WHITING, Iowa | Three tiny, tattered flags make their way Friday to a museum in Waterloo, Iowa, final leg on a remarkable journey that begins in France and pauses for decades in an attic at Whiting.
There's the Stars & Stripes, the Union Jack and the tri-color banner of France, all kept under a mattress by a family in France as waves of Allied soldiers make their way inland from the beaches of Normandy and Omaha 70 years ago.
Whiting, Iowa, native Delbert Wesley "Wes" Hopkins is 23 at the time, serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He meets the French family shortly after D-Day.
According to his son, Terry Hopkins, Wes Hopkins and his unit are leery of setting up an encampment near any home in France, fearing its residents may sabotage their efforts. The flags, apparently, are created by the family to show they'll befriend those who fight for freedom under the Stars and Stripes.
To hedge their bets, the family also stitches a flag for Great Britain and one for France.
"My dad found out about these flags and he offered food to the family if he could take the flags home," Terry Hopkins says.
Wes Hopkins takes the flags home to Whiting after the war. That's where they remain, tucked in a box, sitting in the Hopkins attic, along with pictures of the French family and letters he'd written his mother back home.
Wes Hopkins delivers the box and its contents to Terry, his oldest son, at some point in the 1970s.
"I was a door gunner on a helicopter in Vietnam," says Terry Hopkins, a former U.S. Marine. "When I got discharged and came back, I went to the University of Colorado on the GI Bill and got married. It was after this point, my father realized that I was out on my own, raising a family and well-established. He gave me this stuff and asked me to take care of it."
Terry Hopkins joins family members and his stepmother, Suzzanna Hopkins, of Whiting, Wes' widow, on Friday in presenting the items for display at the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum in Waterloo, a museum named for the five Waterloo brothers who perish after their ship, the USS Juneau, is struck by a Japanese torpedo in the South Pacific on Nov. 13, 1942.
"It's symbolic it (the presentation) happens right before Veterans Day," says Hopkins, a 1965 Whiting High School graduate who resides in Galesville, Wis. Veterans Day is Tuesday.
Little is known of these flags for years, just as scant information comes forward about Wes Hopkins' tour of duty. The reason Hopkins doesn't disclose much about his work with the Air Corps in WWII? He can't.
"My father was involved at the time with a top-secret unit," Terry Hopkins says. "He was trained in communication and early radar technology and served with a mobile radar unit."
Wes Hopkins' unit provides support as Patton's Third Army moves through France. Hopkins locates communication wires, wires that sometimes lie beyond the front lines.
"They'd splice into those wires and if they heard German being spoken, they knew they were close enough," he says. "You never heard much about this stuff, it was all classified."
Wes Hopkins nearly carries a military legacy to the grave in silence.
"My dad, when he got discharged (after World War II), he gave his mother his uniforms and asked her to burn them," Terry Hopkins says. "She didn't. She hid them."
Late in life, Wes Hopkins regrets asking his mother to do such a thing.
"I called my dad each night when he was in the nursing home and we'd talk about our military experiences," Terry Hopkins remembers. "One night, he called me back and said that nobody else would understand this, but he wanted to be buried in his uniform and have a military funeral.
"I realized then that my father was very proud of what he'd done for his country," Terry Hopkins concludes. "It was hidden in a veil of secrecy. He looked for that last little bit of honor."
U.S. Army Sgt. Delbert Wesley "Wes" Hopkins is 72 and the father of four when he dies in December 1993. His family celebrates his life, honors his duty in a military funeral and buries him at Whiting, in his Army uniform.