Metro-East News

The WWII’s vet’s family was at his funeral visitation. Now his Purple Heart is missing.

Fairview Heights home burglarized while family attends father's wake

Thornton Opperman died May 13 at age 93 of apparent natural cases, according to his obituary.
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Thornton Opperman died May 13 at age 93 of apparent natural cases, according to his obituary.

During a World War II veteran’s funeral visitation, someone broke into his and his wife’s house and ransacked it.

Now, the family can’t find Thornton Opperman’s Purple Heart.

Winifred Opperman, his widow, has Alzheimer’s Disease, and cannot remember if the Purple Heart was in the jewelery box the burglar emptied, or if it was among the drawers that were overturned in her Fairview Heights home.

“The Purple Heart was a big deal for us because it was a big deal for dad,” said Caryn Grippe, his daughter. “He valued the heart, we all did ... It’s the lowest of the low to do something like that.”

“Especially after (Thornton) just died,” Winified added.

When the family came home from Thornton Opperman’s visitation Thursday night, the house was trashed. Drawers were emptied all across the floor, and a locked jewelry box was broken open in the hallway with a hammer lying next to it.

Gone was a gold pocket watch that belonged to Winifred Opperman’s grandfather. So, potentially, was Thornton Opperman’s Purple Heart.

Tim Vizer

Thornton Opperman, who served in the U.S. Army 1st Division in WWII, was wounded on D-Day — June 6, 1944 — when a mortar shell almost blew his leg off at Omaha Beach. He was medically discharged in April 1945 and earned the Purple Heart, which is given to members of the armed forces who are wounded or killed in duty.

“A shell came in alongside and blew me out of my foxhole,” Thornton Opperman told the News-Democrat in an interview around 50 years ago. As a medic tended to him, the medic was hit by a shell and fell over dead on top of Thornton Opperman.

He saw friends and fellow soldiers killed and wounded while they waited, terrified, on the beach.

The Purple Heart was a big deal for him, Winifred Opperman said, but he wouldn’t boast about it.

“He was proud of it, but he never spoke of it,” Winifred said.

After Thursday’s burglary, the family was nervous about leaving the house empty for the funeral Friday morning. Many of the Oppermans’ neighbors were at the visitation when the burglary happened, so the house was left vulnerable.

Grippe called police while the family was at the funeral Friday, asking if they could keep an eye on the house. It appeared as though the burglar entered the house through a bedroom window that may or may not have been locked, said Officer Tim Mueller with the Fairview Heights Police Department. There didn’t seem to be any forced entry into the house, he said.

Nothing out of the ordinary happened Friday, but the family returned home from the funeral, desperate to find the medal that meant so much to Thornton Opperman.

Thornton Opperman died May 13 at age 93 of apparent natural cases, according to his obituary.