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Four brothers -- Theodore, Herbert, John and David Poppke -- grew up on the prairie together and served in the military amid World War II.

Although their careers took them separate directions across the country and they died over a period of 43 years, they were honored, side by side, earlier this year in ceremonies at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery south of Mandan.

“I don’t think any of them would ever have imagined they’d be all together again,” said Kathy Poppke, whose father, David, was the last one to die in September.

David, though, had made a plan years ago with his wife, DeLaine, to bury the brothers alongside each other.

“The idea was to bring them back here because we had this beautiful cemetery,” DeLaine said.

Three of them, David, Herbert and John, were buried there in September.

A fourth brother, Theodore Popke -- who used a different spelling of his last name -- died in 1976 and was buried in California. A memorial headstone will honor him alongside his brothers at the Mandan cemetery.

“He said, ‘When I die, for God’s sake, don’t take me back to North Dakota and bury me in that cold country,” DeLaine recalled.

Such a situation -- with multiple family members buried next to each other at the veterans cemetery -- is rare, Director Pam Helbling-Schafer said. The cemetery has had a couple of siblings buried together, but never four.

Generally, families cannot reserve specific plots so that relatives can be buried next to each other at different times, Helbling-Schafer said.

“That’s why this family chose to hold onto the remains, and when the final one passed we did a burial side-by-side,” she said.

Serving their country

The four brothers were born in Goodrich in central North Dakota: Theodore first in 1912, followed by Herbert in 1921, John in 1922 and David in 1927. They later moved to Denhoff, then to Tuttle in Kidder County.

Their family was large, with 10 surviving children, and grew even bigger after their mother died. Their father, a blacksmith, married a woman with six children of her own.

Irene Carter, one of the Poppke children, recalls playing the game "spoons" with her brothers growing up. It involves pounding a utensil on one’s knee and singing “She’ll Be Coming Around The Mountain.” The siblings also spent a lot of time swapping stories about school.

“We had a big round table with 16 of us usually sitting at the table, and we would have a good time talking,” she said.

Theodore and Herbert both served in the Army. Theodore served toward the beginning of the war and received a medical discharge, said nephew Ted Poppke. Herbert was a German interpreter.

John and David joined the Navy. John built airstrips in Japan and the Pacific, and David served aboard a landing ship tanker in Asia after Japan surrendered.

“They all wanted to go, except my brother Herbert was more or less against it, but he went because he figured it was his duty,” Carter recalled. “We were all in favor of the boys going.”

Carter, who is 95 years old and lives in Washington state, joined other family members at the ceremonies for her siblings on Sept. 17 at the veterans cemetery.

A service for David, who had died five days earlier, was held at the cemetery chapel following his funeral at First Lutheran Church in Bismarck.

Then the family walked over to the grave sites in the southern portion of the cemetery and put David to rest first, followed by John and Herbert, Helbling-Schafer said. Military personnel folded flags for each brother -- Theodore as well -- and presented them to family members, who also received memorial coins. The headstones have not been placed yet, though they will be soon.

With the family gathered outside, two World War II-era airplanes flew over the cemetery -- a North American AT-6 built in 1941 and a 1942 Boeing Stearman. 

“It’s a pretty small thing we can do to honor the veterans who sacrificed so much,” said Mike Gunia, one of the pilots.

The experience was moving for family members. Ted called it “a touching service,” and DeLaine said it was “very impressive.” Kathy said she had “no words to describe the intense emotion.”

All say how grateful they are to the cemetery, military personnel and pilots for making the day come together after waiting, for so many years, to put the brothers to rest.

Carter, who is their only living sibling, wrote up a reflection of the day: “I do not have sufficient adjectives in my vocabulary to express my sincere feelings of being in the presence of my four brothers’ military funeral. I am forever grateful for their service to our wonderful country.”

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(Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.)

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