BRAINERD, Minn. — 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, Minn.

“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.

Jack Murray, an 18-year-old from Northern Ireland, talks to the Dispatch via Facebook messenger April 10, 2021, about finding an old military dog tag belonging to a Brainerd man. Screenshot by Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
Jack Murray, an 18-year-old from Northern Ireland, talks to the Dispatch via Facebook messenger April 10, 2021, about finding an old military dog tag belonging to a Brainerd man. Screenshot by Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

After that, the pieces came together rather quickly, thanks in part to 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.

The research led him to Sharon Richards, Cleaveland’s niece living near Ironton. 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 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.

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.
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.

“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 toward 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.

Murray is excited he was able to get it to its rightful owner, a process that went much smoother than he anticipated.

“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.”

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
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

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.

Brainerd native Ernest Cleaveland earned a Purple Heart after being severely wounded on the beaches of Normandy in northern France in 1944. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Brainerd native Ernest Cleaveland earned a Purple Heart after being severely wounded on the beaches of Normandy in northern France in 1944. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

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.

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.”

A Brainerd Dispatch newspaper clipping from 1982 shows City Council President Mildred Michaelis presenting Ernest Cleaveland with a Tower Award from the city for his 29 years of service to Brainerd Public Utilities. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
A Brainerd Dispatch newspaper clipping from 1982 shows City Council President Mildred Michaelis presenting Ernest Cleaveland with a Tower Award from the city for his 29 years of service to Brainerd Public Utilities. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

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 Brainerd Public Utilities.

Cleaveland also earned the European–African–Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, awarded to those who served in the European theater 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.”