US twins killed together during World War II reunited in Normandy burial
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Known for decades by the number “X-9352”, Julius Pieper has finally been laid to rest beside his twin brother in the US cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, 74 years after they were killed by a German mine off the blood-soaked D-Day beaches.
Late on Tuesday, as the last visitors left the immaculate fields of the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, a half-dozen members of the Pieper family gathered around a flag-draped metal coffin, their faces lit by the white marble of the cemetery’s 9,387 tombstones. One by one, they lay a red rose on the casket bearing the remains of their long-lost relative Julius Pieper, who died exactly 74 years ago off the coast of Normandy, along with his dear brother Ludwig, better known as “Louie”.
“It’s an amazing feeling. It was written in the stars that they would meet again,” said the twins’ niece Susan Lawrence, standing alongside her brother Dean and four of their cousins. “It was important to them that they should fight together and be on the same boat. It is only fair that they be buried together too,” she added.
Lawrence made the trip from Sacramento, California, to see her uncles finally reunited. Inseparable in life, the twins now lie side by side in the cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, a stone’s throw away from Omaha Beach. And yet for more than seven decades, the remains of the two Navy servicemen lay in separate burial grounds, more than 600 kilometres (370 miles) apart.
On June 19, 1944, thirteen days after the D-Day landings, the two brothers from Nebraska were on board the Landing Ship Tank Number 523 (LST-523), making the Channel crossing from Falmouth, England, to Omaha Beach. It was a stormy day, with strong waves tossing around the flat-bottom boat, until it hit a German underwater mine and sank within minutes. More than a hundred crew members perished, including the Pieper twins. Louie’s body was soon found, identified and laid to rest in the nearby cemetery. But Julius remained unaccounted for, his name inscribed on the Wall of the Missing.
For years the Pieper family harboured hopes of locating Julius’ remains. But it was only in 2015 that a lead finally emerged, thanks to a history project carried out by Nebraska high school student Vanessa Taylor. Moved by the story of the Pieper brothers, she asked the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, whose mission is to recover missing personnel, for access to Julius’s file. Two years later, DNA tests formally established a link between the missing radio operator and remains found by French divers in 1961 in the sunken vessel’s radio room. The remains had been interred under the number “Unknown X-9352” at another American military cemetery in Neuville, Belgium.
‘A unique case’
“It’s truly a miracle and an incredible coincidence,” said Tim Nosal, head of External Affairs at the American Battle Monuments Commission, the body that tends to US military cemeteries around the world. “If this young lady hadn’t put in the request, we may never have established the link,” he added. “It’s a truly unique case.”
When the US Army informed the Pieper family of the extraordinary discovery, Susan Lawrence’s mother broke into tears. “It took a huge weight off her shoulders,” Lawrence recalled. “It was tough for her to know that one of them was missing. She was relieved to know that he’d been found again and to think they could finally be reunited.”
When asked where they wished to have Julius finally buried, the family naturally answered: alongside his beloved brother.
‘The best of friends’
“The twins were very close. They were the best of friends, always side by side. When one fell ill, so did the other,” said Lawrence, recalling the memories passed on by her mother, who was only 15 when her brothers were killed in action.
“She used to tell us about their childhood in Nebraska,” added Lawrence’s brother Dean. “She remembered the day they enrolled and left for the war. They really wanted to do something for their country.” Turning to face Omaha Beach and the grey waters of the English Channel, his eyes welled up with tears, he added: “When I think of how my uncles died, it’s such a terrible way to go.”
Sadly, Mary Ann Lawrence, their mother, was unable to see her brothers reunited at the Colleville cemetery. The 88-year-old passed away in May of this year, just a few weeks before the family trip to Normandy.
“But she knew we were coming. She knew we would be here,” said Dean Lawrence. “This is the end of one story, but also the beginning of another,” added his sister Susan, for whom Julius and Louie Pieper can finally rest in peace side by side. “We hope to come here again with the rest of our family, so that their sacrifice isn’t forgotten and they didn’t die in vain,” she said. “That way, the family memory will remain intact.