ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The family of Wiljo Matalamaki clung to his Purple Heart, a tribute to a young man sent to World War II who never returned, whose body was never found. Then the medal, too, was lost.
For decades, they wondered where it went. It took a random discovery at a dump, an offhand remark from a neighbor and a chance visitor, but nearly half a century after it was lost, the medal will be returned to his relatives this weekend.
Randy Heikkila never met his uncle Wiljo, but his mother told him why her youngest brother didn't return from the war: His bomber plane was shot down during a mission over Germany in 1944, never found and he was presumed dead. With his name crisply engraved on the back, Wiljo's family clung to his Purple Heart Medal until that, too, was lost after Wiljo's mother died in 1966.
Heikkila, who has a hint of the Finnish accent of his ancestors, said his mother didn't live to find an answer to the question that escaped their family for decades. Relatives will be reunited with the medal at Fort Snelling in St. Paul on Sunday, days after the anniversary of the creation of the Purple Heart medal for those killed or wounded in combat.
"I think she'd be really happy about that. She always wondered where it was," he said.
Tami Heart's mother didn't set out to find a war medal as she picked through a dump some five miles from her property in tiny Wawina, Minnesota in the '90s. But there the lightly weathered case was, lying forgotten in a box of discarded clothing. Wiljo's medal was pristine as ever.
Nor did Heart herself chase down answers to the mystery of a stranger's Purple Heart medal after her mother died. The answers came to her.
First, a revelation from a neighbor: Wiljo was born and grew up in the same shack her mother settled into. Heart adopted Wiljo's memory into her own life. She researched his death and visited the Wawina cemetery where his headstone lays alongside his parents and siblings. She's taken Wiljo's medal out to Veteran's Day ceremonies and told the story of its discovery thousands of times, she said.
Over more than a decade guarding the medal, she said she forged a connection with both Wiljo and his mother. When she looks at her cabin, she said, she can see Emma Matalamaki, mourning her son in the house he was born, his medal in hand. Heart mourned for him too, she said.
"I felt really bonded to a 22-year-old man who died in World War II that none of us has ever met," she said.
Then, years after Heart claimed her mother's place as her own cabin, a group led by Heikkila on a tour of family sites showed up at her gate with a request: Could we look around? My uncle Wiljo grew up here.
When Heikkila asked if his family could have Wiljo's medal, it was a difficult time. Days before the handover ceremony, her eyes filled with tears as she thought of parting with a link to both Wiljo and her own mother. But she knows it's only right.
"It's meant a lot to me," she said. "It's time to turn him over."