HUNTINGDON, Tenn. – The family of Pvt. William Bernice Clark never had a funeral for him, never got to say goodbye and never really accepted his fate among the fallen during the Normandy D-Day landings in World War II.
That was until the young soldier's dog tag, recently discovered in the sands of Omaha Beach in France, was returned to his native Tennessee on Wednesday — exactly 63 years after that tragic day.
"This feels like an ending," said the soldier's first cousin, 79-year-old Lota Park, who along with another cousin accepted the dog tag at a ceremony in the small town of Huntingdon, about 90 miles west of Nashville.
The tag has blackened with age, but his name, identification number, religion (Protestant) and blood type (Type O) are all clearly visible.
It remained out of sight for more than five decades until a collector from England found it five years ago while combing the beach for D-Day artifacts, likely near the very spot where the 20-year-old Clark was killed. The collector gave the dog tag to a World War II buff from New Jersey, who turned it over to the National D-Day Memorial.
"It's in pretty remarkable condition, considering it was buried in the sand for 58 years," said National D-Day Memorial Foundation development director Jeff Fulgham, who presented the tag to Clark's surviving family members.
The D-Day Memorial, based in Bedford, Va., keeps records of nearly every American and Allied soldier killed during the invasion, and it helped locate Clark's family in Huntingdon a couple months ago.
"I remember the day the soldiers came and told his mother (that Clark had died)," Park said. "They never accepted it because there was no proof, no body."
The family has only a few personal effects from Clark: two yellowing photos, a couple of letters during his short service and his Purple Heart. His remains were buried in a cemetery for American soldiers in France.
The return of a small piece of metal has reconnected his family to the young soldier's life that was cut short.
"We were just like brother and sister," said another first cousin, Ava Smothers, 84.
The collector from New Jersey, Bill Santora, said that the dog tag was the most cherished piece in his World War II collection, but that he was happy to give it up when the memorial officials told him it could be returned to his family.
"I always wondered who it was," Santora said. "I feel more connected to the soldier, a little connected to family and I think they are going to be happy to have this memento back."
Relatives, community leaders and veterans gathered Wednesday in Huntingdon at a park that honors area soldiers who have died in war.
"I am reminded that this park is the place where the train carried Pvt. William Clark and other soldiers from Carroll County to war," Fulgham said.
Clark was one of more than 4,000 American and Allied soldiers killed during intense fighting on D-Day, a crucial turning point in the war. The D-Day Memorial is in Bedford, Va., because that town lost 19 soldiers, the highest per capita loss from any single town in the United States.
Clark belonged to Company E, 116th Regiment, 29th "Blue and Gray" Division. "This was just such a nice thing to do for Bernie," Park said, calling him by his nickname.
Clark's name was also recently added to a plaque at the D-Day Memorial.
"When you stand in the middle of that plaza, in the middle of the memorial, you're surrounded by nearly 4,400 names," Fulgham said. "This is one more way we can remember him now that we have a special connection because we had his dog tag."