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Highest honor

18 N.E. vets of WWII to receive French award

Anthony Koutzoukis, in a photo from 1943 (top right) and yesterday at his home in Peabody. Now 81, he will travel to Vermont today to attend the ceremony honoring his World War II service in France as an Army machine gunner. Bottom right: The Legion of Honor medal.
Anthony Koutzoukis, in a photo from 1943 (top right) and yesterday at his home in Peabody. Now 81, he will travel to Vermont today to attend the ceremony honoring his World War II service in France as an Army machine gunner. Bottom right: The Legion of Honor medal. (Boston Globe Photo / Robert Spencer)

It is the highest award France bestows.

The Legion of Honor, created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte to celebrate extraordinary contributions to the country, has been awarded to the explorer Jacques Cousteau, General George S. Patton, and writer Edith Wharton.

Today, a retired barber from Beverly, a former contractor from Somerset, and Peabody's onetime deputy fire chief will join that exalted group.

In a ceremony steeped with tradition and run with military precision, 18 New England veterans will be honored for helping liberate France during World War II.

Many of them were fresh-faced teenagers when they fought the Axis powers. Six decades later, they are gray-haired grandfathers still haunted by the memories of the death and destruction they witnessed. For several of the recipients, today's ceremony at Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., will be a bittersweet reminder of comrades they lost during the war and those who have succumbed to age and infirmity over the years.

''That's the sad part, you know," said Anthony Koutzoukis, 81, of Peabody, who will be honored for serving as an Army machine gunner. ''They'll never feel the exhilaration that they should have in getting this award."

Bernard Laplante of Adams, a fellow Army honoree, said, ''The way I look at it, I am 81 years old. There's not going to be many more reunions or World War II gatherings. [We're] dying every day."

The French government has bestowed the honor on cultural and artistic luminaries and on high-profile World War II figures including Patton and General Dwight D. Eisenhower. To commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-day in 2004, President Jacques Chirac of France launched an effort to find unheralded US and Allied veterans who fought for France's freedom and who would qualify for the honor. The first 100 American veterans received the Legion of Honor in ceremonies held in France during the days around the June 6 anniversary.

Afterward, Chirac directed all 10 French consulates in the United States to locate potential recipients in their area.

Since then, the French consulate in Boston has been working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to search Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island for those who might fit the strict criteria for a Legion of Honor medal. To be considered, a soldier had to have served in one of the four campaigns in France, including the Normandy invasion, and have either been taken as a prisoner of war, or awarded a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, or a higher honor.

''France is very grateful for what they have done," Francois Gauthier, the consul general in Boston, said yesterday in a telephone interview. ''To symbolize this feeling, we are giving them the best decoration you can have in our country. It is our moral duty to do this and we want to say it clearly: France will never forget what they have done for our freedom. They liberated us from tyranny."

Consulate officials sent letters informing the veterans they were recipients and inviting them to the ceremony that is scheduled to include Vermont Governor James Douglas, US Army Brigadier General Mark S. Bowman, and Jean-Pierre Héry, captain of the French Foreign Legion. But some of the honorees said they are too frail to attend the event at Norwich, a private military college.

When Norman Bibeau of Somerset received the congratulatory letter, his excitement gave way to dismay when he realized he would have to stay home. Bibeau served in the Army as a combat medic and stormed a Normandy beach on D-day. Now, 81 and weakened by radiation therapy for prostate cancer, he said he can walk barely 50 feet without getting winded and cannot leave the house for more than a couple of hours.

''Oh, I was disappointed," he said yesterday in a telephone interview. ''I told my wife I was hoping I could go, but there is no way that I can make it."

Bibeau's memories of the war are sharp. Just 18 when he was drafted, he recalled the desperate rush to find injured soldiers on the battlefield. ''You're running from one wounded guy to the next," said Bibeau, a retired general contractor. ''By the time you get to him, you know that he's already dead so you just keep going and try to patch the next one up."

He was so traumatized by the horrors he witnessed that he spent months in military hospitals recovering from battle fatigue. He said he received a medical discharge in September 1945. ''You're just a bundle of nerves by the time you're through," he said.

Koutzoukis, the former Peabody deputy fire chief, left for France when he was 18 and returned 20 months later. ''I came back a grown man," he said. ''I felt that part of my life was lost because I never really got to be like these teenagers today that I see bopping around." Today, he will don a blazer and neat gray slacks and drive to Vermont in a minivan full of relatives and friends. At the ceremony, he plans to greet the military officials who chose to honor him with a kiss on each cheek. ''They are recognizing what American soldiers did for them," he said. ''They didn't forget."

Amelio Cucinelli, 93, the former barber from Beverly, will go with his family to the ceremony, despite a broken hip. The medal he receives will join a ''library" of military awards Cucinelli plans to bring with him, said Barbara Ricker, 45, his future daughter-in-law. ''He can show them off," she said, laughing. ''We're very excited."

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com. Catherine Elton can be reached at celton@globe.com.

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