Wiljo Johannes Matalamaki

Army Badge
  • Name: Wiljo Johannes Matalamaki
  • Location of Birth: Wawina, Minnesota
  • Date of Birth: January 27, 1922
  • Date of Death: June 20, 1944 (22 years old)
  • Parents: Andrew Matalamaki and Emma Maijala (Seppala) Matalamaki
  • High School and Class:
  • College:
  • Highest Rank: TSGT (Technical Sergeant)
  • Branch: Army
  • Other Branch: United States Army Air Forces
  • Date Sworn In:
  • Place Sworn In:
  • Date of Discharge:
  • Place of Discharge:
  • Military Awards:
    Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster
    Purple Heart

  • Military Highlights:
    Military records show Wiljo was 20 years old when he registered on June 30, 1942. He was a white male, weighed 175 pounds, had a light complexion, had blue eyes, had blonde hair, and was 5'10". He was employed by John Karkiainen.

    Wiljo was with the 856th Bomber Squadron and 492nd Bomber Group, Heavy.

    The 492nd Bomber Group lasted 89 days. They flew 67 missions and dropped 3,653 tons of bombs. Fifty-five bombers had been lost, 234 men killed in action, 26 wounded, 131 became POWs and 129 were interned in either Sweden or Switzerland. They were known as a "Hard Luck Outfit"

    News article from Grand Rapids Herald Review, dated July 19, 1944:
    "Mrs. Emma Matalamaki of Wawina received a telegram late last week, from the United States War Department, informing her that her son, Tech. Sgt. Wiljo Matalamaki was missing in action from a flight over Germany.

    The date of the mission from which the plane did not return was given as June 20. The mother has learned no more particulars."

  • Wars Involved:
    World War II

  • MIA / POW:
    Killed in Action

  • Civilian Life:
    My name is Tami Heart. I live in the Twin Cities. This is a true story with a miraculous twist of fate about a Purple Heart and a man named Wiljo Matalamaki.

    There are many folks who live in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota and who also own hunting shacks and woodlands "up north". My mother, Susie, was one of those people. She was drawn to the Iron Range area of Northern Minnesota because she loved nature and wished to prepare a safe-haven in case of a financial collapse in the United States. I think it was in the late 70's or early 80's that my mother purchased an old homestead from a woman named Linda, also known as Bullwhip Griffen--because of her use of a whip to fend off danger--most memorable was when she cracked her whip down the center aisle of a school bus, warning others not to tease her children. Before that, the shack was rented to hippies--who recall the shack having dirt floors.

    The shack is actually a story-and-a-half old home that was built around the late 1800's. The old house is in the middle of 40 acres of beautiful woods where deer, coyote, bear, raccoons, and birds of all kinds pass through. It doesn't have any electricity, plumbing, or running water. It was a perfect get-a-way from the city and my mother used it as her summer cabin.

    When I was a kid, we used to drive from the Twin Cities up to my Uncle Ron's (near my mother's summer cabin), He would put us kids in his Gremlin and drive down a narrow dirt road that opened up to the dump. He would stop abruptly and turn off the motor in an effort to not scare away any bear that were picking through food scraps. When bear weren't present, folks would search the trash for treasures and generally anything they could re-use.

    In the 1990's, my mother told me a story. She said she was scavenging through a dump up north and saw a box of clothes tipped over, with clothes in and strewn about it. Tucked inside some clothing was a small black box with gold edging on it that read, "Purple Heart". Mom said she opened the ornate box to find a Purple Heart medal. As she told the story, she handed the box to me and allowed me to hold the Purple Heart. We were both amazed at the treasure she had found and felt deeply saddened by the thought of someone throwing it in the dump. It surely must have been accidental.

    Ten years later, in 2000, my mother died. I inherited her hunting land and summer cabin, and her home in the Cities where she kept the Purple Heart. It is such a beautiful medal--a deep purple heart, outlaid in gold, made of brass (that's why it's so heavy), and inscribed with the wounded or dead person's name on the back (Wiljo Matalamaki).

    Google was a new thing to me back then and I attempted to search out information about Wiljo. I found a group photo of his squadron and learned that he died in World War II (in 1944) when his fighter plane went down. His body was never recovered and he was only 22 years old. That was the extent of information on the web back then.

    I attempted to find a family member who I might deliver the medal to. I found a distant relative, and to make a long story short, Wiljo's Purple Heart stayed in my possession. I never knew Wiljo, but I was very attached to his Purple Heart. For many years, I carried it around, especially on Memorial Days and Veteran's Days. I offered up the medal for families to look at and hold and honored Wiljo's memory whenever I could. I told anyone who would listen about the Purple Heart my mother found in a dump.

    In the summer of 2013, I was up north at mom's old place and I got locked out of the house. I ventured down a dirt road to seek help from neighbors that I didn't know. As I walked up to their farm, three older men were sitting outside on chairs. I conveyed to them my trouble of being locked out and they asked me which place was mine. I pointed toward it and one man said, "Oh, the old Matalamaki house." I responded by saying "no" and told him my name, my mother's name, and the owner before her. He responded back by telling me that it indeed was "the Matalamaki house" as his mother always called it that when he was a kid. I told them about the Purple Heart my mother found over 20 years earlier with the name Wiljo Matalamaki on the back. Then I got the shock of my life--Wiljo grew up in my house.

    But the story doesn't end there.

    In 2014, I was at mom's old house when a couple approached me in my yard. They said they were celebrating a family reunion and had more family (their children and grandchildren) waiting on the roadway hoping it would be okay if they could visit the family homestead of their ancestors. The man's name was Randy. He said his Grandmother Emma once lived there. He used to visit her when he was a child. He told me that he heard from a neighbor that I had a Purple Heart in my possession that belong to his mother's brother, Wiljo. We shared stories and toured the old house. The children were amazed at how primitive the conditions were and mostly unchanged since Emma raised five children there, including Wiljo. He told me that Wiljo was Finnish and was the last of five children raised on the land by Emma. Wiljo never met his dad, Andrew, who died while Emma was pregnant with Wiljo. And one last surprise...Wiljo was actually born in my (my mother's) house, along with all of his siblings.

    Randy and I are now communicating via email. He sent me photos, so I know what Wiljo looked like. Another picture shows a cemetery overseas where he has a memorial marker, a headstone in Wawina, Minnesota, and another picture of a painting that captures the plane Wiljo was in at it was going down in flames ("Into a Hornet's Nest by Randy Green).

    Upstairs in the old house (it is now my summer cabin), I was getting ready for bed. I propped up the newly-gotten picture of Wiljo next to his Purple Heart. I imagined his mother Emma sitting upstairs as I was doing, looking at the same photo and holding the same Purple Heart. I imagine her crying over losing her youngest child to war. I'm 50. She would have been around my age. I feel like we are all connected. Emma would have been relieved to know that her son's Purple Heart is no longer in a dump, but miraculously back home where it belongs.

    The Purple Heart is awarded to members of the armed forces of the United States who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action. It is one of the most recognized and respected medals awarded to members of the United States armed forces. Introduced as the "Badge of Military Merit" by General George Washington in 1782, the Purple Heart is also the nation's oldest military award. In military terms, the award had "broken service," as it was ignored for nearly 150 years until it was re-introduced on February 22, 1932, on the 200th anniversary of George Washington's birth. In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order allowing the Navy to award the Purple Heart to Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guard personnel. Also in that year, the Purple Heart was made available for posthumous award to any member of the military killed on or after December 7, 1941.

    Tami Heart passed Wiljo's Purple Heart on to the family of Wiljo Matalamaki at the Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in Minnesota on Sunday, August 9, 2015.

    Article written by Richard Chin: "HEARTS IN THE RIGHT PLACE"
    "A woman named Heart will be returning a long lost Purple Heat on Sunday. For about 15 years, White Bear Lake resident Tami Heart has held onto a stranger's military decoration, a Purple Heart Medal, which is awarded to a serviceman wounded or killed in combat. Heart, 51, said the medal was found by her mother in a garbage dump on the Iron Range in the mid-1990's. Heart said her mother, Susie Mistelski, who lived in St. Paul, had purchased an old homestead in Wawina, Minnesota, near Grand Rapids, that included 40 acres of property and an old rustic house without electricity or running water. The family used the property as a summer cabin and hunted deer there. Another activity for the family was visiting the local dump to spot bears and scavenge for stuff that could be reused. 'It was a poor community,' Heart said. 'Everyone up there used to do that.' In the mid-1990's, Heart's mother told her she had found a box full of clothing at the dump. Among the garments was a small black box with gold edging. Inside that was a Purple Heart decoration. A name was engraved on the back: Wiljo Matalamaki. 'It was a sad thing. Why would someone throw that out?' Heart said. Heart's mother died in 2000, and she inherited the old cabin and the Purple Heart. 'I never knew Wiljo but I was very attached to his Purple Heart,' Heart wrote in an essay about the discovery. 'For many years, I carried it around, especially on Memorial Days and Veterans Days.' She also began to do online research about Matalamaki. He was a Minnesota man who served as an engineer on a B-24 heavy bomber in the U.S. Army's 8th Air Force fighting in Europe during World War II. His unit, the 492nd Bomb Group, suffered such high casualties that it was unofficially nicknamed the 'Hard Luck' group, according to an online history of the group. But even for the 492nd the date of June 20, 1944, was a bad day. Matalamaki was flying on a B-24 nicknamed the 'Mary Ellen' on a mission to bomb oil refineries in Politz, Germany. Exploiting a gap in escort fighter protection, German fighter planes pounced on the bombers, destroying or forcing down 11 of 12 planes in Matalamaki's squadron as they were flying over the Baltic Sea, according to an account at 492ndbombgroup,com. According to a co-pilot in another plane, the 'Mary Ellen' exploded in a ball of flame, apparently from a direct hit in the fuel tanks. All 10 men on the 'Mary Ellen' were lost. Matalamaki's body was never recovered. He was 22, A couple of years ago, Heart learned how her connection to Matalamaki originated. In the summer of 2013, she was staying at the house in Wawina that she had inherited, and she was locked out of the house. She walked down a dirt road to get help from a neighbor. Three older men were sitting outside of a nearby farm, and when Heart told them which house was hers, one of the men said, 'Oh, the old Matalamaki house.' It turned out that Heart's house was built by Wiljo Matalamaki's family. He and his four siblings were born and grew up there. Last year, Heart met some of Wiljo's relatives from the Iron Range. They were having a family reunion and wanted to visit the old Matalamaki homestead. Randy Heikkila, 61, of Grand Rapids, said his Uncle Wiljo wasn't married when he was killed. Wiljo's siblings are all dead. Over the years, Heikkila said the family wondered what happened to his uncle's Purple Heart decoration. He said they don't know how it ended up in the dump. According to Heart, Wiljo's father died before he was born and Wiljo's mother, Emma, died in 1966. She said the medal 'couldn't have been in the dump that long'. Heart will be returning the medal to Heikkila at this Sunday's service at the Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel near Historic Fort Snelling. The non-denominational church describes itself as the church 'where the veteran is remembered.' The return of the medal was chosen for this Sunday, August 9, because it comes two days after Purple Heart Day on August 7. That's the anniversary of Gen. George Washington's creation of the Continental Army's heart-shaped 'Badge for Military Merit' in 1782. The decoration would later become the Purple Heart."

    Siblings are Uno Albert Matalamaki, Bruno Matalamaki, and Aino Sylvia (Matalamaki) Heikkila.

    Memorial marker, listed among tablets of the missing at Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial in Cambridgeshire, England.

    Grave marker in Wawina Cemetery at Wawina, Minnesota.

  • Tribal Affiliation(s):