A display in the Creston, Nebraska, town museum celebrates the memory of Ludwig and Julius Pieper, twins identical and inseparable, who died at age 19 when their Navy landing ship hit a mine near the D-Day landing beaches of France. The town’s American Legion post is named in their honor.
Seventy-four years to the day after their deaths, the two young men are side by side again, beneath marble crosses in the green fields of the Normandy American Cemetery.
“Everybody’s glad,” said Dave Hollatz, of Creston, who helped start the museum in 2006. “They were local people. It’s a small town. That’s a big thing.”
Hollatz said townspeople gathered vials of dirt from sites in Creston, a town of 200 people near Columbus — the old schoolhouse the boys once attended, the church, the cemetery. The dirt was sent to Normandy, to be mingled with the soil at the grave of Julius, who was buried Tuesday next to his brother.
A Nebraska teenager, Vanessa Taylor of Ainsworth, played a key role in making the burial happen when, in 2015, she sought Julius “Henry” Pieper’s personnel file as part of a National History Day project.
“If she hadn’t made the request at the time, we don’t know when this (ceremony) would have happened,” Tim Nosal, spokesman for the American Battle Monuments Commission, told Stars and Stripes on Tuesday.
Julius Pieper’s remains had been buried for decades in a grave marked “Unknown” at another military cemetery.
For this week’s service, half a dozen family members crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Susan Lawrence, the twins’ niece, laid a red rose atop her uncle’s casket.
“I’m just so happy, and so proud, that they’re not being forgotten,” she told The World-Herald before the funeral.
Ludwig and Julius — known to family as “Louie” and “Henry” — grew up on a farm and enlisted together in the Naval Reserve in 1943. Trained as radio operators, they served together on a landing ship called LST-523.
Early in the afternoon of June 19, 1944, in stormy weather, the ship hit a German mine and split in two as it headed to Utah Beach to drop off soldiers. The Piepers were among more than 200 service members killed.
Louie’s body was one of nine that washed ashore soon after the wreck. He was buried in the Normandy cemetery.
Henry’s body wasn’t recovered until 1961, when French salvage divers began cutting up the wreck of LST-523 for scrap metal. They found 17 sets of remains and turned them over to the U.S. Army Mortuary in Germany.
One set, found in the radio operator’s room where the Pieper brothers worked, was labeled X-9352. It included two partial identification cards with Julius Pieper’s name on them, and two photographs of him. The remains were consistent with his height, 6-foot-3.
The Army tried to identify all of the men, according to a report by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. But in 1965, the Navy intervened and requested that all of the remains be buried as unknowns at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium. The Pieper family was never notified.
“The reasoning of the Navy in this case is rather obscure,” the agency’s 2017 report said, but it speculated that it was “out of sensitivity to the families of all the personnel lost aboard LST-523.”
Taylor knew none of this in 2014 when the then-high school sophomore began researching the Piepers for a National History Day project.
Her task was to research a “silent hero” from her home state. She came across the Pieper brothers in the Normandy cemetery’s database.
She became intrigued and contacted Henry and Louie’s sister, Mary Ann Lawrence, who lived with her daughter, Susan, in Sacramento, California.
“It really felt like (the brothers) were real people whose stories needed to be told,” said Taylor, 19, who is now a student at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Taylor and her teacher, Nichole Flynn, requested Henry Pieper’s deceased personnel file, which documents a service member’s death and the disposition of remains. They created a website in honor of the brothers and traveled to Normandy to record a eulogy at Louie’s gravesite as part of the National History Day program. In 2016, Taylor visited Creston to give a Memorial Day presentation about the Piepers.
Meanwhile, the accounting agency had already been looking generally at cases of graves marked unknown. The file request put Henry Pieper’s case in the spotlight.
The remains of X-9352 were disinterred in April 2017 and shipped to the accounting agency’s laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base.
Mary Ann and Susan Lawrence learned last Thanksgiving that Henry had been identified, through dental records, chest X-rays, and anthropological matching. Mary Ann, 88, decided that the brothers should remain together at Normandy, where they died.
“They were born together, and they wanted to be together,” Mary Ann Lawrence told The World-Herald in January. “That’s their wishes, so we’ll go by their wishes.”
She did not live to see those wishes fulfilled. Mary Ann Lawrence died May 5 in California.
“She knew that she would see them in Heaven,” Susan Lawrence said.
Henry’s burial marked the first interment at the Normandy cemetery since 1956. A group of Naples-based sailors carried Henry’s flag-draped casket to a grave marked by a marble white cross lying next to Louie’s grave, which was moved from another plot for the occasion.
Several family members shed tears as Navy Chaplain Lt. Ken Stiles gave the benediction. A bugler played taps.
Linda Pieper Suitor, the brothers’ niece, received the folded flag. She placed a rosette next to his name on the Walls of the Missing at Normandy, formally marking him in a known grave.
“It’s amazing the amount of effort to have this happen,” Susan Lawrence said. “I’m happy beyond expression that the two brothers will be buried together.”
This report includes material from Erik Slavin of Stars and Stripes.