A miracle of a story with more twists and turns than a suspense novel brought a Purple Heart back to the family whose treasure somehow ended up in the trash. The Purple Heart was awarded in 1944 for a soldier who died when his B-24 bomber went down in Germany. In 2015, the Purple Heart ended up with the man’s family, but only after it completed an incredible journey.
What Happened to the Purple Heart?
In the 1990s, Susie Mistelske purchased an old homestead on 40 acres near Wawina, a small community about 175 miles north of St. Paul, Minnesota. Mistelske’s family used the cabin as a summer retreat and as a property to hunt deer.
One day, Mistelske found an old box of clothing in the local dump while she was looking for things she could repurpose. In the discarded box was a Purple Heart. When Mistelske died in 2000, she gave the cabin and the Purple Heart to her daughter, Tami Heart. The young woman kept the military decoration as a reminder of her mother, even though the name inscribed on the back says Wiljo Matalamaki.
The Soldier’s Family Connection
Heart researched Matalamaki, a sergeant in the Army, as her curiosity piqued. His B-24 bomber was shot down over the Baltic Sea on June 20, 1944, just a few weeks after the D-Day invasion at Normandy. German planes broke through a gap in American fighters escorting a group of 12 bombers on a raid to destroy oil refineries in Politz, Germany. Of the 12 bombers, 11 were shot down, including Matalamaki’s. His body was never found.
Fast-forward to 2013. Startlingly, the cabin Heart’s mother bought in the 1990s was once owned by members of the Matalamaki family. Heart discovered this when she went to get help from a neighbor after she accidentally locked herself out of the cabin. It turns out the Matalamakis built the cabin. The young man shot down over Germany at age 22 actually grew up in the very cabin Heart owns. The story gets even more miraculous from this point.
Reunions of Two Kinds
Randy Heikkila, nephew of the fallen soldier, attended a family reunion in 2014, and he wanted to show everyone the family cabin. Heart happened to be in the cabin at the time. Heikkila mentioned his uncle Wiljo, and Heart instantly recognized the name. She then told Matalamaki’s family that she had the family’s treasured Purple Heart.
As it turns out, the family of the fallen soldier had been looking for the Purple Heart for years. Family members were very glad to get it back, even though Heart remembers the Purple Heart as a treasured heirloom that reminds her of her mother. In August 2015, a ceremony in a church at Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel in St. Paul officially returned the Purple Heart to its rightful owners after 20 years.
How did the Purple Heart end up in the trash? Heikkila speculates the box of clothes was thrown in the dump by one of the cabin’s tenants. The fact that the right person found the discarded box in the dump and then the person’s daughter owns the cabin of the Purple Heart recipient’s family is nothing short of amazing.This scenario shows that a family heirloom may mean different things to different people. In the case of Heart, the Purple Heart reminds her of her years with her mom. For the Matalamaki family, the military decoration also represents a family member who is gone but not forgotten. Read even more touching stories of treasured family heirlooms here.