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Happening upon history: Brainerd WWII vet’s dog tag found in Northern Ireland

Brainerd native Ernest Cleaveland served in Normandy during WWII. But how his military dog tag popped up in Northern Ireland nearly 80 years later is a mystery.

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Sharon Richards (left) and her son Stevie Johnson talk about their relative Ernest Cleaveland Thursday, April 29, 2021, at Richards' home outside Ironton. A dog tag belonging to Cleaveland, a World War II veteran from Brainerd who died in 1994, recently washed up on a beach in Northern Ireland. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
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It’s been nearly three decades since Ernest Cleaveland died and more than 75 years since he was discharged from the U.S. Army after World War II.
That’s why the recent discovery of his military dog tag was so surprising. But even more remarkable was where the token was found — near the coast of Northern Ireland, hundreds of miles away from the beaches of Normandy where Cleaveland served.

Eighteen-year-old Jack Murray was out walking his dog on Kilkeel Beach one day in the small Northern Irish town where he used to live when he spotted something unusual.

“Whenever I first found it, it was completely rusted. You couldn’t make out any names or anything, so I took it home,” he said during a Facebook video interview.

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Murray cleaned up the object and realized it was an old battered military dog tag with the name Ernest Cleaveland and an address in Brainerd, Minnesota.

“I tried to do my own research, but to get a service record, if you’re not a U.S. citizen, it’s quite difficult,” he said.

Realizing it could take months to get Cleaveland’s service records, Murray turned to social media, typing “Brainerd” into Facebook just to see what he could find. The first group that popped up was Brainerd, Minnesota Neighborhood Watch & Happenings, so Murray joined it and shared his findings.

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A teenager in Northern Ireland recently found a dog tag belonging to Ernest Cleaveland, a World War II veteran from Brainerd. Cleaveland died in 1994, but the dog tag was returned to his niece, Sharon Richards. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

After that, the pieces came together rather quickly, thanks in part to local historian Jeremy Jackson. Originally from Brainerd but now living in Eagan, Jackson does contract work for Hamline University in the anthropology area, helping to identify living descendants of those found in unmarked graves in Minnesota. Genealogy and historical research are a hobby of sorts.

When Jackson heard about the dog tag, he felt it was an interesting mystery he’d like to help solve.

“I jumped in with two feet and quickly found some online family trees on both ancestry.com as well as familysearch.org,” Jackson said.

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The research led him to Sharon Richards, Cleaveland’s niece living near Ironton, while her son, Stevie Johnson, had seen the dog tag on Facebook and had heard from Murray. Neither were quite sure what to make of the story though.

“I’m kind of a leery person. I didn’t know if it was a scam or what,” Richards said. “... So I didn’t really respond to it right away.”

But luckily Richards had a friend who also happened to be related to Jackson’s wife and was able to explain that — yes, this was real.

“It was kind of a shock, really,” said Richards, who was close to her Uncle Ernie — her mother’s brother — as he had no kids of his own.

“He was single for quite a few years of his life,” she said. “... He lived at home with my grandma, and I lived there for a while with my grandma and my uncle. And then later on he met a nice woman and they married, and he had a home in Brainerd there. And towards the end of his life, my aunt and I went over there and kind of helped him out with his cleaning and stuff like that at his house.”

After weeks of waiting, the dog tag finally arrived in the mail Monday, April 26, from Northern Ireland, where Murray is just excited he was able to get it to its rightful owner, a process that went much smoother than he anticipated.

Jack Murray
Jack Murray, an 18-year-old from Northern Ireland, recently found a dog tag belonging to Brainerd veteran Ernest Cleaveland on a local beach. Murray got in touch with Cleaveland's next of kin and returned the dog tag to the U.S. Submitted Photo

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“I was utterly gobsmacked by Brainerd,” he said. “Just two days to find all this. People found gravestones of him, people found newspaper clippings of obituaries.”

The close-knit lakes area community came together in a big way to solve the puzzle.

“There were so many people bringing back, like, ‘Here’s his cousin who now lives in Minnesota, and here’s their address.’ ‘Hey, I went to this house because it’s listed on the dog tag, and I asked the residents if they know anything about it,’” Murray said. “... Within three days, I knew everything there was to know about this family. I literally did nothing; I took a post and put it up on Facebook.”

Now, thanks to that Facebook sleuthing, Richards has her uncle’s dog tag to go along with the prestigious Purple Heart he earned after being wounded in Normandy July 26, 1944.

“He was hit with shrapnel, and that took a lot of his back out,” Richards said, holding up the official notice that came with his Purple Heart.

Cleaveland didn’t talk much about his time in the military until the very end of his life, so Richards doesn’t know a lot except that he saw some horrific things.

He was discharged in December 1945 after serving for about two and a half years. His specialty occupation was a cargo checker, according to his discharge papers.

Cleaveland died May 13, 1994, in Brainerd, where he was born and raised and later lived with his wife Edna while working at Brainerd Public Utilities for 29 years.

But how his dog tag ended up in Northern Ireland is still a mystery.

Ernest Cleaveland
An old black and white photo, courtesy of Sharon Richards, shows her uncle Ernest Cleaveland in his military uniform. Cleaveland, a Brainerd native, served in the U.S. Army during WWII.

Murray said there’s an old World War II airfield not far from Kilkeel that could have a connection. Or perhaps Cleaveland could have spent time in Northern Ireland before shipping out to France, Richards suggested.

Another likely possibility, according to Crow Wing County Veterans Services Officer Erik Flowers, is that Cleaveland could have gone up north to recuperate after his injury. Though Flowers couldn’t find anything about Northern Ireland in Cleaveland’s military records, there could be any number of possibilities as to why he may have spent time there.

“Maybe there was a station there where he was working, doing the cargo checking or something like that in the beginning or maybe towards the end,” Flowers said. “And if he was hurt enough, again, he might have been taken off the frontline and then that’s where he ended up serving the rest of his time doing what he could there.”

Regardless of how the dog tag ended up on Kilkeel Beach in view of a high school student walking his dog, Richards is happy to have another keepsake from her Uncle Ernie’s life. It will now rest among Cleaveland’s other awards, including the more localized Tower Award he received from the city of Brainerd in 1982 in recognition of his time spent at BPU.

Cleaveland also earned the European–African–Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, awarded to those who served in the European theatre of World War II, which was the main area of combat, and was recognized by the city of Antwerp in Belgium for his service to the city. A framed certificate from the city thanks Cleaveland for “his work in the Port of Antwerp during one hundred seventy five days of continuous enemy air and V.-weapon attacks between October 7, 1944 and March 30, 1945.”

The battered old dog tag fits in perfectly with Richards’ collection.

“It’s nice,” she said, “but he’s been gone for 20-some years now. I wish he would have been able to see it.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

Related Topics: EVERYDAY PEOPLEIRONTON
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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