unit in the invasion of Southern France in August of 1944 during World War II. While he was there, he had lost his dog tags, the only form of identification a soldier has while on the battlefield and one of the most important things to any member of the military.

Now, at the age of 90, Mr. Wilkins was reunited with the dog tags he once thought were lost forever during a special ceremony in Newark, NJ by Mayor Cory Booker, French Consul-General Bertrand Lortholary, and the GI Go Fund at Newark City Hall on Wednesday, May 8th, 2013—the Anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day.

“This is a wonderful story that completes a circle that began with a Newark native’s service to our country in history’s greatest war. We are honored by Willie Wilkins, and it is truly appropriate to help return these artifacts to him and to recognize him today, on the anniversary of the final defeat of Adolf Hitler,” Mayor Booker said. “The struggles of the ‘Greatest Generation’ to defeat the forces of Nazism abroad and racism at home dug the wells of liberty from which our generation drinks.”

“This is truly a great day,” said GI Go Fund Executive Director Jack Fanous. “We have the unique privilege of reuniting an American hero with the dog tags he lost while serving in France during WWII; dog tags that were found by French citizens whose gratitude toward the American military and her soldiers led them on a 12 year search for Mr. Wilkins. It is a testament to the Human Spirit, the American Legacy, and a truly fitting tribute to a member of the ‘Greatest Generation’.”

“This is a unique ceremony, and it is a great privilege to be here. On behalf of France, I thank Mr. Wilkins and all the American soldiers who fought to get France back its freedom 70 years ago. We will never forget what you did for us, and we look forward to continuing to build stronger ties between France and the City of Newark,” said Consul-General Lortholary.

French Consul-General Bertrand Lortholary (left) reads a letter from Anne Marie Crespo addressed to Mr. Wilkins and his Daughter, Carol, in the GI Go Fund Veterans Office in Newark City Hall with Executive Director Jack Fanous (right).

The remarkable story of how Mr. Wilkins’ dog tags were discovered began 12 years ago in Istres, France. A woman named Anne-Marie Crespo was gardening under her olive tree, the international symbol for peace, when her shovel hit something made of metal. After digging it out of the ground, she realized that it was a dog tag that belonged to a WWII veteran named Willie Wilkins. She cleaned it and proudly displayed it on her mantle for guests to see. She even hosted a small ceremony with friends to commemorate the soldier, whom she presumed had died during the war, and the American military for liberating France from the Nazis.

Among the friends was Philippe Clerbout, a French man who greatly admired the US military for bringing his own father back home to France after he spent five years in a Nazi POW camp on VE Day, May 8, 1945. Wanting to learn more about the veteran, Mr. Clerbout wrote down the name and service number inscribed on the dog tag and reached out to any American or French agency he could. After a long search, he came across the Veterans Affairs office in Indianapolis, IN, where he learned that Mr. Wilkins was in fact alive and living in Newark, NJ with his daughter, Carol.

Eager to have the dog tags returned, a VA rep named Heather Logan in Indianapolis then made contact with The GI Go Fund, the organization that formed a partnership with Mayor Booker to run the city’s office of Veterans Affairs. The organization reached out to Carol, who confirmed that her father did lose his dog tags in France during the war and still holds out hope to this day that he would get them back. In addition, she said that her father was not receiving any benefits from the VA after all these years.

he organization worked with both Carol and Ms. Crespo to give Mr. Wilkins everything that was rightfully his. They contacted Ms. Crespo in France with the help of a French translator provided by a member of the organization’s Veteran Leader Corps, who informed her that Mr. Wilkins was alive and that she should send the dog tags back to Newark, which she gladly did. In addition, GI Go had a representative from the VA go to Mr. Wilkins’ residence and file a claim for him to receive his benefits, which is currently being processed through the VA system.

Now, with all of the pieces in place, the GI Go Fund and the City of Newark were able to present Mr. Wilkins with his dog tags, who was unaware that they had been discovered, during a ceremony at City Hall on May 8th, 68 years to the day after Mr. Wilkins and the US Military liberated France and all of Europe from the Nazis. Mr. Wilkins will also be presented with the New Jersey Meritorious Service Medal during the ceremony to honor his time in the service and all he did for our country.

“Daddy was aware that he’d lost his dog tags,” Ms. Wilkins said, who spoke on behalf of her family. “But he wasn’t concerned about his own tags – he was too busy keep track of the dog tags of the men he was burying. They were more important to him.” The horrific experiences he suffered performing his duties left Mr. Wilkins with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“I haven’t known such joy in my heart since my mother died in 2007,” she said. “When I got the call from the Veterans’ Administration that they had found Daddy’s dog tags, we were so happy. I want to thank the Mayor and everyone involved for returning these tags.” Ms. Wilkins intends to display the dog tags in their case on his father’s dresser, so that his great-grandchildren – two of them in college – can see them.

Mr. Wilkins was reunited with the dog tags that he lost in 1942 as a teenager fighting in France, an astonishing story that was made possible by the tremendous love and appreciation people from across the world have for America’s veterans and what they do. The reunion is also a testament to the great things that the city of Newark has achieved through their partnership with the GI Go Fund, whose smarter government approach to servicing veterans needs not only led to the return of Mr. Wilkins’ dog tags, but the processing of his benefits claim and his recognition by the state for his service during the war as well.