Lost Purple Heart found, returned to WWII pilot's family after nearly 50 years

A prestigious military medal missing for decades is back in the hands of a northern Minnesota family. The Purple Heart was found in a garbage dump on the Iron Range, and once belonged to a WWII hero killed in combat.

No one knows for sure how the medal got there, but now it’s back with the veteran’s family, only because of a chance encounter.

For the past 15 years, Tami Heart asked around and searched online for the owner of the Purple Heart. She inherited the medal after her mother passed away, but couldn’t find much on whom it belonged to.

“Every year I would take it to Veterans Day events, Memorial Day events,” she said.  “My mother found the Purple Heart in the mid 90's when she was scavenging through a dump.”

The name on the back read Wiljo Matalamaki, a 22-year-old WWII army tech sergeant shot down in an airplane and killed during a mission in Germany.  His body was never recovered.

“We figured it couldn't have been on purpose, it had to be an accident that they threw it out,” Heart said.

Now this is where the story gets a little hard to believe.

“Last year, I just happened to be up at the house, and some strangers pulled into my driveway saying that they were on a family reunion,” Heart said.

Those strangers included Randy Heiikila, the nephew of the Purple Heart recipient Wiljo Matalamaki.

“I showed all my kids and grandkids where my mom's home place was,” Heiikila said.

The cabin where Matalamaki's family once lived, now belongs to Heart.

“And like everyone else, I told them the Purple Heart story and I found out they were relatives of the man whose name is on the back of the Purple Heart,” she said. 

Heikkil said they never knew what had happened to the medal, it just disappeared.

In an official ceremony at Fort Snelling chapel on Sunday, the Purple Heart was finally returned, bringing closure for the family.

“We’re going to take good care of it, put it in a display case, and enjoy it for years to come,” Heiikila said.

Matalamaki's extended family now lives in Grand Rapids, Minn. and will be showing off the medal to the entire community.