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A Story Of Twins Reunited After Death

Jun 23, 2018
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Now, a story about how a high school history project ended up making history - the project, by a teenager in Nebraska, helped reunite twin brothers separated at death during World War II. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sends this report from the American Cemetery in Normandy.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL BUTTERFIELD'S "TAPS")

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: This week - 74 years to the day they were killed off the Normandy coast - Henry and Louis Pieper were laid to rest side by side in the lush green American military cemetery, high on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, God, we pray thee that the memory of our comrade...

BEARDSLEY: The Nebraska twins were said to be inseparable. They enlisted in the Navy together and took part in the D-Day invasion as radiomen on the same landing ship. On June 19, 1944, their ship hit an underwater German mine, exploded and sunk. Louis' body was found immediately after the explosion and buried here. Henry became one of World War II's more than 70,000 missing in action. Tim Nosal, with the American Battle Monuments Commission, says they're always trying to identify missing soldiers. But in this case, there was a remarkable coincidence.

TIM NOSAL: They were looking at all the information they had on the unknowns in our cemeteries when, at the same time, a high school student in Nebraska was doing research. And it was almost like a new piece of the puzzle came across the table.

BEARDSLEY: Bringing that piece of the puzzle was student Vanessa Taylor, working on a National History Day project in 2015. I reached Taylor in Kearney, Neb.

VANESSA TAYLOR: They had this set of remains found since the '60s that could possibly be Henry's.

BEARDSLEY: Taylor's request for archival information on the Pieper twins prompted officials from the POW/MIA accounting agency to draw a possible link between the missing twin and the remains of six unidentified sailors recovered by French divers dismantling a sunken American ship off Omaha Beach in 1961 - Vanessa Taylor.

TAYLOR: So I would say we didn't have, like, super high hopes at that time. But it's really amazing that it turned out this way.

BEARDSLEY: The remains were positively identified as Henry's in November 2017 using DNA and dental records. The twins' last living sister, Mary Ann Pieper Lawrence, died just last month. Her daughter, Susan Lawrence, came to Normandy for the ceremony. Lawrence says her mother got the news of the positive identification at Thanksgiving last year.

SUSAN LAWRENCE: For her, it was like the biggest burden lifted off her shoulders. She was just carrying it all this time. You know, what happened to the brother? And to have him identified - to know that he is found, it was the biggest blessing.

BEARDSLEY: Lawrence says the twins were first-generation Americans. Both their parents had immigrated from Germany. But she says the family was proud to be American and knew Hitler had to be stopped.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Now, on to almighty God, we commend the soul of our brother departed.

BEARDSLEY: The Pieper twins had four siblings. Several of their children traveled from the U.S. to watch as their Uncle Henry was laid to rest alongside his brother Louis. One of the nephews is Louis Henry Pieper, who says he was named after both twins - brothers his father never talked about. Pieper says, for the first time, he understands why.

LOUIS HENRY PIEPER: He knew that one of his brothers was buried in Normandy and the other one was unknown. It was always a wound in his heart not knowing where his brother was. So he never talked about it.

BEARDSLEY: Just before they died, the Pieper twins wrote their parents a letter. Do not worry about us, they told them. We are together. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Normandy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.