Sometimes a high school history project ends up making history. That's what happened when a 16-year-old Nebraska student decided to participate in the National History Day project in 2015.
Partly due to her research, the bodies of two American twin brothers, separated at death during World War II, were finally reunited.
On June 19, 2018 — 74 years to the day after they were killed off the coast of Normandy, France — Ludwig Julius Wilhelm "Louie" Pieper and Julius Heinrich Otto "Henry" Pieper were laid to rest side by side in the Normandy American Cemetery, high on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach.
The twins were born in Esmond, South Dakota, and grew up in Creston, Neb. They enlisted in the Navy together and took part in the 1944 D-Day Normandy invasion as radiomen 2nd class on the same landing ship.
Nearly two weeks after D-Day, Landing Ship Tank 523 was crossing the Channel from England, trying to reach France's Utah Beach. It was loaded with men, vehicles, equipment and explosives. The ship hit an underwater German magnetic mine, exploded and sank within minutes, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission. The Pieper twins were 19 years old.
Rescuers found Louie's body after the explosion. But Henry's wasn't immediately found and identified. He became one of World War II's tens of thousands of missing in action. His name was inscribed on the Walls of the Missing at the American military cemetery in Normandy, where Louie was buried.
Henry's remains were eventually discovered, but remained unidentified. For decades, the body was labeled "Unknown X-9352" and was buried at another military cemetery in Belgium — until now.
Tim Nosal, who heads external affairs at the American Battle Monuments Commission in Virginia, says they are always looking for America's missing soldiers, but this time there was an incredible coincidence that helped them find one.
"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," says Nosal. "And it's almost like a new piece of the puzzle came across the table."
It was 2015, and Vanessa Taylor was a student at Ainsworth High School in Ainsworth, Neb., and was looking for a topic for a class project.
"We were supposed to select a silent hero from our state," says Taylor, now a student at the University of Nebraska.
She began her research by looking at websites listing soldiers killed from her state.
"I just happened to notice there were two people killed who had the same exact last name," she says. "So I thought it was kind of interesting and wondered if there was a connection or if it was just a coincidence."
Taylor says she found out they were twin brothers who served in the same branch of the military. "And they were on the same ship when they died," she adds.
Taylor's requests to the U.S. government for personnel files on the sailors caught the attention of officials at the Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency, which tracks soldiers who have been prisoners of war or missing in action. They drew a possible link between the missing twin and the remains of six unidentified sailors found by French divers who were dismantling a sunken American ship off Omaha Beach in 1961. Those unidentified remains were buried at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium.
"It was fresh [information] to them and it helped them put the pieces together to identify a sailor that was missing from this particular vessel," says Nosal.
The remains were positively identified as Henry's in November 2017, using DNA and dental records.
The twins had four other siblings. Their last living sister, MaryAnn Pieper Lawrence, died in May.
At the June ceremony in Normandy, her daughter Susan Lawrence said her mother got the news of the positive identification last Thanksgiving.
"For her, it was like the biggest burden lifted off her shoulders. She was just carrying it all this time," says Lawrence. "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 if they could bury the twins side by side in the verdant, pine tree-lined cemetery above Omaha Beach.
Louie's body was moved to a space where it could be reburied next to Henry.
"The American Battle Monuments Commission went out of its way to make it happen," says Lawrence.
At the end of World War II, about 79,000 Americans were unaccounted for, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Today, the agency's website says, more than 72,000 remain unaccounted for from the war.
Many bodies have been identified, says Nosal. But once they are, their families usually repatriate them to the United States.
He says this is the first missing soldier to be identified and buried in this Normandy cemetery of more than 9,300 graves.
"People will be talking about the Pieper twins and visiting their graves for as long as this cemetery exists," he says. "Five million visitors come through this cemetery each year. If you were to rebury your loved one in a private cemetery back home, he would never receive so many visitors. There's a strong message here for the world, of what these men sacrificed their lives for."
As the June ceremony got underway, taps was played as six midshipmen carried Henry's flag-draped coffin between the rows of white marble crosses and Stars of David. The twins' family members sat in a row of chairs on the green lawn. Six nieces and nephews of the twins traveled from the U.S. to witness the burial of uncles they never met.
One of the nephews, Louis Henry Pieper, is named after both twins. His father died before learning of the discovery of the missing sibling's remains.
"He knew that one of his brothers was buried in Normandy and the other one was unknown," said Pieper. "It was always a wound in his heart not knowing where his brother was, so he never talked about it."
As eldest niece and next of kin, Linda Pieper Suitor, was presented with the flag from Henry's coffin after the ceremony. She said this event has changed her life.
"I think I've found a new purpose for my life," Suitor said. "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 newspaper clipping from the summer of 1944 in student Vanessa Taylor's online project says 300 people turned out for a memorial ceremony for the twins in their little Nebraska town. Henry and Louie were the first sons of Creston to die in the war, according to the old newspaper article.
The twins were first-generation Americans. Both their parents had emigrated from Germany. Niece Susan Lawrence says the family was proud to be American and knew Hitler had to be stopped.
Initially, Henry and Louie were separated in the Navy. But their father wrote a letter asking that they be able to serve together.
And Lawrence recalls that the twins wrote to their parents just before they died.
"Do not worry about us," she remembers it saying. "We are together."