How a High School Student Brought Two WWII Veterans Together Again

Every once in a while, a high school history project makes an impact. This particular story is not just about the 16-year-old Nebraska student who decided to participate in a history project in 2015; it’s also about the incredible story of heroism, family, and legacy. At the time, Vanessa Taylor was a student at Ainsworth High School in Nebraska. The task at hand was to select “a silent hero from our state,” Taylor, who is now a student at the University of Nebraska, explained.

Louie and Henry Pieper in uniform / A newspaper article about the Pieper twins dying in war / A landing craft carrying US rangers June 1944
Source: Flickr / Pinterest / Photo by Everett Collection, Shutterstock

She began her research by looking through websites that listed soldiers killed in action from her state. To make a long story short, Taylor managed to reunite the bodies of two American twin brothers who had been separated at death during World War II. But that would be a very, very short version of the story, and you would be missing out on all of the interesting details…

It Started with a History Project

Around Christmas of 2014, Vanessa Taylor was selected along with her teacher, Nichole Flynn, to participate in a Normandy project: Sacrifice for Freedom Albert H. Small Student & Teacher Institute that would take place the following summer. Taylor and Flynn were among 15 student-teacher pairs from across the country who were assigned to research the life of a “silent hero” from their state.

Vanessa Taylor and Nichole Flynn posing in front of a small pond
Vanessa Taylor and Nichole Flynn. Source: Facebook

But not just any hero, one who is buried in Normandy. The pairs were to prepare a website and presentation and then, finally, to visit the actual grave. But what started out as a high school history project grew into something so much more meaningful than neither Taylor nor Flynn would have ever expected.

Connection or Coincidence?

As the teacher-student pair started doing their research, Taylor noticed something both peculiar and intriguing. “I just happened to notice there were two people killed who had the same exact last name. So I thought it was kind of interesting and wondered if there was a connection or if it was just a coincidence.”

Louie and Henry Pieper in uniform
Louie and Henry Pieper. Source: Flickr

She discovered that the two men were twin brothers, Ludwig Julius Wilhelm “Louie” Pieper and Julius Heinrich Otto “Henry” Pieper, who had served in the same branch of the military. They were even on the same ship when they died. And so, Taylor found not one – but two silent heroes. Not only were these soldiers from the same town as her, she learned that their story wasn’t so straightforward.

Small Town Beginnings

It turns out that one brother was killed while the other went missing. As Taylor gathered information about Henry and Louie Pieper from official archives and histories, she learned about the brothers. The twins were born on May 17, 1925, in Esmond, South Dakota, but grew up in Creston, Nebraska. Their parents, Otto and Anna Pieper were immigrants from Germany.

Louie, Henry, and their siblings posing in front of trees
Source: Pinterest

The family of eight (with six children in total) moved to Creston when the twins were eight or nine years old. In Creston, all the children attended a public school, and the family became members of the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. Even from an early age, Henry and Louie did just about everything together.

Joining the War Effort, Together

“Everywhere they went, they went together,” recalled Mary Ann Lawrence, 88, the only surviving Pieper sibling. “They were normal, average boys.” They happened to be the first twins to graduate from the Creston High School in 1942. After that, they went on to work for the Burlington Railroad out of Lincoln, Nebraska during the winter of 1942/1943.

Louie and Henry with their siblings posing on the front steps
Source: Facebook

They didn’t stay in Lincoln for very long, though. Although they were only 17, Henry and Louie enlisted in the Naval Reserve in Omaha on February 27, 1943. During World War II, Nebraska (and the rest of the United States) dropped everything to contribute to the war effort. Soon enough, naval ammunition depots, bomber plants, air bases, and scrap metal drives were springing up all over the country, including in Nebraska.

Nebraska During the War

Nebraska was home to some unique wartime efforts, like the North Platte Canteen. Fresh out of the Great Depression, the economy of Nebraska (and the US as a whole) was revived by wartime production. In July of 1942, the largest Naval Ammunition Depot (NAD) was being constructed right in Hastings, Nebraska.

The Naval Ammunition Depot in Hastings, Nebraska
Source: Flickr

The 48,000-acre facility sent out its first shipment of ammunition on July 4, 1943. Since it was located smackdab in the middle of the country, Hastings was the perfect spot for the facility. It was out of range of German and Japanese aircraft, had an endless supply of water, and could ship supplies by railroad to each coast within two days. At one point during the War, 40% of the Navy’s ammunition was produced in Hastings.

Starting Out in Radio School

Considering they were still only 17, Henry and Louie’s parents had to give their consent for them to enlist in the Navy. And so, they enlisted as Apprentice Seamen. On March 7, 1943, they were sent to Omaha to report for active duty and were then transferred to the US Naval Training Station in Great Lakes, Illinois.

A man on the radio in the ‘40s
Illustrative Photograph. Source: Tumblr

On May 27, the twins entered Radioman School at the University of Chicago. It was there that they learned Morse code and US Navy communicational and radio theory. On November 5 that year, Henry and Louie graduated from Radioman School, class of 162. They were then assigned to Landing Ship Tank 523 (LST-523) together. They were about to be a part of WWII’s most significant battle…

On the Way to D-Day

The LST-523 was part of the fleet carrying soldiers as well as supplies across the English Channel on D-Day, June 6, 1944. But long before D-Day, on January 7, the twins had to report to the Supervisor of Shipbuilding at the US Navy Jeffersonville Boat & Machine Co. in Jeffersonville, Indiana. On January 25, they boarded the ship bound for New Orleans, Louisiana.

An American landing barge heading towards a Normandy Beach in June 1944
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

After traveling down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, the fleet arrived on February 2, and the next day, their ship was placed on full commission. From there, LST-523 joined a large convoy of 60 to 75 ships that crossed the Atlantic Ocean within a month. Henry and Louie took part in the D-Day invasion as radiomen 2nd class on that same landing ship.

The D-Day Campaign

When the Normandy campaign began on June 6, the LST-523, nicknamed Stardust, made the first of three round trips from England to the beaches in Normandy. On the first voyage, Stardust couldn’t get close to Omaha Beach because of the debris and swells. So, what they did was unload the men and equipment into smaller boats, returned to England and aided in the care of about 175 Allied casualties.

A landing craft with soldiers creeping through the water around it off of Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

On the second voyage, Stardust hit the shore of Utah Beach and unloaded their men. They then loaded around 200 Allied casualties and several German POWs and returned to England. 13 days after D-Day, the ship struck got caught in the midst of a violent storm.

Hitting a Mine

On June 18, the LST-523 left England loaded with men, vehicles, equipment, and explosives. Stardust then proceeded towards Utah Beach for its third trip. But the weather in the English Channel is very unpredictable, and the ship was met with a gale force wind that erupted unexpectedly in the early hours of June 19. Stardust, one of the three ships in the convoy, arrived off the coast of Normandy during the storm.

A sunken British battleship off the shore of Normandy beach
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Stardust was trailing LST-27, but as they moved towards the shore, LST-27’s anchor got caught in the wreckage and signaled Stardust forward to take her place in line. A little after 1:00 p.m., LST-523 started towards the beach, but hit an underwater magnetic mine on the way.

RIP, Pieper Twins

The explosion occurred in the middle of the ship. Many of those onboard were in the mess line and, thus, were killed instantly. Two of the other ships in the convoy sent several small boats to rescue survivors before they were lost in the cold sea. The survivors were rescued by 20 small craft that appeared on the scene.

One of the brothers in uniform with a hat
Source: Flickr

The ship sank within minutes, meaning over 200 US servicemen’s lives were lost. Among them were the Pieper twins, who were 19 years old. After the explosion, rescuers found Louie’s body. But Henry’s wasn’t found. Henry thus became one of World War II’s tens of thousands labeled as MIA (missing in action).

Unknown X-9352

Louie’s body was buried under a white cross at Normandy American Cemetery. Henry’s name was inscribed on the Walls of the Missing at the same cemetery. But no one ever found his body, and it was considered lost with the ship at the bottom of the English Channel. For decades, the Pieper family heard nothing.

The second brother wearing a uniform with a hat on
Source: Flickr

However, Henry’s remains were eventually discovered, although they remained unidentified. He was then buried at another military cemetery in Belgium, and for decades his body was labeled “Unknown X-9352.” That is, until Vanessa Taylor and her teacher came along. Thanks to Taylor’s hard work, the Pieper family would finally be able to get closure.

Putting the Pieces Together

Taylor’s research for the project involved making requests to the US government for personnel files on the brothers, which happened to catch the attention of officials at the Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency (which tracks soldiers who have been prisoners of war or missing in action). The agency drew a link between Henry, the missing twin, and the remains of six unidentified sailors who were found by French divers who dismantled a sunken ship off Omaha Beach in 1961.

Taylor and Nichole holding photographs of the twins in the school hallway
Source: Facebook

The French divers found the remains of a sailor in the ship’s radio room, which is where Henry would have been when they hit the mine. The unidentified remains were buried in 1965 at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium.

X-Ray and Dental Records

Then, a man named Tim Nosal, from the American Battle Monuments Commission in Virginia, got involved. He said they are always looking for America’s missing soldiers, but this was an incredible coincidence. Nosal explained: “We were looking at all the information we have on the unknowns in our cemeteries when, at the same time, a high school student in Nebraska was doing research… it’s almost like a new piece of the puzzle came across the table.”

Photographs of the twins next to their framed medals and newspaper article
Source: Flickr

Nosal said that the information helped them put the pieces together. The remains of the body were positively identified as Henry Pieper’s in November of 2017, using X-ray and dental records (a DNA match wasn’t necessary).

They Should Be Together

In mid-November, Mary Ann Lawrence and her daughter Susan got a call from the Navy at their home in Fair Oaks, California. “I was shocked and surprised and happy,” Mary Ann said. The twins’ sister wasted no time in deciding where Henry’s body should be. “They were born together, they wanted to be together,” said Mary Ann.

A newspaper article about the Pieper twins dying in war
Source: Pinterest

The Pieper sister, who recently passed away, said she couldn’t forget the day two Navy men in uniform came to Creston. They were knocking on doors, asking for directions to the Pieper home. “The neighbors knew before we did, because it was a small town,” she said. “I was baby-sitting for somebody. I walked in, my mom was sitting in the chair, crying.”

A Thanksgiving Gift

Mary Ann recalled that the twins wrote to their parents not long before they died. Their words were “Do not worry about us. We are together.”

The family was told of the twins’ deaths, but no one from the military ever told the Piepers about the excavation of the wreck of LST-523 in 1961. Vanessa Taylor later interviewed Mary Ann Lawrence and visited Creston.

A happy family having Thanksgiving dinner
Source: 123rf / dolgachov

The Lawrences, Taylor and Flynn learned that Henry’s body was identified a few days before Thanksgiving. “It was like the biggest burden lifted off her shoulders. She was just carrying it all this time,” Mary Ann stated. “What happened to the brother — and to have him identified and know he was found, it was the biggest blessing for Thanksgiving we could have possibly had.” The family asked the monuments commission to bury the twins side by side in the cemetery above Omaha Beach.

Side by Side at Last

Louie’s body was then moved to a space where it could be reburied beside that of Henry. In the end, the American Battle Monuments Commission went out of its way to make the twins’ posthumous reunion happen. On June 19, 2018, 74 years to the day after the twins were killed off the coast of Normandy, Louie and Henry Pieper were finally laid to rest – side by side – in the Normandy American Cemetery.

A soldier handing a folded American flag to the boy’s family
Source: Flickr

It was time. After six months of work, Taylor and Flynn visited Normandy and the grave site, where Taylor delivered a eulogy for the twins. “It was so moving,” Flynn said. “It was really unforgettable.” Henry and Louie’s names were also etched on a memorial in the Creston cemetery.

Too Many Left Unaccounted For

According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, by the end of World War II, about 79,000 Americans were left unaccounted for. Today, more than 72,000 remain unaccounted for. Many bodies have been identified, however, Nosal stated. And once they are, the families usually deport their bodies to the United States.

A photograph of the twins on a boat
Source: Twitter

Nosal also said Henry Pieper was the first missing soldier to be identified and buried in the Normandy cemetery that holds over 9,300 graves. “People will be talking about the Pieper twins and visiting their graves for as long as this cemetery exists,” he said. “Five million visitors come through this cemetery each year… There’s a strong message here for the world, of what these men sacrificed their lives for.”

The Heroes They Never Met

As the burial ceremony, taps were played as six men carried Henry’s flag-draped coffin between the rows of white crosses and Stars of David. The Pieper family members sat in a row of chairs on the grass. Six nieces and nephews of the twins came from America to witness the burial of the heroes they never got to meet.

A newspaper article about the twins dying at sea
Source: Tumblr

One of their nephews was Louis Henry Pieper (named after both twins), whose father died before learning of the discovery of his missing siblings’ remains. “He knew that one of his brothers was buried in Normandy and the other one was unknown,” said the nephew. “It was always a wound in his heart not knowing where his brother was, so he never talked about it.”

A Life Changed

The eldest niece, and next of kin, is Linda Pieper Suitor. She was presented with the flag from Henry’s coffin after the ceremony and said how the event has changed her life. “I think I’ve found a new purpose for my life. I’m going home and I’m going to visit high schools and share this story and make sure students know about this history project. I’m going to tell them what it’s meant to me and my family.”

A memorial with a statue of a soldier and an American flag behind it
Source: 123rf / Joaquin Ossorio-Castillo

Taylor’s project incorporated a newspaper clipping from the summer of 1944 which showed how 300 people turned out for the twins’ memorial ceremony in their little Nebraska town. Henry and Louie turned out to be the first sons of Creston to perish in the war, according to the article.

Heroes in Her Eyes

In Taylor’s project, she wrote that the whole thing changed her life in more ways than she can count. “I started this project with a vague perspective on World War II and came out of it with more facts and statistics than I know what to do with!” she said in her eulogy for the Pieper twins. She described how, at first, the names of the twins were just that – names.

Vanessa Taylor and Nichole Flynn posing in front of a world map
Source: Facebook

“But now, I am so thankful that they have become heroes in my eyes.” While the project was exciting for her, her teacher, and those involved, it was nonetheless sad for Taylor to know that “many will never hear of these two brave men or many silent heroes like them.”

More on Nebraska in the War

Even before the US joined the Second World War, President Roosevelt was looking toward the Midwestern states as locations for Army Air bases. Since the coasts were vulnerable to air attacks, it meant that the area between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains were the primary target for building new military air bases.

A landscape photograph of the snowcapped Rocky Mountains with a green grassy area
Illustrative Photograph. Source: 123rf / lightfieldstudios

Nebraska was particular promising because of its excellent year-round flying conditions as well as the fact that the areas were mostly vacant. Before the end of the war, 12 army air bases or satellite airfields were built in Nebraska, including one in Ainsworth, Taylor’s hometown. Nebraska was one of the many states that got caught up in the patriotic enthusiasm that came with scrap metal drives.

Scrap Metal Drives in Nebraska

The scrap metal drives would save tin foil from gum wrappers, old nails and else that could be deemed even remotely metal. In 1942, Nebraskans proudly noted that they filled 111% of their quota and even finished 14th in the country. The way they looked at it, they were doing what they could do to help the war effort.

Scrap drives with children throwing metal scraps in a pile next to a brick wall
Source: Tumblr

Even American coins were contributed to the drives. Copper and new zinc-coated steel pennies were issued in 1943. Then, the North Platte Canteen, which was a volunteer effort of colossal proportions, was initiated. It brought together Nebraskans from over 125 different communities, serving more than 6 million troops during World War II.

The North Platte Canteen

On December 17, 1941, families of the local Nebraska National Guard Company D stood on the train platform to give their boys/men their Christmas presents. Yet as the train arrived, and the anxiously waiting parents and spouses scanned the cars for their men they realized it was Company D from the Kansas National Guard.

Women with baskets at the train station with the North Platte Canteen
Source: Flickr

One person stepped forward anyway and gave their Christmas gifts to those troops instead. It ended up sparking an idea that continued for the rest of the war. By Christmas day, the idea had already spread and a local group of women were waiting with presents for the troops coming in on the train. After that, a canteen was set up in an empty shop across the depot.

A State of Volunteers

For the remainder of the war, women from communities across Nebraska donated their time and ration stamps to make baskets full of gifts for every train that stopped in North Platte. Once the war was in full swing, as many as 24 trains stopped in North Platte each and every day. It meant that a stream of workers was needed. By the time the Canteen closed at the end of the war, over 55,000 volunteers had become part of the Canteen.

Woman in an assembly line handing out food to service members
Source: Lincoln County Historical Society

Throughout the course of World War II, 30,053 people Nebraskans enlisted or were drafted into the US Army. Of them, 2,976 never returned. Louis and Henry Pieper, Radiomen 2nd Class for the US Navy, are among the lost.

For those who would like to continue reading about the military, you can keep scrolling and discover the abandoned military bases around the world…