American Legion honors veteran’s widow

December 21, 2016

Members of the American Legion are sending a Christmas gift to the widow of an Air Force officer who lost his life in the Vietnam War. The story of the connection between Corinth’s American Legion Post #6 and Florida resident Nita Wilkinson, the widow of Air Force Capt. Dennis Wilkinson, began this summer, when American Legion member Bobby McDaniel was metal detecting near the Kimberly-Clark Road. In a yard near the road, McDaniel discovered a copper bracelet about six inches underground. Upon closer inspection, McDaniel saw that the bracelet was engraved with the name of Capt. Dennis Wilkerson and the date “5-10-72.” The bracelet turned out to be one of approximately five million POW bracelets created and distributed in the years between 1970 and 1976 by a California student group called Voices in Vital America. The bracelets were nickel-plated or copper and engraved with the name, rank and loss date of an American serviceman captured or missing during the Vietnam War. Phantom down Capt. Dennis Edward Wilkinson was born on July 23, 1944. A native of Palm Beach, Fla., Wilkinson became the Weapons System Officer (WSO, pronounced “wizzo”) — the flight officer who operated the aircraft’s weapons systems — on an F-4E Phantom II fighter-bomber in the United States Air Force. Wilkinson and pilot Capt. Jeffrey L. Harris were shot down during Operation Linebacker, a campaign to slow or halt the movement of weapons and supplies to North Vietnamese forces in the spring of 1972. On the first strike day, Wilkinson and Harris were part of a force going up against heavy concentrations of surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery fire and over a dozen Soviet-manufactured MiG fighter jets. Their F-4 went down with an explosive crash, but Air Force personnel found cause to believe the two airmen escaped the downed plane and became prisoners of the enemy. They were both declared Missing in Action as of May 10, 1972. Wilkerson’s remains were reclaimed by Congressman “Sonny” Montgomery’s delegation to Hanoi in 1978. The Vietnamese officials were reportedly unable to account for Wilkerson’s pilot. A relic returned When McDaniel realized what he had discovered in the yard off the Kimberly-Clark Road, the veteran began a new mission — to return the relic to a member of Wilkinson’s family. Within days McDaniel brought the bracelet to the Daily Corinthian, and the newspaper published a story on McDaniel’s find. “My hope is a family member sees this,” McDaniel told the newspaper that day. “I want someone close to him to have it.” It took only a few days for a connection to be made after the story ran in the newspaper and was shared on social media. Nita Wilkinson, the widow of the fallen airman, learned about the story when Melissa and Harrison Smith — friends of Wilkinson’s children — saw the story and sent it to her on Facebook. Nita and McDaniel soon spoke on the phone, and McDaniel made the arrangements to ship the bracelet to Nita, who now lives in Shalimar, Fla. “I waited a few months after sending it before I called her. You don’t want to push something like that,” said McDaniel. “She said, ‘I got it, Bobby, but I couldn’t open it for about two months. I was too emotional. Not only did I lose my husband, but I lost my best friend.’” McDaniel is not a character known for getting excessively emotional. But the experience hit him hard. “I can’t tell you what a feeling it was for me to find her. There’s no way I can describe it,” he said. “There’s not any way I can tell you how heartwarming that was to me right there. I’m telling you. It tore me up bad.” Now, with Christmas approaching, McDaniel and his fellow members of the American Legion are mailing Nita a large, snowman-shaped, homemade Christmas card containing signatures of American Legion members and a POW/MIA pin commemorating Nita’s late husband. “This is a followup after what all happened with this, sending her a little gift,” said McDaniel. “This is just to show her we love her. We don’t know her, but we love her!”