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St. Paul student works to memorialize 2 fallen WWII soldiers

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Emma Mulhern
Emma Mulhern describes a photo that is part of her research on World War II at her St. Paul, Minn. home on Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015. Mulhern, a 14-year-old high school sophomore, is trying to keep alive the memories of young men she never knew who were caught up in that conflict, who fought and died in a war long before she was born.
John Autey | AP

World War II ended 70 years ago, nearly as distant an event to us today as the Civil War was to those alive during the 1940s.

But Emma Mulhern, a 14-year-old high school sophomore from St. Paul, is trying to keep alive the memories of young men she never knew who were caught up in that conflict, who fought and died in a war long before she was born.

Over the past couple of years, Emma has researched the lives of two American soldiers from the Midwest who were killed in France in the war's final year. She has created memorial websites devoted to them.

In the summer, she'll travel to France to say a eulogy at their graves in a cemetery overlooking the beaches that were the site of the D-Day invasion, a critical turning point in the war.

Emma's project is part of a National History Day competition that challenges high school students to uncover and preserve the story of an American service member who died in the Normandy invasion.

Starting with little more than a name, Emma was able to track down and interview relatives and friends of the two men she researched. She found and photographed their medals and letters home, looked up newspaper clippings and military records, unearthed childhood photos and school grades, documented family trees and youthful romances.

This year, her work was recognized by the Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Albert H. Small Student and Teacher Institute.

The institute selected Emma as a member of one of 15 student-teacher teams nationwide to travel to France over the summer to visit the D-Day battlefield and the Normandy American Cemetery, the burial place of more than 9,000 American servicemen who fell in the fight to liberate France.

It's not Emma's first experience with in-depth historical research.

As a 12-year-old, she researched Minnesota's first school teacher, Harriet Bishop, for a Minnesota State History Day project in which Emma performed a 10-minute skit portraying Bishop.

Digging through archives at the Minnesota History Center, Emma unearthed a little-known lawsuit involving land speculation that Bishop became caught up in.

Emma said her interest in history was sparked by David Howard, her seventh-grade American history teacher at Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet School in St. Paul.

Her interest in military history might be influenced by her father's service in the Army.

Gerald Mulhern now works in the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, but during his Cold War and post-Cold War service in the military, he learned German and Russian as a linguist in the Army.

When her family took a trip to New Orleans a couple of summers ago, Emma voted to visit the National WWII Museum there.

"I said, 'Oh, that's cool; let's see that,'"she told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

In eighth grade, she wrote an essay that led to her being chosen as one of four students to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on a class trip to Washington, D.C.

As a ninth-grader at Highland Park High School, her History Day project focused on Lt. Donald Kleppin, a South Dakota soldier who died in France in July 1944.

Kleppin was from Wessington Springs, the town where Emma's grandmother grew up, and Kleppin's sister-in-law is distantly related to Emma.

The teen traveled to Wessington Springs and interviewed Kleppin's two younger brothers and a boyhood friend.

She said everyone in the 1,000-person town seemed to know she was there collecting stories about the hometown hero.

"Word spread pretty quickly," Emma said.

To allow Emma to take pictures of Kleppin's Purple Heart and Silver Star medals, the caretaker of the town museum opened the building even though it was normally closed.

The memorial website Emma created contains transcripts of her interviews, family photos and big-band music that Kleppin and other GIs would have listened to 70 years ago.

"I just Googled pop songs during the 1940s," she said.

Her next project took even more detective work. Emma wanted to document the story of one of the 241 Minnesotans buried at the Normandy American Cemetery. She decided to focus on someone with a name at the end of the alphabet.

Henry Van Hyfte, a corporal in the 8th Infantry Division, died July 27, 1944, according to cemetery records.

Before Emma could find out where and when he was born, she had to comb through World War II casualty lists printed in old copies of the St. Paul Pioneer Press kept by the Minnesota Historical Society.

She also looked through death records to construct a family history of Van Hyfte, who grew up on a farm near Taunton, in southwestern Minnesota.

She found an entry for Van Hyfte on the findagrave.com website and noticed that a photo of him in uniform had been submitted to the website from someone with an email address with the same last name.

She emailed the address, ended up talking to Van Hyfte's niece and learned that Van Hyfte's closest relatives, including two brothers, had died but a sister-in-law was alive in Porter, Minn.

"I was so surprised when she came," said Ruth Van Hyfte, the sister-in-law. She gave Emma access to family documents and photos. "I can't believe she's a 14-year-old girl taking an interest in this," Van Hyfte said.

Among the documents Van Hyfte found for Mulhern was a letter Henry Van Hyfte sent to his parents from France.

"I am in a fox hole right now and artillery is firing at us," he wrote on July 18, 1944.

A few days later, the family would receive a Western Union telegram from the War Department informing them that Van Hyfte was killed in action.

Because of Emma's project, the documents might be archived by the Minnesota Historical Society.

In an effort to find more leads, Emma also wrote to a principal at a school near Taunton. Her request was passed on to a reporter with the local paper, the Minneota Mascot.

Scott Thoma wrote a couple of stories for the Mascot about Emma's project and helped lead her to some contacts in the community.

"She just doesn't give up," Thoma said. "She really, sincerely seemed to care about this guy." 

One of the people who read Thoma's article was Sister Helen Janssen, a nun in the St. Joseph of Carondolet order who lives in St. Paul. Janssen was a childhood friend and neighbor of Henry Van Hyfte and went to school with him in the same one-room schoolhouse that farm kids in the Taunton area attended.

Janssen contacted Emma and told her about the sleigh rides, baseball games and house dances that occupied Van Hyfte in the years before the war.

"Henry was very light-hearted, very happy, a joyful person," Janssen said. "We had fun together. We worked together, prayed together."

Being interviewed by Emma "made it very alive again," said Janssen, 93.

"She really likes going to talk to family members," said Howard, the teacher who will be going to France with Emma, thanks to the Normandy Institute program.

"She'll travel down all the rabbit holes," he said of Emma's persistence in finding primary documents and eyewitnesses. "'Natural researcher' is a great way to describe her."

"Most kids nowadays don't really care about the past. They're more focused on the now and future," Emma said. "I think it's important to learn about it. I think it's interesting."

The Normandy Institute trip, from June 20 to July 2, first will send Emma and Howard to Washington, D.C., where they and other student-teacher teams will attend lectures about World War II and do more research about the servicemen they are studying.

Then they will spend four days in France, touring Normandy battle sites. The journey will culminate in eulogies given by the students at the graves of the Americans buried there.

Emma said she hopes to speak at the gravesites of both Kleppin and Van Hyfte, and she'll consult with their relatives to see what they want said.

Ruth Van Hyfte said none of Henry Van Hyfte's family has visited his resting place.

According to the website she has created for Van Hyfte, Emma said she hopes to "honor their sacrifice and give them the eulogy they didn't get from their family."