Two weeks after allied forces swept over northern France in the D-Day invasion, 19-year-olds Julius and Ludwig Pieper, Navy radiomen from Nebraska, were stationed off the coast of Normandy on a vessel called Landing Ship Tank 523. Its nickname was "Stardust."
But on June 19, 1944, Stardust hit an underwater magnetic mine, killing an unknown number of men, including the Piepers (pronounced "Peepers"). But only Ludwig's remains were found, and he was later buried at the Normandy American Cemetery in France. Julius' name was inscribed on the cemetery's Wall of the Missing.
For decades, the brothers remained apart. But after a painstaking identification process kick-started by a high school student and her teacher from Nebraska, they are finally together again. In a ceremony on Tuesday at the Normandy cemetery, Julius was buried next to Ludwig.
"It seemed like whatever happened to one, would happen to the other," said Susan Lawrence, the twins' niece, who lives in California. "They were inseparable. They felt like they came into this life together, and if they were going to die, they wanted to die together."
The Piepers - friends and family called Julius "Henry" and Ludwig "Louie" - were never supposed to be together on the same ship, Lawrence said. But their father wrote their commanding officer, asking for a special exception, she said.
They were born May 17, 1925, in South Dakota. But when they were 8 or 9 years old, their German immigrant parents Otto and Anna Pieper moved to the tiny town of Creston, Nebraska, home to a little more than 300 residents. One family photo shows all the siblings standing for a portrait, the twins and their older brother wearing what look like identical overalls. They graduated high school in 1942 - they were the first twins to get their degree from Creston High School - and later worked at a local railroad.
The next year, two days before their 18th birthday - and with their father's consent - they applied for enlistment in the U.S. Navy, where their older brother Fred was serving. By May 1943, they were attending a school for radiomen at the University of Chicago where they studied Morse code.
Little is known about the brothers' military careers. But in 2015, Vanessa Taylor, then a high school sophomore in Ainsworth, Nebraska, and her teacher, Nichole Flynn, embarked on a history project. As part of National History Day's Normandy Institute program, the pair had to research a "silent hero" from their home state.
Their deep dive led to more information about the twins' path to Stardust and the ultimate discovery of Julius's remains.
Taylor and Flynn obtained the brothers' enlistment records and their radio school transcripts from the military, ultimately building out a website chronicling their short lives.
After radio school graduation, the brothers wound up in Jeffersonville, Indiana, directly across the Ohio River from Louisville, where they joined up with Stardust and made their way across the Atlantic Ocean. After the D-Day invasion, Stardust, traveling back and forth between England and Normandy, carried men, vehicles and explosives.
On June 18, the ship left England and headed toward Utah Beach for its third and final trip, arriving the next day, according to Taylor and Flynn's research. Their report noted the vessel showed up in the middle of a violent storm, trailing another allied ship, carrying reinforcements for the men who had stormed the beach two weeks earlier. At around 1 p.m., as Stardust lined up behind the other boat, it hit an underwater mine.
"Many of the men were in the mess line and were killed instantly," Taylor and Flynn wrote. "Survivors were rescued by twenty small craft that appeared on the scene."
Back home in Creston, where the Piepers put up stars in the window for the twins and their oldest son Fred serving in the Pacific, the parents didn't find out the news for another month.
"My mother said that her mom was in the middle of the kitchen when the naval officers came, and she just started crying," Lawrence said. "My grandmother just knew. She just knew why they were there."
On July 21, a front-page story in The Daily Telegram of Columbus, Nebraska, carried the headline: "Pieper Twins First Creston Boys to Die in Present War." The article noted that a naval captain had just announced their deaths to the parents the previous night, but did not reveal where they'd perished. "Only recently, both had written home to say they had taken part in the invasion of France," the article said.
For years, the family wondered whether Julius' remains would be found so he could be buried properly, either back in Nebraska or at Normandy. In September 1961, French divers dismantled Stardust, and discovered the remains of one person left behind in the ship's radio room. It was Julius, but American authorities didn't have the technology to connect the dots yet, said Tim Nosal, the chief of external affairs for the American Battle Monuments Commission, which oversees U.S. military cemeteries abroad.
Nosal said it's not even certain whether a full passenger list from the ship ever existed. Meanwhile, the remains the divers had found - Julius' - were shipped to Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium, where he was buried in a plot for unknown soldiers.
But then, in 2015, the student-teacher duo from Nebraska started digging into the Pieper twins. They scanned the list of Nebraskans who perished in World War II and were buried at Normandy.
"We noticed these two men had the last same name and wondered if they were related," said Taylor, now a sophomore at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. "Then we found out they were brothers - and that they were twins."
They reached out to the family and the National Archives. But it was when they contacted the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency that a lightbulb went off, Nosal said. The agency had just begun to aggressively pursue identifications of unknown soldiers when Taylor and Flynn's request for Julius' records came through. Authorities quickly linked him to the remains divers that had discovered in the radio room of Stardust.
Eventually, officials exhumed Julius' remains in Belgium and, using dental and chest radiograph comparison analysis, announced the match in November 2017.
Lawrence said her mother, MaryAnne, was relieved.
"It was like this big burden off her shoulders," Lawrence said. "It was very surreal. After all these years - how many, 70 years or so? - that they could identify somebody. It was like, 'Oh, thank God. What a blessing. He's no longer unknown.'"
Taylor said she felt grateful for the happy ending.
"I would say I felt some pride, maybe if just the little bit of research we did helped tie things together," she said.
Flynn said she was thrilled for the family.
"I'm just happy they were able to have resolution," she said.
The family did have one request to the military. Could they be buried side by side? Nosal, of the American Battle Monuments Commission, said the government was happy to oblige. They kept Ludwig in Plot E, but moved him ten rows away, to Row 25, Grave 42. As for Julius, he's in Grave 43.
For Lawrence, one family memento she remembers the most is a letter from Julius and Ludwig. They'd written it to their parents, who received it just two days before their death. It read: "Do not worry about us, we are together."
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