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.”