By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Alora Blosch, Navy Region Europe, Africa, Southwest Asia Public Affairs
“Already the sea runs red. Even among some of the lightly wounded who jumped into shallow water the hits prove fatal. Knocked down by a bullet in the arm or weakened by fear and shock, they are unable to rise again and are drowned by the onrushing tide. Other wounded men drag themselves ashore and, on finding the sands, lie quiet from total exhaustion, only to be overtaken and killed by the water. A few move safely through the bullet swarm to the beach, then find that they cannot hold there. They return to the water to use it for body cover. Faces turned upward, so that their nostrils are out of water, they creep toward the land at the same rate as the tide. That is how most of the survivors make it. The less rugged or less clever seek the cover of enemy obstacles moored along the upper half of the beach and are knocked off by machine-gun fire.”
– S.L.A. Marshall, “First Wave at Omaha Beach,” The Atlantic, November 1960
NORMANDY, France – Seventy-four years after the chaotic and terrifying events of D-Day, it is peaceful and quiet on Omaha Beach. There is a sense of tranquility in the air. Down the streets of the nearby town are buildings made of stone that are still standing in place decades after the destruction caused by World War II. The people of the town proudly proclaim this using signs with photos of the same churches and buildings as seen in photographic documentation from the fateful battle.
The only other trace of the events of June 6, 1944 is Normandy American Cemetery, where a mixture of white crosses and stars of David are meticulously placed in perfect alignment with each other. More than 9,000 service members are buried here, many of whom gave their lives on D-Day and in the weeks that followed.
Among them are two Sailors, brothers from Nebraska, now laid to rest next to each other after nearly three-quarters of a century apart.
“Two twin brothers from Nebraska refused to be separated,” said Tim Nosal, chief of external affairs for the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). “They both wanted to serve in the war and they both wanted to serve together. Their parents supported that decision and they enlisted in the Navy.”
Julius “Henry” Pieper and Ludwig “Louis” Pieper were best friends growing up, according to stories from the surviving family members.
“As I understand it, [my mom and uncles] were close, but they were about four or five years apart,” said Susan Lawrence, niece to the Pieper brothers. “The twins themselves were very close. They were best friends. They went off and did their own things, but she said she remembered really happy times in the household with them, very fun-loving, kind and just two peas in a pod.”
The Pieper boys were from a German immigrant family, and the family’s first generation born in the United States. They had an older brother and three younger sisters (two of which were also twins). Despite still having family in Germany, they insisted on joining the fight to stop Hitler, going as far as having their father write to their commanding officer giving consent for the two brothers to serve together aboard the same ship once they enlisted.
“[They were] two young men that gave their lives for their country; they willingly volunteered at age 17,” said Lawrence. “They were fighting against family in Europe. We still had strong ties in our relations in Germany. I just think about what men at that time had to do to make that decision, to come into war, to want to fight together, and not having the opportunity to have their own families, their own children. I think of how it’s an honor and a blessing to be here to know that my uncles were a part of a situation that helped maintain our freedom.”
The Piepers served in the Navy for two years before the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. They were the only two of their rate – radioman – aboard their ship, LST 523, which meant they would alternate 12 hour shifts.
LSTs were important vessels during the war, with more than 1,000 ships built during World War II. The ships were designed with a flat bottom, allowing them to beach without tipping over, and their rudders were created with a guard allowing the vessel to return to the water. These ships carried weapons, tanks, cargo and vehicles to provide aid to the service members on shore.
Henry and Louis’ nephew, Fred Pieper, said that the last letter the twins sent home was to their parents to reassure them that they were okay, because they were together. This letter was sent out days before their fateful end.
On June 19, 1944, LST 523 was running patrols to Omaha Beach providing supplies and logistic requirements when it struck a German mine and sank. The boys were just 19 years old.
“Unfortunately, given the nature of war, it’s tragic. Both were lost,” said Nosal. “(Henry) was never recovered – well, not knowingly. The other, Louis, was. After the war, the family made the decision to have him buried here in Normandy American Cemetery. Talking with the family, even though the other twin was still lost at sea or missing in action, they felt that they would always be closer than if they had brought him back to be buried in Nebraska.”
During that time, it wasn’t uncommon to know someone who died in the war or know of someone who lost a loved one. So when the military officers showed up in the small town of Creston, Nebraska, people quickly figured out what had happened.
“A lot of rural areas didn’t have house numbers or street names at the time,” said Lawrence. “So when the two military officers came to Creston they had to start asking, ‘Do you know where the Pieper family lives? The family of Henry and Louis Pieper?’ Well, as you can imagine, the only time an officer is going to come into town during that time of the war is to give some type of news, and usually it’s not good. The town knew before (the officers) actually got to the house. I think my grandfather was working at the time, he was working there in town and I believe he was sent for and told that he needed to go home. My grandmother was home when the military officers came. In the end they heard it first from the military officers and not the town, but the town knew before they even did.”
Louis was buried in Normandy American Cemetery, but his brother Henry remained in the bowels of the sunken LST 523 at the bottom of the ocean until the early 1960s and remained unidentified until years later.
“They were salvaging the ship and they brought up the remains of the radio room, where Henry was at the time, and his body came with it,” said Linda Suitor, another niece of Henry and Louis. “I’m thankful for the French for the respect that they gave to all the bodies that they have recovered. He was interred as being an unknown at that time, but when they brought him up they did find a wallet with ID and a picture. They could have identified him in the 60’s, I think, but I think the case got back burned possibly because of things like Vietnam and other events. I guess there’s more interest in identifying the remains that they have especially now that they the technology to more definitively identify the missing.”
According to Chuck Prichard, director of public affairs for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), at the time that Henry was recovered the technology to positively identify him was not accessible. He was buried as an unknown in Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium, plot A, row 34, grave 58, known as X-9352. He stayed there for many years to come.
“Fast forward to 2015,” said Nosal. “A remarkable set of coincidences – a high school student is doing a research project at the same time that the DPAA is looking into all the unknowns buried in all the ABMC cemeteries around the globe.”
In 2015, Vanessa Taylor was a junior in a Nebraska high school participating in a history project focusing on fallen service members from the student’s home state. During this project, she discovered Henry Pieper was a twin – and that he served aboard LST 523 with his brother.
“She requested information about Julius (Henry) Pieper, the twin that was MIA, and DPAA, who was already looking into unknowns that are buried in our cemeteries, noticed that Julius (Henry) Pieper was lost on this LST,” Nosal said. “DPAA also noticed that there was an unidentified buried in an American cemetery that was a set of remains that was recovered from the ship in 1961 that came off of the same LST, and made the correlation. They contacted the family, and DPAA was able to do a lot more research.”
“She spotted [them] and said, ‘Oh look, same name, oh look, same death date, oh look, same birthdate,’” said Suitor. “That really caught her eye and she chose my uncles. Not just one, but both uncles, for her to do her research on. She contacted Aunt Mary and she got family details and history on them and created a wonderful website. Henry was one of the bodies entombed in Belgium as MIA as one of the unknowns. As they’ve been working all the cold cases from this they got Henry’s remains and took them back to the states for identification. About the same time that was happening Vanessa was requesting information about Henry. There were an influence of events that just kind of brought this to the surface.”
Mary Anne Pieper, Susan’s mother, was the youngest sister to the brothers, and the last surviving sibling, which made her the next of kin for Henry when everything started coming together. She gave DPAA permission to exhume the remains that could potentially be identified as her missing brother.
“(The X-ray technician) had access to a tuberculosis X-ray and when all the soldiers joined the service, they were given an X-ray to make sure they didn’t have tuberculosis because it was such a problem in that time,” said Suitor. “The X-ray is just a thumbnail size and they were having a hard time interpreting it, looking at it, and he developed a way on his own to use a macro lens on a camera and he was able to take a picture of it and blow it up so it could be useful for the identification because they had to do some measurements for the clavicle. They made the identification using DNA from my aunt before she died and dental records and some other things.”
The DPAA’s mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for U.S. personnel such as Henry Pieper who have not returned from past conflicts.
“They have three phases that they must go through when they plan to positively identify someone,” said Prichard. “The first two phases are location and recovery. Each case is based on its own merit and qualities and each case leaves a paper trail. These paper trails can lead to where the service member was at their time of death. Based on the location of their remains, they may be able to be recovered. Of the 82,326 people that are missing, we can recover up to 34,000; the rest are deep sea losses. From recovery, they will be assessed in our lab by our medical examiners. Julius (Henry) was exhumed and processed into the lab in April 2017. In order to positively identify him, we used DNA, dental analysis, anthropological analysis, chest radiographs, historical data and the items found with his remains like the billfold.”
When service members are positively identified, a medical examiner will send the information to the respective branch, who will then find a casualty officer to contact the next of kin to inform them of the discovery. The initial contact is by phone and they arrange a meeting where they can go through the process of identification with the family according to Prichard. Henry was positively identified on Nov. 15, 2017.
“Back then a lot of things were held close to the vest, close to the heart,” said Lawrence. “I know (Mary Anne) missed them greatly. I knew that when she received the phone call from DPAA that it was burden relieved and lifted off of her shoulders because ‘thank God he has been found. Thank God he’s been identified.’ It helped bring closure in her life.”
Lawrence’s mother Mary Anne passed away at age 88 in May 2018, just one month before the funeral for Henry. As the oldest niece/nephew, Suitor took over as the next of kin for Henry. Families of the fallen service members can choose where the service member is laid to rest, and the family chose to bury Henry in Normandy next to his brother Louis.
“They exhumed the remains from the American cemetery in Ardennes, Belgium in 2016, and in 2017 they were able to make an identification to fully account for Julius (Henry) Pieper,” said Nosal. “Once the family learned this, they decided that the twins should be buried next to each other, here in Normandy. At their request, we moved Ludwig’s burial location, we literally exhumed his casket and moved it to another location in the cemetery, so that the two twins could be close by each other.”
The family was flown out to Normandy to witness Henry’s burial.
“Coming here for this special event for the reunification of my two uncles, I’m getting a real appreciation for what happened in those years and that the liberation of France was so important,” said Suitor. “I can’t imagine what those fellows went through and we can never ever honor them enough for what they did.”
Lawrence said it was really overwhelming to take in everything that was happening as the ceremony quickly approached and she stood in the cemetery.
“When I saw the crosses, they looked like every other cross out there; it’s an impact to see the number of crosses,” said Lawrence. “What really touched my heart was that they took sand from Omaha Beach and they rubbed it over the engraving of their names and the day they died so that it would stand out more. Somehow that sand from Omaha Beach going over their names, because it was sand that they were a part of that really impacted me emotionally, to just have their names almost come to life.”
Henry was given full military honors with a bugler, an honor guard of seven Sailors and three volleys. A bronze rosette was also placed next to Henry’s name on the cemetery’s Wall of the Missing to signify that he was found and laid to rest.
The family said that this whole experience really taught them a lot about two uncles that they unfortunately never got to meet, and a lot about family history that wasn’t talked about very often. Lawrence said she keeps a picture of her uncles in her house so that their memory can live on through her since they weren’t able to start families of their own.
“I think it’s extremely important that you never let go of your history,” said Lawrence. “So many people have to go online to know their own background, you need to know the background of your country, and within that there’s usually the background of your own family members and the roles they played. It shouldn’t be forgotten. It shouldn’t be lost. You need to pay respect to those individuals that gave their lives and to those individuals currently serving that continue to give their lives so that we can have the freedoms that we do.”
Before being lowered down next to Louis, Henry’s family each placed a single red rose on his casket and released a bag of sand from Omaha beach. Lawrence also placed a single red rose on Louis’ grave as well.
Henry Pieper is the first U.S. casualty to be buried in any overseas American cemetery since their official establishment in the 1950s. He was laid to rest on June 19, 2018 next to his brother Louis Pieper, 74 years to the day the twin brothers made the ultimate sacrifice together.